KEEPING LIVE MUSIC ALIVE
As virus closes concert venues, their advocates work to #SaveOurStages in Chicago and across the country
#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.”
Chicago’s Metro is among the local live music venues feeling the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Owners of The Hideout in Chicago are asking music fans everywhere to contact legislators and demand support of the Restart Act.