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The Salt Shed A Big Success So Far — But Music Venue’s Noise Is Threatening Nearby Production Studio, Its Owners Say

Owners of nearby Essanay Studio and Lighting Company say the Salt Shed's concerts threaten their ability to rent out their studios because the noise makes it harder to record sound.

The Salt Shed sits across the river from Essanay Studio and Lighting, Inc., as seen from above Goose Island on Aug. 3, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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GOOSE ISLAND — The first month of concerts outside Chicago’s newest music venue have been a success, bringing in foot traffic and highlighting businesses and artists in an area long dominated by industry, operators and industry leaders said.

But owners of a commercial production studio across the river said the noise from the outdoor shows impedes their ability to record sound for their projects, which could force them to spend millions to soundproof their building and save their business.

The Salt Shed, 1357 N. Elston Ave., opened Aug. 2 and hosted 10 shows throughout the month. They’ve been held outside what will become its permanent venue in the former Morton Salt warehouse, which is under construction. The concerts have showcased jazz drummer Makaya McCraven, Andrew Bird, Fleet Foxes and Lord Huron, among others, and many sold out.

The venue is also hosting small businesses such as Semicolon Bookstore and Record Breakers, which set up booths for each show, and held a Summersalt Market in mid-August with local vintage sellers.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Salt Shed music venue between Elston Avenue and the Chicago River, as seen from above Goose Island on Aug. 3, 2022.

The outdoor shows are the first step in the transformation of the former warehouse — long a Chicago icon due to its massive Morton Salt sign visible from the Kennedy Expressway — into an expansive event space.

The indoor venue is expected to open by the second half of 2023, said Bruce Finkelman, managing partner of the 16 on Center hospitality group that operates the Salt Shed. The company also owns the Empty Bottle, Thalia Hall and other venues and restaurants in the Chicago area.

One month in, staff and organizers “couldn’t be happier” with how the Salt Shed launch has gone, Finkelman said.

“We’re just really proud of what the team has been able to achieve. … It’s been a long project,” Finkelman said. “It’s going to take some time to complete, but we’re so looking forward to showing the community the completed project.”

The venue is providing “an amazing performance art space while giving a place for community to come together,” said Nick Heineman, executive director of the Chicago Independent Venue League, or CIVL, of which Finkelman is a founding member.

“What the Salt Shed has done is invite the hyperlocal community of business owners and patrons to enjoy the space, for means outside of just enjoying the concert but also coming together for business, for conversation, for food and beverage,” Heineman said last month.

Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
Fans watch Sons of Kemet perform at the first show outside the Salt Shed on Aug. 2, 2022

CIVL was founded in 2018 by a group of local independent venue owners to rally against a proposed Live Nation-run entertainment complex in the Lincoln Yards megadevelopment, which is just north of the Salt Shed along the river.

After months of pushback, the Live Nation plan was scrapped in 2019. Entertainment venues are still in the works at Lincoln Yards, but they will now have to compete with the locally owned Salt Shed.

“The Salt Shed, with its capacity and its ability for impact and its very scope, is what we really celebrate in the idea of it still being independent,” Heineman said. “We see other cities where corporate entities are trying to come in. … Chicago, in the development of its newest venue, is strictly showing that you don’t have to do this in a way that displaces other independent venues.

“You can come in with something new, large and exciting, and just simply add to the ecosystem.”

The Salt Shed is hosting a few more shows this month before taking a break as the weather changes. Finkelman is hoping outdoor events continue next spring and summer as the indoor venue prepares to open, he said.

‘There Simply Is No Way For Us To Operate On Days When There Are Shows’

But two business owners across the river said the Salt Shed’s outdoor concert series is “a near disaster” for their TV commercial studio.

Essanay Studio and Lighting Company, 1346 N. North Branch St., sits on Goose Island across from the Salt Shed. The company regularly books out its two studios to production companies for TV commercials and other video projects.

Those productions often record sound, which wasn’t a problem until music from the concerts and during afternoon soundchecks began to bleed into the studios last month, owner Jules Tomko and manager Jim Shearer said.

That’s left Essanay unable to to guarantee productions will be able to record sound effectively, putting at risk the company’s ability to conduct a large portion of its business, they said.

Essanay has tried to schedule productions around the shows, but they’ll start losing significant revenue if that continues, Tomko and Shearer said. The company is looking at multi-million-dollar renovation estimates to soundproof the studios.

“Most jobs can’t … schedule around things. Typically, you have celebrity talent and their availability, you got somebody that’s only available from you know, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on this given day, and you’ve got to record sound with them. Well, if that day is a day that they’re doing stuff at the [Salt] Shed, then they can’t be here,” Shearer said.

