Uncertainty is Our Enemy

By Katie Tuten, Robert Gomez, co-chairs of the Chicago Independent Venue League

With warmer weather and the promise of long-awaited relief on the horizon, the future of Chicago’s vibrant live music scene hangs in the balance. 

The run-up to summer, in any other year, would be consumed by festivals and fall planning. We’d chat with each other once a month, maybe, just as we’d touch base with any one of our fellow club owners—to get a recommendation on a new HVAC guy or to talk logistics on routing bands. 


Now, we’re in constant contact with fellow members of the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), as we’re all in a fight for our lives.


It’s now been 409+ days since the pandemic shuttered Chicago’s live music, arts, culture and entertainment venues. An estimated 160,000 jobs in our sector are in danger of disappearing for good as, for now, the promise of federal financial relief remains unfulfilled.


CIVL began in 2018 as a response to a different kind of threat: As many as five proposed LiveNation-owned music venues were part of the initial Lincoln Yards development plan, which would have been devastating for independent venues and concert-goers alike. We banded together, and our fans in the community supported our need to maintain independence. Ultimately, the plans were scrapped.


CIVL’s supportive network was already in place when COVID-19 sent ticket sales plummeting. As the scale of the pandemic became clear, so did our objective: In order to preserve the complicated ecosystem that is Chicago’s live music scene, everyone had to be saved. It didn't do anyone any good if it were the little guys, like The Hideout and Beat Kitchen; Metro and Park West and the rest of our more than 50 member venues had to make it too. 


Many CIVL members are also members of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which launched in April 2020 to provide pandemic relief to venues and promoters. Our #SaveOurStages campaign, which included the voices of hundreds of artists, resulted in more than two million messages to Congress and a lifeline: The Economic Aid Act signed into law this past December included more than $16 billion in aid for businesses like ours.


The Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, and all that’s gotten us to its launch, is a rare case in which elected officials, at all levels, came together to do the right thing. This includes the bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators who sponsored and supported the bill. But the rollout has failed spectacularly. On April 8, SBA’s online portal crashed within hours without a single application being accepted. After a panicked few weeks, we were finally able to submit our applications this past Monday [APRIL 26] and begin the next phase of waiting..


Jim DeRogatis predicted last fall that as many as 90 percent of our city’s independent venues wouldn’t make it six months without government aid. Today, to our knowledge, not a single venue in Chicago has closed for good. We owe this to the advocacy efforts of our community, as well as state and local government: Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Business Interruption Grants served as essential bridge funding for us; from the beginning, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has prioritized and advocated for our efforts. The city has also reallocated some of their CARES funding to keep us going. Last summer, they covered production costs for CIVLization, a virtual fundraiser for the CIVL SAVE Emergency Relief Fund, needs-based grants for our community.   


But this can’t go on forever. Uncertainty is the enemy, in our line of work—even in the best of circumstances, when it’s a simple travel delay or production snafu. We may have gotten our applications out the door, but we know that we’re not even at the end of the beginning.


We don’t yet know who will qualify for the funding—which would, at maximum, be 45 percent of our 2019 revenue, up to $10 million—or whether, in a first-come-first-served process, a small error or setback could take us out of the running. Even if the grants do come through, we've already dipped deep and created tremendous debt. A lot of that money has already been spent, on property taxes, licenses, utilities and more. 


As we approach reopening with cautious optimism, it feels like the mid-Nineties all over again. Our clubs, which we each opened back then, have now been dark for more than a year—and for most of that time, without a soul inside. Many of the start-up costs are the same, as we’ve laid off staff, shut off water, canceled credit cards and liquor liability insurance, and sold off inventory and assets just to keep afloat. 


Once again we’re cleaning and painting, planning and calculating. We’re eyeing capital improvements and tracking the cost of everything from labor to beer. Many of the mundane questions are the same, but 25 years ago, we never could have imagined asking: Will people want to come out? Will they feel safe? At what capacity can we open without losing money? How and when will all the gift cards people bought be redeemed? 


We can’t yet know the true financial, logistical, and emotional costs of 13-plus months of empty stages. The budgets we’ve all made are, in large part, make-believe budgets. Still, as we revise and eye the calendar, we are also witnessing remarkable things that have kept us going. 


Independent music venues serve our communities as performing arts spaces and gathering places. But we’re also home to countless fundraisers for schools, local organizations and neighbors in need—not to mention decades of weddings and birthdays and block parties. While asking for help from our patrons was painful at first, we did it, thinking not just of ourselves but the deep ripple effect: We know that for every dollar spent in one of our clubs, $12 is spent in the local economy. We’re calling on our community because Chicago’s reputation as a world-renowned live music hub hangs in the balance: If a 1,000-seat indie venue were to shutter here, some artists will choose to find one in Milwaukee or Madison and bypass us all together.


When the uncertainty is at its worst, it helps to look at the lists of donors. Some of them we know, but many we don’t. People we know have lost their jobs are still giving $10, or even $100, every few weeks. Friends have come out of the woodwork, unannounced, contributing even more than that. The comments about why they gave are so moving, they bring tears to our eyes. 


We hope that the next few weeks will bring more light to our situation, and that, with clarity on funding and vaccine uptake, we can start to open safely and responsibly, so that everyone can have the best experience returning to live music. 


Success in our business comes from being scrappy; we’ve stayed alive, so far, by channeling energy we once drew on to book bands into calling elected officials. Now, instead of competing for talent or ticket sales, we’re working together and playing to our strengths, whether it’s community organizing, law or production. We’re up-coaching each other on grant applications; through NIVA, we’re leading committees to share best practices on noise ordinances, parking permits and other issues that will long outlive the pandemic. 


“First we’re going to make sure that the industry survives,” says NIVA president Dayna Frank, “and then we’re going to help it thrive.” 


In order to shift from survival to reopening—getting our staff back to work and our sector back to business—Chicago’s independent venues need more than support. We need action—the swift dispersal of the $16 billion promised. We’re ready to move forward, and we will: We don’t take no for an answer.

About CIVL | Chicago Independent Venue League

Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL) advocates on behalf of Chicago’s independently owned and operated concert venues and music halls. Founded in 2018, CIVL works to ensure the long-term viability of its member venues so they may continue to provide event-goers with enjoyable live music experiences.

Chicago’s reputation as a world renowned live music hub is largely due to independently owned and operated music venues’ legacies of nurturing homegrown talent. Performers from every genre are afforded opportunities to earn national recognition. More than 50 CIVL member venues proudly represent Chicago’s culture and musical style.

CIVL is a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit organization. Visit CIVLChicago.com for more information or to contribute.


1644 N Honore St - Suite 100 Chicago, IL 60622