KEEP­ING LIVE MU­SIC ALIVE

As virus closes con­cert venues, their ad­vo­cates work to #SaveOurS­tages in Chicago and across the coun­try

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY MOIRA MCCORMICK For the Sun-Times

#SaveOurS­tages is the hash­tag, slo­gan and ral­ly­ing cry of the Na­tional In­de­pen­dent Venue As­so­ci­a­tion (NIVA), a bur­geon­ing ad­vo­cacy group that rep­re­sents nearly 2,000 mu­sic clubs span­ning all 50 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

The coali­tion’s mis­sion is an in­creas­ingly des­per­ate one, with in­die con­cert venues boarded up by COVID-19 find­ing it in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble to keep their col­lec­tive head above wa­ter — faced, as they have been since March, with zero rev­enue topped by undi­min­ished op­er­at­ing costs.

“In my sit­u­a­tion with Sub T, it’s about $12,000 over­head a month for just the basics,” said Chicago’s Robert Gomez, a NIVA mem­ber who owns 20-year old Wicker Park mu­sic room Sub­ter­ranean and its sis­ter venue, Beat Kitchen. “Mort­gage, prop­erty tax, in­sur­ance, li­censes; there hasn’t been a for­give­ness on li­censes. All these ex­penses that you still have to ab­sorb — while closed — are my re­al­ity.”

Joe Shana­han, founder of the ven­er­a­ble 1,000-ca­pac­ity Metro, now in its fourth decade, points out, “I keep go­ing back to the fact that we were closed by the city and state, man­dated clo­sure; we can’t sell al­co­hol, we can’t sell tick­ets. So why am I pay­ing for city or state busi­ness and liquor li­censes?”

Shana­han’s first con­cert in the Wrigleyvil­le build­ing that houses Metro and its dance-club sib­ling Smart­bar was R.E.M. in 1982. The quirky fledg­ling quar­tet from Athens, Ge­or­gia, would not only in­spire a thou­sand garage-tooled bands formed in their im­age, R.E.M. would go on to sell co­pi­ous amounts of records through most of their un­con­ven­tional, in­flu­en­tial ca­reer.

“I’d seen R.E.M. in New York City at an open­ing of an­other club,” Shana­han re­called, “and ba­si­cally gave them my phone num­ber and said, ‘If you ever come to Chicago, I want you to play my club.’

“I didn’t even have a club right then. But I was gonna rent a space and do it — I was that much in love with the band.”

The care-and-feed­ing of new mu­sic and its mak­ers is in se­ri­ous peril if in­de­pen­dent venues go un­der.

Con­sider the 400-ca­pac­ity Sub­ter­ranean, which played a sig­nif­i­cant role in build­ing the pro­file of icon­o­clas­tic rap­per-singer-song­writer Lizzo, as venue owner Gomez de­tailed. The fu­ture mul­ti­ple-Grammy win­ner “played Sub­ter­ranean three times be­fore she played the Aragon. And that’s a strik­ing tra­jec­tory, grow­ing from a 400-ca­pac­ity room to a 5,000-ca­pac­ity room.”

Metro’s Shana­han em­ploys the term “in­cu­ba­tors” for in­ti­mate spa­ces like Sub T, which nur­ture and de­velop nascent per­form­ers, boost­ing them up to the next rung of the lad­der.

An­other is the Sil­ver Room on Chicago’s South Side, whose founder Eric Wil­liams char­ac­ter­izes him­self as a “cul­tural pro­ducer.” Wil­liams hosts live art shows at his Hyde Park jew­elry/ap­parel/art­work/ ac­ces­sories bou­tique, fea­tur­ing cel­e­brated lo­cal visual artists, among

as­sorted other events — such as the Sil­ver Room’s hotly an­tic­i­pated an­nual sum­mer block party. “Last year we had 100 artists, from DJs to larger names,” Wil­liams said, con­firm­ing that 2020’s planned ex­trav­a­ganza had to be can­celed.

“Not to have space to per­form is the big­gest is­sue,” he ob­served. “Be­cause you can write [dur­ing the coro­n­avirus shut­down], but you can’t get the en­ergy and feed­back from a crowd. Peo­ple are crav­ing places to per­form right now.”

To get the live-au­di­ence give-and-take they crave, per­form­ers will, of course, need those stages that

NIVA is in the process of sav­ing. And the cam­paign is hav­ing an un­de­ni­ably pos­i­tive ef­fect, ac­cord­ing to Katie Tuten, who along with hus­band Tim Tuten owns the Hide­out, tucked away in the El­ston Av­enue In­dus­trial Cor­ri­dor be­tween Lin­coln Park and Buck­town.

Tuten said #SaveOurS­tages has been “in­or­di­nately suc­cess­ful” in en­cour­ag­ing mu­sic lovers to con­tact their rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the U.S. House and Se­nate — in or­der to urge these leg­is­la­tors to sup­port the Restart Act, which lays out a fi­nan­cial re­lief plan much more tar­geted to mu­sic venues’ unique needs than was the Pay­check Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram (PPP) that passed in June.

“More than 1 mil­lion peo­ple across the coun­try have called elected of­fi­cials, telling them to save our stages,” said Tuten, who serves on NIVA’s lob­by­ing com­mit­tee. Tuten also co-chairs, with Robert

Gomez, home­town ad­vo­cacy group Chicago In­de­pen­dent Venue League (CIVL), the for­ma­tion of which pre­dated NIVA’s. Both al­liances work to­gether on var­i­ous ini­tia­tives.

Fi­nan­cial re­lief be­ing a ma­jor el­e­ment of CIVL’s agenda, the group has re­ceived do­na­tions from fans and in­dus­try alike. The 95-year-old, Chicago-based au­diotech cor­po­ra­tion Shure Inc. ten­dered a $50,000 con­tri­bu­tion to CIVL, and is also part­ner­ing with prom­i­nent Chicago mu­sic artists on a so­cial-me­dia drive de­signed to spur do­na­tions from fol­low­ers of these artists. They in­clude Fall Out Boy’s lead gui­tarist Joe Trohman, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, Jamila Woods, Lili Tri­filio from Beach Bunny and BJ the Chicago Kid.

“We reached out to cer­tain artists to have them put to­gether some In­sta­gram posts, ask­ing folks to con­sider do­nat­ing to CIVL or their own home­town venues,” said Dane Roth, se­nior man­ager of global me­dia re­la­tions at Shure.

“I re­al­ize that there are far greater prob­lems in Amer­ica that need our at­ten­tion, but I am gen­uinely con­cerned that COVID will shut­ter many of these small clubs, and make it hard for in­die artists to sub­sist,” Fall Out Boy’s Trohman said. “Money is tighter than ever. But I know our fans have been do­nat­ing and do­ing what they can, with what they have.”

JOSHUA MELLIN PHOTO

Chicago’s Metro is among the lo­cal live mu­sic venues feel­ing the fi­nan­cial fall­out from the COVID-19 pan­demic.

SARAH LARS­SON

Own­ers of The Hide­out in Chicago are ask­ing mu­sic fans ev­ery­where to con­tact leg­is­la­tors and de­mand sup­port of the Restart Act.

Joe Shana­han

Eric Wil­liams

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