The new year could see a new level of ferocity in Chicago’s always-competitive club wars, thanks to a new hire by Ticketmaster/Live Nation that's sure to shake things up.
Though it dominates at the arena level, the local office of the giant national concert behemoth long has been thwarted in its efforts to muscle into Chicago’s thriving club scene, where independent owners and talent bookers hold fast from the smaller spaces up to roomier venues such as the newer and very classy Lincoln Hall (capacity 507) and the venerable and legendary landmark Metro (capacity 1150).
But the company that many of its own employees call “the Evil Empire” once again is setting its sights on clubland, hiring veteran talent buyer Sean McDonough not only to book the tourist-trap House of Blues, but to continue programming the Bottom Lounge—only now under the monopolistic corporate banner.
Well-known and much-respected by local music-scene stalwarts, McDonough spent 14 years as the talent buyer at Metro. As such, he had a hand in many of the best things that happened on Clark Street from 1994 until 2008, when he left to accept a position with Ticketmaster/Live Nation in New York, booking similarly sized venues such as Irving Plaza and the Gramercy Theatre.
Two years later, McDonough came back home to Chicago and began booking the Bottom Lounge about a year and a half after its much-delayed re-opening under the “L” tracks on Lake Street. At that point, he certainly was no fan of Ticketmaster/Live Nation. So has the Evil Empire changed, or has he?
McDonough laughs. “It doesn’t feel so evil any more, the way they’ve structured things. Clearly, one of the things that’s most exciting to me about coming back [to Ticketmaster/Live Nation] is the ability to still book shows at 200 or 300 up to the 700 level, and then grow them up to here”—that is, the 1300-capacity House of Blues.
Owned by Ticketmaster/Live Nation, the House of Blues was seen as a big threat to Metro when it opened here in 1996. Yet despite the best efforts of its founding talent booker, Michael Yerke, the house that Akroyd built never became a home for the cutting-edge sounds that make the club experience so vibrant. The best it did was one-off high-profile appearances by the likes of the Who, Pearl Jam, and Justin Timberlake, in between filling niches in extreme metal and hip-hop that continue to be under-served by other clubs.
Since Yerke left Chicago in 2009 to accept a promotion at Ticketmaster/Live Nation’s corporate headquarters on the West Coast, things have been especially moribund. You know the bookings are dreadful when, aside from the occasional third-tier “American Idol”-type reject, the hottest show in 2011 was by the hair-metal parody act Steel Panther.
Though it’s different in some other cities, the House of Blues in Chicago is where clueless out-of-towners go to hear bad music, eat over-priced chicken wings, buy expensive T-shirts, and enjoy admittedly good sound undercut by dicey sight lines and that annoying abundance of faux outsider art.
What can the eminently clued-in McDonough do for the place?
“It’s my first week; I’m just getting my bearings!” the promoter says. “It seems like it’s still a [blank] canvas. What I want to do is what I do really well—maybe being more eclectic, expanding what they’re already doing and bringing in more of what I’m excited about.”
As for the Bottom Lounge—which has an official capacity listed as between 300 and 400, though it seems much larger—the club hasn’t had an easy time re-establishing itself.
Originally located under a different set of “L” tracks, the CTA seized its original site under eminent domain in early 2005 to expand the Belmont/Sheffield train station. The city was supposed to help owners Brian Emiger and Dan Miskowicz relocate, but the process dragged on forever, and they wrestled with aldermanic drama at their new locale off Ogden Avenue. When they finally opened the doors to their welcoming and well-designed new venue in 2008, it was with a new partner who is a sizable and familiar presence in the local music world: Delilah’s owner Mike Miller.
Proud of all the time and money spent on the new music club, restaurant, and bar, Miller boasted in 2008 that the Bottom Lounge would be giving Metro and the House of Blues a run for their money. “What I keep saying to my partners is, first of all, it’s got to be a great bar—it can’t be a great club if it’s not a great bar first,” he told me at the time. “Maybe the other guys are a little anxious because they’re not delivering the best product, and they know that if I can successfully apply Delilah’s to the Bottom Lounge, they’re all f---ed!”
As it turned out, the Bottom Lounge hasn’t f---ed anyone. Things started slowly under original booker Brian Peterson of underground punk mainstays MP Shows. He was elbowed aside to make room for McDonough and higher-profile acts, though the club’s bookings still have been overshadowed by those at Lincoln Hall, if not Metro.
Is McDonough happy with how things have gone at the Bottom Lounge since he arrived? “It’s been great,” he maintains. “The amount of shows, the number of tickets we’re selling, its all been up and up, continuing to grow. Things have been getting better and better.”
Maybe. There certainly has been no love lost between McDonough and his old boss and mentor, Metro owner Joe Shanahan, and that relationship is likely to get even more hostile now that McDonough will be booking two Metro rivals. (Shanahan was out of town and could not be reached for comment.)
“Look, there’s always competition,” McDonough says. “Lincoln Hall is doing a great job with a lot of good shows. Metro is doing a good job still, and it has great shows. Despite the economy, people are going back to the clubs. The average ticket price at the Bottom Lounge is 15 bucks. It’s the same at Lincoln Hall, probably a little more at House of Blues and Metro, but still, we’re dealing with people who go out to shows more than once a month. This is a big city, there are a lot of people, and we can handle a lot of shows.”
Perhaps. But such is the nature of the “crush, kill, destroy” mentality at Ticketmaster/Live Nation that it and it alone would like to control all of those shows, as it does in many other cities. Does McDonough think that steadfastly independent Chicago will accept the corporate giant booking shows at this level?
“I don’t know if it’s the corporation as such booking the shows as much as it’s me! I’m the same guy booking the shows now as I was then. At the Bottom Lounge, it’s still $3.50 for a beer, no cut of the merch taken from the bands, and low ticket fees through TicketWeb.”
Um, TicketWeb actually is owned by Ticketmaster, despite its best efforts to conceal that fact from its customers.
“The fees are still half of those at many other clubs,” McDonough maintains. “My point is, the Bottom Lounge is not going to have more of a corporate footprint; it’s still going to be an artist- and fan-friendly venue, a great room where every band is really well taken care of, and where fans come in and buy tickets inexpensively and eat and drink inexpensively.”