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90 Percent Of Chicago’s Independent Music Venues Will Close Because Of Coronavirus, Desperate Owners Say

A haunting new video is highlighting the plight of independent music venues as owners call on Congress to save them.

The back bar at the Empty Bottle.
David Leep/Fabio Brienza
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CHICAGO — A haunting new video is highlighting the plight of the city’s independent music venues, which have been closed for six months amid coronavirus.

Without government intervention, 90 percent of independent clubs don’t believe they can survive another six months of coronavirus shutdown. It could cause a near extinction of small music venues, said Jim DeRogatis, music critic and co-host of the nationally syndicated rock radio show Sound Opinions.

“If [government help] doesn’t pass, I think we’re going to see 90 percent of small venues close for good in 2021,” DeRogatis said.

The video, set to metal band Varaha’s “Irreparable” and showing the empty stages and bars at 17 Chicago-area venues and many more, is an attempt to get people to support #SaveOurStages, a national campaign calling on Congress to save music venues, said Fabio Brienza, the band’s guitarist and vocalist who directed and produced the video.

Sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the Save Our Stages bill would help independent music venues, small theaters, comedy clubs and event promoters across the nation.

Watch the video here:

The slow tour of dusty bar tops, dim stages and “we’re closed signs” at the Empty Bottle, the Metro, the Hideout, Sleeping Village, Subterranean, Beat Kitchen, Liar’s Club, Reggie’s and other iconic Chicago venues is meant to provoke memories of the past, Brienza said.

“The reason for it was to get an emotional response and reaction from the concert goers. They need to miss the community for them to understand that we really need to roll up our sleeves and get involved,” Brienza said.

The video asks music fans to fill out a form letter urging their representatives to act.

Brienza made the video with cinematographer David Leep, who he hired with a state of Illinois grant he won for their work on “Karantinas,” a short film shot using drones showing Chicago’s empty downtown streets at the height of the pandemic. 

Credit: David Leep/Fabio Brienza
An empty stage at the Metro.

The Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), a coalition of more than 40 independent music venues from across the city, also helped with the production. CIVL cofounders Tim and Katie Tuten own the Hideout, an beloved 150-person venue that hosts concerts, comedy and live talk shows.

The group formed nearly two years ago in response to Lincoln Yards, which threatened the Hideout, Tim Tuten said.

“We’ve been in conversation for the last two years so it was nothing for us to talk to each other back in March and ask each other ‘what are you gonna do, what do you think we should do?’” Tuten said. “And we all decided to shut down. We decided that before the city decided that.”

Since the pandemic began, a similar national group has formed — the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which many CIVL members have joined along with more than 2,000 music venues, small theaters and comedy clubs across the country. They are all pushing for passage of Cornyn and Klobuchar’s act.

Credit: David Leep/Fabio Brienza
An empty bar at Schuba’s.

Although many of Chicago’s venues closed before the mandated shutdown in March, most club owners believed the shutdown would last for a couple of months. Six months later and still mostly closed, many club owners face financial ruin without government help.

To survive thus far, many have brought in some money for performers and staff through live-streamed shows on the Internet, GoFundMe campaigns and merchandise sales. But the Tutens and other owners believe it’s now time for the government to step up.

“People have bought enough t-shirts,” Katie Tuten said. 

Tim Tuten agreed.

“The thing that has sustained us through these six months is the people of Chicago…but the kind of help we need, the government has been slow to it,” he said.

There is some hope on the state’s front. Katie Tuten said she was encouraged when the state of Illinois began accepting applications for a second round of Business Interruption Grants on Sept. 17, which includes $220 million earmarked for small business of all types in Illinois. 

“It will give a little bit of breathing room, sort of how PPP was helpful but not great for our industry. We have to apply and there’s a lot of people applying and it probably won’t come close to what we really need,” she said, adding that federal relief will still be needed.

“People keep asking when we’re going to reopen. I’m not talking about reopening. This is about relief. The bills keep coming in. It’s all expenses with very little revenue,” Katie Tuten said.

Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro, said there’s no end in sight.

“We just need an umbrella right now because it’s raining. It’s gonna stop eventually, but how long?” he said.

Credit: David Leep/Fabio Brienza
Empty booths at Sleeping Village.

The key to passing a government relief packages is to stress that it’s about more than just venues, DeRogatis said. He pointed to a 2019 study that showed for every dollar spent on downtown arts, $12 goes to the local economy. 

“A lot of people come to Chicago from around the world for the music scene, it’s a major draw,” DeRogatis said. 

Tim Tuten explained how the money concertgoers spend boosts the local economy. Someone from the suburbs who goes to the Metro, which draws 1,200 people a show, will spend money on an Uber or train ticket, eat in the neighborhood before the show and buy a beer after the show at a nearby bar.

“We are economic drivers. And we aren’t just in the Loop,” Tuten said. “Think about Rosa’s — whoever went out on West Armitage 20 years ago? I did, but people discovered Armitage. They discovered Humboldt Park, they discovered the Near West Side [because of venues].”

Additionally hit hard during the shutdown are all the workers the venues employ.

“Security and production, ticket takers, merchandise people, all the people that make a small venue like Metro really work. Those people are really hard hit,” Shanahan said.

Credit: David Leep/Fabio Brienza
The empty stairs at the Metro.

‘Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention’

Experts predict music clubs won’t reopen until spring or summer 2021, which has caused many venues to get creative in order to provide some sort of outlet for music fans and performers who haven’t had many gigs in months.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Will Duncan, who bought Fitzgerald’s in suburban Berwyn from the Fitzgerald family in March, just days before he was forced to shut down. 

