Chicago aldermen's attack on music

May 13, 2008


In a poorly designed attempt to rein in underground party promoters in response to the E2 tragedy in 2003, the City Council is rushing to pass legislation that will make it more difficult and sometimes impossible for responsible concert organizers to present music at many legitimate licensed venues in Chicago.

In comments that have been echoed in hundreds of posts throughout the blogosphere and dozens of angry phone calls to aldermen since the so-called "promoter's ordinance" was approved last week by the Committee on License and Consumer Protection, activists from the Chicago Music Commission lashed out at the law and said they plan to protest it before the City Council vote on Wednesday.

But today, the measure was tabled and sent back to the committee.

"The language of the ordinance as drafted unnecessarily and perhaps prohibitively increases the cost of doing business for any promoter seeking to work with PPA [public place of amusement]-licensed music venues, including, among many others, Schubas, Buddy Guy's Legends, the Vic Theater, the Riviera Theater, the Metro, the Hideout, Uncommon Ground and Martyrs'," said Alligator Records founder and CMC board member Bruce Iglauer.

"The ordinance will reduce the amount of music in Chicago, make events more expensive for consumers, dampen the large and growing economic engine that is Chicago music and create a much less supportive business climate for Chicago's small music business community." Iglauer said.

The ordinance as it stands requires independent promoters to apply for a license at a cost between $500 and $2,000 every two years, submit to fingerprinting and a criminal background check, secure as much as $300,000 in liability insurance and be at least 21 years old.

These requirements add an additional layer of bureaucracy and expense on promoters who are working at venues that have already met Chicago's insurance and licensing requirements, which are some of the most stringent in the United States. Those same promoters say this law is not unlike requiring someone to become a licensed auto mechanic before taking their car to a reputable, well-established garage for repairs.

The law makes exceptions for events sponsored by media organizations and not-for-profit groups, among others, but the language is unclear about exactly who qualifies. Independent promoters say it also ignores the fact that in the wake of the notorious and tragic incidents at E2 in Chicago and the Rhode Island concert by Great White, major liability companies have become increasingly reluctant to insure concerts and dance nights at all.

"Unfortunately, we've had incidents in the city where people have been murdered, people have been accosted [and] there have been fights," said Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th), chairman of the licensing committee. "Our goal is not to hurt anybody, but to really help the promoter as well as the person in charge of the venue, because right now, the only person that really is responsible is the person that runs the venue."

Schulter said the long delay in moving the legislation to a vote was the result of efforts to seek input on the law from the music community. The CMC first became aware of the law last July when, along with local promoters, it succeeded in convincing the committee to delay approval so that problems in the law could be addressed.

The ordinance was revised to reflect several changes urged by musical advocates, but they say many more are still needed, and they only had four days to examine the rewritten law before it was rushed through committee last week. They are urging the City Council to hold off on a vote until more comments can be heard.

The problem as advocates see it is that city officials have a tin ear for Chicago's diverse and thriving music community when it comes to distinguishing between a well-run dance night or concert series at a respected, trouble-free club and a hastily organized event sponsored by a fly-by-night promoter at a venue that may already be failing to comply with the city's many existing laws and safety regulations.

"With any ordinance, there's going to be things that cannot accommodate every single person in a particular industry because the range is so large," said Efrat Dallal Stein, spokeswoman for the Business Affairs & Licensing Department. "It's a growing industry and it is in need of some sort of regulation, just like any other growing industry. I mean, you need a license to sell a T-shirt in the city of Chicago."

Reacting to the outpouring of anger from the music community, Schulter planned to meet with advocates before the vote. But music lovers were not optimistic.

"For a city that claims to embrace the arts, this is a disgrace," said Brenda Bouschard, a musician who left Chicago to work in Las Vegas. "Live entertainment in the city of Chicago has been beaten down enough, and this is just another nail in the coffin."

Added Christian Picciolini, founder of the local punk-rock record label Sinister Music: "Passing an ordinance like this will virtually destroy the diversity and importance of an independent music scene."