Music is the heartbeat of Bloomington, the rhythm that moves us and the melody that guides us. Discover the talented local musicians, producers, events, and venues that keep the beat going.
By Stephen M. Deusner
“Bloomington is a live music town,” says Ben Swanson. “There’s enough going on here that I don’t get bored, but there’s not so much going on that I feel overwhelmed.” He’s sipping coffee at Rainbow Bakery, one of Bloomington’s finest coffee shops, and he’s eyeballing the array of maple bacon and sweet beet donuts at the counter. Swanson works next door, in the offices of one of the biggest independent record companies in the world: Secretly Canadian (1).
A native of North Dakota who attended Indiana University in the mid-1990s, he co-founded Secretly with his brother, Chris, and their friend, Jonathan Cargill. They were a trio of idealists and music obsessives, championing their favorite musicians and running the label out of their dorm rooms.
Twenty years later their new offices are only a couple of miles from their dorm rooms, and the upstart label has transformed into the Secretly Group, whose reach extends around the world but whose headquarters remain in Bloomington. In addition to three separate labels that release albums by the War on Drugs, Bon Iver, and Destroyer, among other indie-rock acts, the company includes a distribution company (with a warehouse on the outskirts of town) and publishing concern. In other words, Secretly not only releases great records but also ships them around the world and places songs in TV shows and commercials.
While most similar record companies might be tempted to move to a large city, Secretly remains embedded in Bloomington, enjoying its balance of big-city amenities and small-town pace. “It’s gotten easier for us to have other outposts in New York and London and Amsterdam, but our main hub is always going to be Bloomington. For us, it comes down to the quality of life, and that’s what makes the city so amazing.”
Bloomington has the kind of vibrant, active, and deeply imaginative music scene most often identified with cities like New York and Chicago and Austin. There are great bands here, cool venues, good resources, innovative labels, and amazing events, yet the setting is small-town rather than big-city. Everything is a pleasant walk away.
As you leave Rainbow Bakery, turn right and walk downtown, just a few blocks down 4th Street, past the Wonderlab Science Museum and the B-Line, past the headquarters of Bloomington’s community radio station, WHFB (2). Across Walnut is the Bishop (3), one of the city’s most popular venues; peruse the posters in the window to see who’s playing in the next few weeks, and you’ll notice a healthy mix of national touring acts and local bands.
Just up Walnut, past the impeccably stocked Landlocked Music (4), is the Bluebird (5), which hosts country, rock, and Americana acts. Together, these two stages are incubators for area talent, from the exuberant pop confections of Mike Adams at His Honest Weight to the ragged guitar ruminations of Erin Tobey to the creature-feature go-go-skronk of the truly singular Sir Deja Doog.
Walk around the square, in the shadow of the historic Monroe County Courthouse, and survey the storefronts of locally-owned businesses. Just to the north, on the stretch of 6th Street that runs in front of the Owlery and King Dough Pizza, is the site for one of the main stages at the annual Lotus Festival (6). For one weekend in September, the street is blocked off and a stage erected for some of the most exciting musical acts from around the world: Mongolian throat singers and Yemeni dance bands on a bill with Scandinavian folk troubadours, Hungarian tamburitza groups, and Indian sarod players.
Lotus World Music and Arts Festival
“Lotus is one of the oldest continually running festivals of its kind,” says Sunni Fass, who started working at the event as a volunteer and is now executive director. “The fact that it is a downtown festival is actually unique. Most festivals tend to be out in a field or some remote places, but having the event right in the middle of town makes Lotus very special.”
Lotus began life in 1994 as a one-day event with only two stages but has grown into the city’s largest music event. While it emphasizes music from around the world, Lotus remains embedded in the life of the city, their identities intrinsically intertwined. “You see all kinds of people at Lotus. You get folks in their eighties right at the front of the stage with college students. You have parents bringing their kids. It brings people together who might not normally come to the same space. It’s a very mixed community.”
Walk east toward the campus, past the public library, past Nick’s English Hut (which has a booth dedicated to Indiana rocker John Mellencamp), past the beautiful Sample Gates (7) —a symbol not just of the university but of the city itself. Among the limestone buildings of Indiana University are some of the finest music facilities in the country, including the IU Auditorium (8) (located near the Showalter Fountain) and the Musical Arts Center (9), a distinctive Brutalist theatre on Jordan Avenue that is home to the Opera & Ballet School. Both host lavish stage productions from Pippin to Madama Butterfly.
Just beyond is arguably the most musical intersection in Bloomington. On your right is the Simon Music Center (10), which houses the William & Gayle Cook Music Library as well as classrooms and rehearsal spaces. On the other side of Jordan is the Jacobs School of Music (11), a world-renowned department for composers, conductors, scholars, critics, historians, even oboists. Its distinguished alumni include keyboard player Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. & the MGs fame), trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Joshua Bell, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, and multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket.
“The cultural depth and breadth of experiences of the musicians in this town is inspiring,” says Mike Adams, a local musician who released his third solo album, Casino Drone, in 2016. “It’s not uncommon for accomplished, classically trained musicians to sit in with—or even form bands with—folks who’ve cut their teeth in the basement punk scene. Together, they create something very new and very ‘Bloomington.’ It’s a special thing, especially in a town