Essanay often books multi-day productions, but if there’s a Salt Shed concert on even one of the days, the company could be at risk of losing the contract, Shearer said. He pointed to a recent shoot where a production company filmed and recorded sound in Essanay’s studios 8 a.m.-6 p.m. for four days.

“If there had been a concert on one day, we would have had to turn the whole job away. And it was for about $55,000,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Jules Tomko and Jim Shearer stand in Studio 1 at Essanay Studio and Lighting, Inc. on Goose Island

Essanay has reached out to city officials and others about the issue, but the team hasn’t gotten much response, Shearer said. The only compromise he sees as feasible going forward is if the Salt Shed commits to keeping its shows indoors when the venue opens next year.

“We’re not against the inside venue. We’re not against 16 on Center. We actually think that the adaptive reuse of the Salt Shed building for an indoor music venue … is a really great use of an iconic building,” Shearer said. But “at the end of the day, I don’t think that there’s any way for us to coexist with that venue, having the outside component to it.”

Finkelman said he hopes it doesn’t come to that, and the Salt Shed’s management are committed to being a good neighbor.

The team has worked with Essanay and other neighbors to provide advance information about each show, as well as allowed the studio to conduct acoustic testing earlier this year with the venue’s soundsystem, Finkelman said.

“We’ve tried to work with [Essanay] as much as possible. We send around notes to the neighborhood before the shows, telling them what time sets are happening and sound checks. And we do try to make sure that everybody on the site is doing everything that they need to do to help us continue to be good neighbors,” Finkelman said.

Finkelman said 16 on Center’s goal for each of its restaurants and venues is to become part of the community it resides in, and the Salt Shed is no different.

“When the Empty Bottle came into Ukrainian Village, [neighbors] were looking at us like, ‘What the heck?’ But now, as time goes by, they kind of look at us as you know, we’re open all the time, we’re here. We see what goes on in the neighborhood. And we’re here to be helpful as much as we can,” Finkelman said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Essanay Studio and Lighting, Inc., as seen from above Goose Island

Those accommodations from Salt Shed don’t solve the problems for Essanay, Shearer said.

When they did acoustic testing earlier this year, readings showed there was sound bleeding into every part of their studios, Shearer said. They could still hear it during the real shows in August, Shearer said, and noise from a soundcheck was audible during a recent visit to the business before a weekday show.

And a heads-up for concerts isn’t always been possible, like when a Mt. Joy concert at the Salt Shed was rescheduled because of weather.

“We’re telling people, ‘Don’t come here if you’ve got to record sound on this day or this day,’ but if we had told somebody, ‘You’re in the clear on Monday the 22nd’ … and if they got here and then all of a sudden they have to pull the plug, we could get sued,” Shearer said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Jules Tomko holds open a sound-proofed door at Essanay Studio and Lighting, Inc. on Goose Island on Aug. 3, 2022.

Essanay and the Salt Shed sit in the North Branch Industrial Corridor, which is served by community development group North Branch Works.

The organization’s executive director, Jonathan Snyder, said he’s been in touch with the companies about their concerns and believes they can find middle ground over the sound issues.

Snyder said he sees the Salt Shed as a creative way to repurpose a former industrial facility, but Essanay has had a large economic impact on the area for more than two decades.

“It’s a really tough situation. I mean, I can’t imagine a better adaptive reuse for the Salt Shed itself,” Snyder said. “You’re not going to be able to preserve the building without some sort of venue that takes advantage of the unique space that it presents.

“At the same time, I don’t think that people were imagining as many outdoor amplified events as are going on. And those outdoor amplified events do impact the neighbors. As much the Salt Shed representatives … have tried to mitigate the impacts, it creates a lot of sound. And that sound spills out into the area. So though you’re not impacting residents, you are impacting businesses.”

Shearer said he’s watched part of a few shows from his company’s property and has enjoyed the music. But the noise is posing a risk to how Essanay operates, he said.

“If this thing was like, you know, a half a mile away, it’d be awesome,” Shearer said. But “without a massive investment in sound-hardening on our building, there simply is no way for us to operate on days when there are shows.”

Snyder said he wants to organize a community meeting to discuss the issues, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

“I’m hoping we can kind of foster this partnership between the neighbors,” Snyder said. “We’ll see. It’s a work in progress.”

The next outdoor Salt Shed shows are Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on Sept. 22-23 and Death Cab for Cutie on Sept. 24.

The Salt Shed during a vintage market in August. The Salt Shed/Facebook
The Salt Shed/Instagram

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