In the late ’80s and early ’90s, house music was forged in Chicago. In the Midwest metropolis, Frankie Knuckles and other musical pioneers created the genre that would, in time, travel over the Atlantic and mutate into a dizzying variety of sub-genres. These flavors of house — progressive, acid, tech house, big room and beyond — would, eventually, make their way back over the ocean to become the prevailing sounds of the modern mainstream U.S. dance scene.
This weekend, in its debut year, Chicago’s ARC Music Festival will wrangle these many flavors of house onto a single lineup, for an event its founders hope will become a tentpole stop on the global dance music circuit.
Happening in Union Park this Sept. 4-5, ARC is being produced by the Chicago-based Auris Presents, a production company launched in 2020 by partners Nick Karounos, a veteran venue owner and festival producer, Stuart Hackley, the founder of national event company Loud Crowd and John Curley, who hails from electronic promoter Paradigm Presents and who’s been a staple in the Chicago dance music scene since the early ’90s.
Planning for ARC began in May of 2020, with the producers initially putting together, Hackley says, “Something smaller-scale with a very niche — very underground European lineup. Then we took a step back and said, ‘This is really cool, but is this the scale we want to do? We think we can go bigger.’”
The enhanced vision became to put on a four-stage event with a roughly 20,000-person capacity that would represent the entire spectrum of modern house music, with an emphasis on the Chicago veterans who pioneered the sound — ones who don’t always get the shine they deserve when playing other large-scale festivals.
“You see a lot of festivals that incorporate legends and innovators of a scene, and they’re sometimes relegated to side stages or lower parts of a lineup — places where their impact in the culture of music is not properly reflected,” says Curley. “That has to do with many things — artist billing, ticket sales, artist’s profile size — but part of our mission was to take all the artists that are part of the Chicago house music community through the years, people without whom this sound would not be around, and put them right next to the larger artists that are playing this music nowadays.”
Thus, a lineup that had initially featured stars of the European house scene is now crowded with Chicago legends, including Derrick Carter, DJ Heather, DJ Pierre and Gene Ferris, alongside current scene stars like Bob Moses, Camelphat, Fisher and Zhu, as well as underground house and tech house acts like The Martinez Brothers and the Michigan-born, Ibiza-based Seth Troxler (who will go back to back with Carter in a set Curley calls “a meeting of the Midwest minds”), and even the progressive sounds of Eric Prydz, who for the first time ever will be playing under all three of his artist names (Prydz, Pryda and Cirez D) at one event. Late night sets will happen at marquee Chicago venues including Spybar, Prysm and Concord Music Hall.
While its offerings are unique, ARC Music Festival does have competition, with the event happening on the same weekend as the longstanding Chicago electronic festival North Coast — which is taking place Sept. 3-5 at the waterside Huntington Bank Pavilion, and which this year features more than 60 acts, including headliners like Rezz, Kaskade, Griz and Louis The Child.
While it may seem dubious for a first-time festival to compete with a similarly sized and more well-established show featuring fellow house music stars, Curley and Hackley believe ARC will succeed, given that it’s offering a different type of experience predicated on less commercial sounds — on they hope will will attract a mature type of dance music fan. They say ticket sales have come not only from Chicago and the greater Midwest, but throughout the United States and into Europe and South America.
And while they acknowledge planning a large-scale live music event during the pandemic and launching it amidst fluctuating city, county and statewide regulations around public health has been an unprecedented challenge, bringing ARC to life during COVID-19 has also made it possible for ARC to book acts that may have not been available if the regular touring season was happening in Europe.
“I do think that this year, you saw artists that decided to come over to the U.S. earlier than they would have in times when they may have had other plans,” says Curley. “But I also think we’re establishing ARC as a flagpole in this house and techno touring community. That was one of our goals — to build a flagship event artists can plan their years around.”
Certainly the European element of ARC’s lineup is a welcome addition to the Midwest market, which doesn’t have the same number of house and techno focused events as New York and Los Angeles. (That said, over in techno’s birthplace of Detroit, Movement Festival has been holding it down for the local scene and the global stars of the genre for annually since 2007.)
For Chicago, however, ARC represents both a full circle and an expansion, with the sound that was created in the city getting featured in all its forms at a site less than two away from The Warehouse, the venue where Knuckles drew early believers of the music, and from which the genre took it’s name. For artists who make the music and are coming to town to play it, that’s a special opportunity.
“When they come to Chicago, they know they’re coming into the birthplace of house music,” says Curley. “They’re excited about it, and you can see that in their sets.”