Every Saturday for the past two decades, I’ve gathered with two or three friends in a twelve-by-fifteen-foot room that we rent by the month—one of a hundred similar spaces in a former furniture warehouse that stretches for a city block in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. For several hours, in between breaks to talk and drink beer from a mini-fridge, my friends and I work on new material for our punk band, devising set lists and running through songs that we’ve recorded for a half-dozen independent releases. It’s often the best part of the week.
Walking through the halls of the Superior Street Center for the Arts, as the warehouse was grandly rechristened, in the early two-thousands, you’ll hear death metal, hip-hop, funk, E.D.M., alt-country, space rock, reggae, cumbia, jazz, and almost any other genre that you could name, all from a thriving musical underground. I’ve had similar experiences in converted industrial buildings in Hoboken, New York City, and Minneapolis. A select few bands emerge from these places to make national or even international impact, but, for most, performing every six or eight weeks, on a bill with other local groups, in a club filled with friends and fellow-musicians, qualifies as success. The mere act of coming together to make a glorious noise is what really matters.
All of the rehearsal rooms at Superior Street are silent now. The state of Illinois imposed its stay-at-home order on Saturday, March 21st. Officials are planning a “phased reopening,” beginning in June, though the specifics of exactly when people will be able to gather in groups—and of what size, and under what restrictions—remain uncertain. Even when bands can come together again, no one knows what they will emerge to find. Chicago’s small independent music clubs have united for years to face a number of challenges beyond the usual difficulties of operating a small business with thin margins. They’ve held fast in the face of gentrification, battled onerous city ordinances, and fought competition from giant corporate concert promoters and massive festivals. The coronavirus crisis presents their toughest struggle yet. According to the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), a coalition of more than twenty local music clubs, during the first six weeks of the shutdown, more than twelve hundred gigs were cancelled, and nearly two thousand bartenders, sound engineers, bouncers, bookers, and other staffers found themselves out of work.
I spoke with Katie Tuten, a co-owner of a beloved dive called the Hideout (which has a capacity of a hundred and fifty) and a co-founder of CIVL. “Our industry needs to be looked at differently because our ecosystem is so different from everyone else’s,” she said. “You don’t just open the club and turn the lights on and there’s shows. It takes three to six months booking bands.” When Tuten and other club owners are able to reopen, they’re unsure about what they’ll need to do, from insisting on their customers wearing masks and conducting temperature checks to trying to enforce social distancing in close quarters and dramatically cutting capacity, possibly necessitating higher ticket prices. “We’re living in the present. We’re listening to the scientists. A lot of these questions can’t be answered,” Tuten said. “We just know that, as of today, this is dire, because the odds of us opening to full capacity are slim to none for a very long time.”
Tuten and her husband, Tim, are veteran community organizers, and they reached out to other small clubs across the country, relying on a list provided by David (Boche) Viecelli, a booking agent who works with touring indie-rock bands. Doing so, the Tutens helped to form a new organization, the National Independent Venue Association, based on the Chicago model, that includes fourteen hundred venues across all fifty states. The club owners have been comparing notes on navigating the Payroll Protection Program for their employees, and on appealing for additional resources from Capitol Hill. The NIVA spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer also works as the communications director for the independent concert promoter I.M.P., which operates the storied 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. “Everybody has their hand out right now because everybody is hurting in every industry, and we get that,” she said. “I think that we have a good story to tell, on both sides of the aisle . . . how we’re different from other industries, and not just because of our needs but our ability to bring back economic renewal when that time comes, if we are able to make sure that venues can stay alive.”
Schaefer cites a study from Chicago, which shows that, for every dollar spent on a ticket in a small music venue, twelve additional dollars are spent nearby for dining, shopping, or parking. NIVA is working on a broader study to show the economic impact of independent venues nationally, but even that study won’t take into account the effect in recent months on the many bands that take their stages. One such band, Melkbelly, accurately describes itself as a “noisy, subversively catchy, and rhythmically sophisticated quartet [that] emerged from Chicago’s D.I.Y. spaces with its experimental instincts intact.” The band’s members have spent five years building a following at clubs such as the Hideout and the Empty Bottle, and they were on the cusp of reaching their largest audience yet. Their second album, “Pith,” released on April 3rd, garnered glowing reviews, and the band was set to embark on a now-cancelled tour of almost thirty clubs across the United States and Europe.
The band’s drummer, James Wetzel, told me that virtual rehearsals online have been an inferior substitute for playing together in person. And, for me, as a listener, none of the models for streaming concerts from social isolation have come close to capturing the visceral power of a band like Melkbelly blasting full bore in a small, sweaty club packed shoulder to shoulder. “As a band, you rely heavily on those moments to not just grow as a group but to feel connected to that sense of community,” Wetzel said. “I think it’s crucial not just for the growth of our band but for getting connected with other groups, learning about what they’re doing, and finding inspiration and motivation from them.” He worries about how long it will be before his band can have that experience again, and if it will ever be the same.
My bandmates worry, too. We’ve only had one gig cancelled since the shutdown—at the Liar’s Club, a place even smaller than the Hideout. But we’ve never had a calendar devoid of upcoming shows, nor have we gone this long—eight weeks and counting—without convening in our cramped rehearsal room. I’m sure I speak for many at the Superior Street Center for the Arts, and at all the places like it, when I say that I’ve never needed the sense of community at small shows more, and I’ve never missed the feeling of catharsis from those rehearsals as much.
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