By Steven Norwalk

As Frank Ocean meditates on a life of passionless hedonism on his early single, “Novacane,” he wearily sings the line “cocaine for breakfast...yikes.” This phrase is an unlikely source of inspiration for the name of one of Northwestern’s most influential new student groups, and yet Yikes Productions co-founders Jessica Collins, Omar Carey, and Yasmeen Wood explained to me that something about the word just felt right. As the group began to take shape over the course of last summer, the name “Yikes” became the umbrella term for the group’s ever-changing ambitions, and has since come to embody the passion for Chicago music that unites the organization’s three co-founders and gives the group its lifeblood.

Yikes Productions is an unofficial student group and start-up that hosts concerts showcasing student musicians as well as up-and-coming Chicago artists. The group’s mission to increase exposure to Chicago music on Northwestern’s campus was partly inspired by Kevin Coval, the founder of the celebrated Young Chicago Authors, an organization that hosts writing workshops, open mics, and poetry slams across the city.

“He’s been fostering this whole idea that Chicago is going to become a hub for musicians so that Midwestern musicians won’t have to leave to go to one of the coasts to make it big,” Yasmeen said. “And at the same time, you’ve got Chance and Vic Mensa coming up, making that dream come true. Chicago just has so much music. How do we tap into that music? That’s the question we hope to answer.”

That’s where Yikes Productions comes in.

“We’re interested in exposing Northwestern students to new sounds,” Jessica said. “A&O and Mayfest do a great job of bringing really big artists to campus, but there’s no one catering to low-level, mid-size bands.”

With that goal in mind, Yikes has put on four free shows in Evanston, and will be holding two more events before the end of the year. When advertising their events, the group has had to walk the line between getting the word out and attracting too many people.

“We wanted to make sure that people knew these weren’t parties,” Omar said. “These shows are for the artists and people should respect that idea.”

The group provided beer at the first show, but nobody took it. “People are there for the music,” Jessica said, “which is kind of cool.”

And while the start-up has had plenty of success thus far, it has also faced its fair share of challenges. For instance, artists often have to travel from the South Side in order to perform in Evanston. This leaves them susceptible to transportation failures – cars breaking down, delays in public transportation, etc.

“If your car breaks down and you’re going to Coachella, that’s one thing,” Yasmeen joked. “If you’re coming to Northwestern, the costs and the benefits might not work for you.”

The time required for travel is also discouraging for some artists, given that many don’t want to travel back to where they live after midnight. Plus, due to budget constraints, the group can only pay performers in the form of exposure to the Northwestern community, and while this is valuable to up-and-coming artists, it fosters less accountability than a paid gig.

Going forward, one of the biggest challenges faced by the group will be monetization.

“At the end of the day, Yikes is a business,” Yasmeen explained. “We’re trying to make it something that’s profitable. Even though we have this general mission of wanting to spread music, there’s also this other component, which is we need to actually make money.”

Given that throwing concerts is not a sustainable financial model, the three co-founders are currently exploring other methods of monetization.

“We’ve got some ideas,” Jessica told me, “but they’re top secret.”

While the group figures out the best way to move forward as a business, it is still planning several events for the rest of the year, including a collaboration with DePaul and UChicago entitled The Yikes College Dropout Tour.

“It’s going to be three days – May 10th at Northwestern (in the Garage), May 11th at DePaul, and May 12th at UChicago – and the idea is that you’ll have two college acts from each university so that you’ll see a variety of different school scenes in addition to a different up-and-coming artist from the Chicago scene each night.”

Rounding out the year, the group will also be putting on a charity cookout show at the Artbox.

Even though Yikes is primarily concerned with bringing great music to campus, the group also places a high value on diversity and inclusion in their events, especially when it comes to female artists.

“For us, it’s just not a problem,” Jessica said. “The March show was all women and it was just because that was what we thought was great at the moment and that’s who wanted to play. There are so many great female musicians, so many great queer musicians, so many great musicians from minority backgrounds that are making amazing music and we get the chance to host them and that’s really important.  

“If you look at festival line-ups, women are so underrepresented,” she goes on to say. “They make up only about 15-20% of the lineup.”

Yikes hopes to put in real work to shift the tides. Just as the group strives to connect the music of Northwestern and the music of Chicago through their events, Yikes also strives to create an environment in which no artists are marginalized. Though the group may be best known for their excellent concerts, they are much more than a production company. Yikes is also an important social force on campus, helping to create a musical culture in which everyone’s voices can be heard.

Steven Norwalk