By Jim DeRogatis, New Yorker | 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.”
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Jim DeRogatis is a Chicago-based music journalist and critic, the co-host of the weekly public-radio show “Sound Opinions,” and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. His most recent book is “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly.”[Thank you to Alex Teitz, http://www.femmusic.com, for contributing this article.]