“We Will Be the Last to Reopen”: Chicago Music Clubs Plan for a Prolonged Pandemic

Last summer, we profiled Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), an affiliation of local club owners who banded together to protect their interests in the face of Live Nation’s projected entertainment megaplex in the Lincoln Yards area. The group gradually came to envision a role for itself beyond that conflict, and our talk ended with co-founder Katie Tuten (co-owner of The Hideout) professing, “We want to be a resource to the city of Chicago.”

Flash-forward to the present moment, and once again the city’s independent music clubs are under siege—this time by COVID-19. And CIVL’s endeavors have had to shift from outreach and advocacy, to pooling resources to survive. Or as Robert Gomez (owner of Subterranean) puts it: “There we were, starting to organize, and our world caved in—and we were like, ‘Okay, this is now our primary focus.’”

But in fact the crisis is providing a validation of CIVL’s core concept. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like now if we didn’t have this team,” says Tuten. “It’s been one of the most supportive outlets for me in that misery-loves-company kind of way; but we’ve also been so supportive of each other, shared our notes, who’s applying for what, how do we collectively address the issue at hand. Even down to ‘How did you get your money out of GoFundMe?’ We talk to each other every day; and not by email, by phone. I feel very fortunate that we had this in place before the tragedy happened.

“We’re all applying for all these different resources,” she continues. “In the beginning, things were happening so fast and furious, like, ‘What’s available, what are the percentages’—so we would share that with everyone. ‘Did you apply to the City of Chicago Resiliency Fund? Do you know about this State of Illinois hospitality lottery? Have you applied for the disaster loan fund? What bank are you using?’ Some of the applications were easier than others, so again we’d talk to each other—‘Who got theirs in? Don’t forget to include this.’”

It remains, however, a hard road for small businesses in the current climate, and CIVL’s latest move is a survey, being distributed this week, to see how many of the group’s members are benefiting from the available resources. “A lot of us have received nothing, and only a small handful have received some of those funds,” say Tuten. “To the best of my knowledge, only four of us have gotten approval for PPP (Payroll Protection Program). And some people who have multiple venues might’ve only gotten it for one of their venues. So as you can see it’s very disappointing when you see in the press that Ruth’s Chris Stakehouse”—a restaurant chain which received a $20 million bailout package—“and a lot of the corporate franchises got the money; the real small businesses haven’t. And we’re in competition with every other small business. We’re all going to same elected officials for help and assistance, so how do you differentiate yourself?”

One of CIVL’s arguments is that—unlike, say, dentists or hairdressers—live music clubs are economic drivers. “I bring twelve, fifteen hundred people a week into Wicker Park,” says Gomez, “and those people eat and drink before and after the shows, I mean we absolutely feed our neighborhoods economically. We’re also the go-to for the neighbors. You know, ‘Hey I want to do my graduation party,’ or ‘I have this nonprofit’—we support so many groups.”

“We’re part of a complex ecosystem,” Tuten says. “Not only do we employ a lot of people within our clubs—think of all the talent, think of all the sound engineers and the record labels — it’s all intertwined. And I always like to tell the story about your neighbor, Gomez.”

“What she’s referring to,” Gomez explains, “is that my neighbor, Flash Taco, will not only study our calendar, but sometimes reach out to me as well, wanting to know how many people we’re having, the size of our shows, because it directly impacts him—he knows how to staff for that.”

“We’re meeting places,” Tuten adds; “we’re community centers.” But the clubs are also, unfortunately, likely to have to hardest road back to recovery. “We were among the first to be closed, along with restaurants,” Gomez says, “and we will be the absolute last to be allowed to reopen. As this unfolds, it’s not going to be like, ‘Hey, everybody go back to your normal lives,’ it’s going to be baby steps. The reason we feel we’re in a special predicament is because of that timeline…. because, one, it takes a long time to book shows, you have to do it several months in advance; and two, people will be reluctant. We’re going to have a hesitant audience—unless there’s a vaccine for everyone. Until then, this is going to be a rough ride for us.”

But there are hopeful signs along the way. One is the beginnings of industry financial support. “We’ve been self-funded; our members put up a budget to help us get going,” says Gomez. “So, you know, where’s the money coming from to do these additional things?” It’s now coming in part from Chicago-based Shure Microphones, which stepped in with a hefty donation. “Shure wanted to fund individual venues,” says Tuten, “but it was very easy for them to just make a donation to CIVL, because we’re a collective. So that’ll help us with our work as we move forward.”

“Shure saved the day for us,” says Gomez. “Now instead of asking for favors, we can pay people to do things for us.”

Another hopeful development: CIVL’s formation provided inspiration for a similar organization on the more macro scale, National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). “We’ve discovered that this needs to be a national effort,” says Gomez, “and things we’ve been working on, we’ve been able to feed to that group; many of us are on their committees and helping that effort as well. So it’s incredibly significant, what we’ve done.”

“All of these relationships have already been established by the work that we did two years ago, trying to underscore the value of our venues,” says Tuten. “We’re very unique as we go and lobby Congress, because we’re twofold: we are cultural institutions, alongside museums and such, and we’re also economic engines.”

Meanwhile, the clubs remain dark; but CIVL—and now NIVA—are providing just enough light to navigate the crisis.

 

This article originally appeared in New City