Independent music venues make up the heart of Chicago’s music culture. Yet long-standing hot spots like The Empty Bottle, Metro and The Hideout were some of the first businesses to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although performance venues can open at limited capacity under the most recent phase of Illinois’ reopening plan, many of the independent venues are facing a dire situation, said Katie Tuten, co-owner of The Hideout.
At risk is more than just the loss of individual businesses, said Tuten, who also founded the Chicago Independent Venue League and the National Independent Venue Association.
“We probably have the largest independent venue landscape across the country,” Tuten said. “And in many ways, if we close, there’ll be a ripple effect economically and emotionally and spiritually to our communities.”
And that loss of culture and history is why the association, which represents almost 2,000 music clubs across the country, is focusing their attention on the federal RESTART Act through the hashtag #SaveOurStages, Tuten said.
If passed, the act would extend the Paycheck Protection Program, which gives small businesses subsidies to cover paychecks, rent and other costs, from eight weeks’ worth of funding to 16 weeks.
“Our bill is focused on the hardest-hit businesses. These are businesses that have lost 25% of their revenue or more. It’s focused on our smallest businesses as well as our small and medium-sized businesses,” Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado who co-sponsored the bill, told NPR. “Too much of the PPP money went to businesses that didn’t need it. I think we need to be more — at the same time more focused and in a little more generous in terms of who receives it.
Tuten said extra funding is essential because some small music venues haven’t been able to reopen at all or move any of their businesses online — and weren’t able to fully utilize the previous round of funds because they weren’t paying staff for closed buildings.
Some venues are relying on live streaming performances and Go Fund Me pages, but even with customer support, those methods haven’t begun to make a dent.
Essentially, Tuten said, venues are operating with little revenue but full expenses, like rent or mortgages, taxes, licenses and utility bills. And the effects have already begun to be felt across the music scene.
“We were the first to close, and we’ll be the last to fully reopen,” she said. “Imagine the city of Chicago without some of our beloved music venues. And we’re seeing already across the country, a number of venues are starting to close.”
Tuten said she believes the RESTART Act will give small club owners the flexibility to put funding towards rent, utilities and insurance because the bill is more flexible.
“We’re very resilient and we’re scrappy, and we’ll figure out ways to kind of bring some revenue to the artists,” Tuten said. “But it’s not going to last very long. … It’s simply a Band-Aid.”
Araceli Gomez-Aldana is an audio producer at WBEZ. Follow her @Araceli1010. Mary Hall is a digital producer. Follow her @hall_marye.