As a bassist, Matt Ciarleglio had played in bars all his life — which was good for his growth as a musician. But as someone struggling with addiction, playing in bars created challenges that could derail his life.
“I had been struggling with substance abuse in some form or another most of my adult life,” he said. Last year, it dawned on him: “Why?”
Ciarleglio, co-owner of the Empty Bottle, said a year of sobriety allowed him to see the necessity of Nothing/Assumed, a new series at the West Town club that will kick off Jan. 30 with Chicago band Lala Lala. And while the series may look and sound like any other night at the club, it is designed specifically for people in recovery or those who just don’t want to consume alcohol when they go out to hear live music. The bar will be open, but it will have more on offer: Chicago spirit brand Ritual Zero Proof will make an array of nonalcoholic cocktails, including Old Fashioneds, Mojitos, and Whiskey Sours, and a variety of nonalcoholic beers will be for sale.
Everyone present that night, from Lillie West of headliner Lala Lala, to the club’s staff, will have their own story to tell about what led them to sobriety, which will add to the show’s supportive atmosphere.
“The act of going to shows should be enjoyable by everyone if you drink or don’t drink,” said Ciarleglio, 34. “Seeing live music is good mental health practice, even if you go solo, you can be part of a community.”
Ciarleglio, who is in his 14th year of working at the Bottle, started as a doorman. When he was offered a position as managing partner in 2022, the new responsibility made him rethink his behavior. “One of the reasons I decided to stop drinking and abusing substances was because I wasn’t able to be the person I wanted to be, including being the owner of a business I loved and cared about,” he said. He also learned by example: Different bar owners and managers he knew over the years “drank a lot and didn’t really support their staff.” That wouldn’t be him, he decided.
“I really want this place to be as good as it can possibly be, so if it takes me taking more responsibly in my personal life and not drinking, then it’s worth 100% cutting it out,” he said.
A core aspect of the bar business is liquor sales, and a showcase like Nothing/Assumed would have been difficult even a year ago because “the options weren’t there” for alternatives, he said. Now, bars have more to offer with the advent of mocktails and nonalcoholic IPAs that are comparable in taste to their alcoholic counterparts. In fact, Ciarleglio says nonalcoholic sales at the Bottle have increased 600% over the last year, in part because there are more options, and also because post-pandemic drinking habits have softened. He sees more people prioritizing wellness and moderation.
That aligns with findings from Nielsen that show almost half (45%) of Gen Z has never consumed alcoholic beverages and are most likely to order nonalcoholic drinks. And people overall are buying into the alternatives: In late 2022, Nielsen found U.S. sales of nonalcoholic beer, wine, and spirits in grocery stores jumped nearly 21% in a single year to a total of $395 million.
Sober spaces for musicians
Ciarleglio is not the only Empty Bottle staffer on a sobriety journey. Empty Bottle talent buyer Molly Mobley observed artists growing more mindful of their drinking habits. She makes it clear to all the bands that pass through the club that dry green rooms are available and that the club is staffed with people who can be relied upon if a musician needs support in their ongoing recovery.
The approach is “more supportive” than most people might otherwise associate with a culture known for legendary excess.
“We get it, you’ve been in a van with your friends for 28 days, maybe you don’t want to party tonight. Maybe the objective is to rest and feel well. So, we really started working on things on that front,” she said.
Mobley, 32, is in recovery after going sober over three years ago. She said her experience made her understand the loneliness that people struggling with addiction sometimes feel when living in a culture where “every emotion we’re supposed to feel” — from joy to sadness — is associated with drinking. The launch of Nothing/Assumed is an attempt to “take away the shame of having to ‘other’ yourself” in a social setting.
“We have absolutely been seeing a lot of artists say either ‘I don’t drink’ or ‘I don’t want a spirit sponsor’ for my show, and honestly, it seems like a turning point in a way that is exciting,” she said. She hopes it will make people feel more accepted “in places where they should be accepted.”
Sober spaces at festivals
Awareness that musicians need sober spaces on tour is growing throughout the U.S. — as is recognition that the industry is among the most vulnerable to addiction. Tulane University reports that more than half (56%) of music industry professionals suffer from substance abuse and more than a third (34%) of touring musicians grapple with clinical levels of depression — much higher than the 7% of those in the general population.
There’s even now a national non-profit dedicated to creating sober communities in the music realm. Bill Taylor, the New Orleans-based director of the Phoenix, said the industry “can be a really hard environment to choose sobriety in,” which is why his organization is trying to reshape the festival experience for both audience members and musicians.
Already it has created special wellness tents at festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Stagecoach and Bourbon & Beyond, among others, where people can relax and drink alcohol-free cocktails.
“When you go to see a show, the band is giving the audience everything they have, but the reality is those musicians are waking up the next morning early going to the next city and that lifestyle really takes its toll,” said Taylor. “We’re also looking at how can we work with the music community so we can do a better job of servicing the musicians who are the center of it all.”
The organization also works with specific artists to create sober spaces backstage and in 2016 helped New Orleans singer-songwriter Anders Osborne launch Send Me a Friend, a network that allows touring musicians to connect with a support system. “If you are a musician and have a 25-date schedule coming up, chances are we will have someone in each of those cities who can come out and spend time with you as a safe buffer,” he said. “That can really make a difference.”
For some musicians, getting sober challenges a core belief that drugs and alcohol groom creativity. Not true, said Lillie West of Lala Lala who headlines the first Nothing/Assumed. For her, addiction made her “completely lose control over what was happening” in her life. “Before I got sober, I did not advance as a musician at all. I don’t think I learned anything. It took me being sober for a year before music became my full-time job,” she said.
Artists, she says, risk everything, including their own lives, if they choose to not seek help.
“Say if you subscribe to the belief that pain or addiction creates good art — but at what cost? What kind of life do you want to live? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of people do you want around you?” she asked. “Lots of people lose their lives to addiction. It’s a deadly disease. There’s a lot more people who die from it than who make great art from addiction.”
Her show on Jan. 30 will be a “celebration” of The Lamb (Hardly Art), her last album and the first she made while sober. A new album, due later this year, will follow her relocation from New Mexico back to Chicago, where she said the city’s music community, which includes the staff at the Empty Bottle, helped her with the decision.
“In my experience, the music I made while actively addicted compared with what I made since — There’s no comparison. It’s much better now.”
If you go: The Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western Ave.) presents Nothing/Assumed featuring Lala Lala on Jan. 30. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.
Mark Guarino is a journalist based in Chicago.