Since closing its doors, Fitzgerald’s started streaming some shows, performed to an empty audience, but recently has taken advantage of its outdoor space to host some shows with a limited, socially-distanced audience. Additionally, the club bought a pickup truck and outfitted it with a generator and sound system and has been driving musicians to perform from the truck while fans watch from their front yards. 

One of the first musicians who performed on Fitzgerald’s pickup truck was Jon Langford, member of the Mekons and Waco Brothers. 

“It was kinda like a guerrilla art project. It was fun,” Langford said. 

Langford also performed outside at Fitzgerald’s, saying he would not consider performing inside a club right now because of coronavirus.

“I don’t think people should be in large social gatherings at the moment, and that’s sweaty little rock clubs where I make my living. It’s a difficult decision, but a bit of a no-brainer,” Langford said.

Chicago blues artist Toronzo Cannon also played both outdoor settings at Fitzgerald’s, and recently was the first artist City Winery hosted in six months, playing inside to an audience of 50.

“You can’t just disappear. People still want to see live music but we have to be safe,” Cannon said. 

Credit: David Leep/Fabio Brienza
A sign on the door at the Empty Bottle.

At the Green Mill, which was recently approved to serve drinks to 25-30 people at sidewalk tables, has found a way around not being allowed to have music. The iconic Uptown bar is renting out the storefront with floor-to-ceiling open windows next to the bar where musicians rehearse, allowing patrons on the sidewalk to listen at the same time. 

In North Center, attorney John Culver, a rabid music fan came up with his own way for bands to make some money and for a small group of his friends to see live music by hosting his own backyard concerts. Starting in July, Culver has hosted four outdoor shows — featuring musicians he’s gotten to know by going to many shows over the years. The bands play on his back patio to about 15 friends, seated socially-distant and wearing masks, along with 15 people in neighbors’ yards. Culver said he urges his friends to tip $20 each to the bands.

“I have two primary motivations,” Culver said. “One is to get the bands paying gigs and the second is to provide my music-starved friends a fix.” 

So far, Culver has hosted Phil Angotti and Casey McDonaugh, The Black Oil Brothers, The Webstirs, and Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts. He’s planning on more, saying it’s been easy to get bands to play.

“Bands are desperate, they’ll drive 15 hours to make a few hundred dollars.”

Out of the box thinking is exactly what’s helping some performers, like House music DJ Darlene Jackson, who goes by the name Lady D when she spins records. Like many performers, Jackson has done some streamed shows but lately has been playing gigs at different Mariano’s grocery stores.

For Jackson, who usually plays in dark clubs late at night, playing in the floral section of a grocery store may seem vastly different than she’s used to, but she said over her career she’s played in stores before and actually makes sense for the stores.

“It’s not that different. I’ve played in Bloomindales, I’ve played in Macy’s in New York, at the Hugo Boss store in Las Vegas. Music is a way to soothe people, it gives more people more time in the store, hence, spend more money.,” Jackson said. “It’s a program that a lot of smart retailers would engage in.”

Singer Rachel Drew, who has an Oct. 10 show at Fitzgerald’s, said she struggled emotionally for the first few months of the shutdown.

“It was a big deprivation. For the musicians, it’s what we do, so to not do it is losing a big part of yourself, even if you have a way to get through it financially…It’s a difficult thing to be a musician even in good times and it’s going to be very dire when it gets cold.”

Concern about the weather is also on the mind of legendary Chicago punk-rock band Pegboy, whose attempt at playing a 30th Anniversary show is a case study of the problems posed by the pandemic.

Pegboy was scheduled to play their 30th Anniversary show at Beat Kitchen in May, which got postponed until October because of the pandemic. With no end to the shutdown in sight, the band’s October show was recently cancelled. They will instead play a drive-in show Oct. 17 in Bridgeview.

Daryl Wilson, lead singer of the Bollweevils, a band scheduled to open for Pegboy at the drive-in show, said venues and bands aren’t making much if any money on makeshift shows.

“It’s great to do it for the art and for the fun but the idea that venues can continue to do this with limited capacity and staffing for it, the economics on it are completely upside down,” Wilson said.

Pegboy lead singer Larry Damore agreed, saying he’s not expecting the band to make any money from the gig.

“Just to break even on this show, they have to generate a lot of money, so it’s almost like everybody is doing it just to do it, which is cool. It’s one way to get some — not normalcy, but one way to get back to doing it,” Damore said.

Credit: David Leep/Fabio Brienza
A sign outside The Hideout reads: “Sorry … we are closed.”

While it is unknown when things will get back to “normal,” or if efforts to get federal relief will succeed, Langford and DeRogatis both said they would like to see more help from the city of Chicago.

“This was meant to be the year of Chicago music after all,” Langford said, alluding to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Event’s plan to highlight Chicago music that was largely scrapped because of the pandemic. “If somebody doesn’t do something quick, it’s not going to come back.”

DeRogatis was just as critical.

“In Chicago, the challenges of opening a small venue and dealing with this city were absurd before the shutdown. The hassles of dealing with the city, the hassles of dealing with encroaching gentrification. The Hideout threatened by Lincoln Yards. We saw Lounge Ax closed years ago by yuppie gentrification in Lincoln Park, and the city giving everything to the big players —Lollapalooza and Live Nation and not giving a shit in general to the small live jazz, rock and hip-hop venues, not to mention independent theater and comedy,” DeRogatis said.

“When these clouds part and it’s not looking like they will before the end of 2021, there’s gonna be nothing left.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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