Owing to the worldwide pandemic, Illinois, USA imposed its mandatory lockdown order on 21st of March, 2020, posing a myriad of problems for the small independent music clubs of Chicago and the bands that play there.
While Chicago’s independent music clubs had united for quite a few challenges in the past – battling city ordinances, holding fast during the processes of gentrification, and fighting competition from large scale festivals and corporate concert promoters – the coronavirus pandemic presents the toughest challenge yet. A coalition of more than twenty local music clubs of Chicago, the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL) reported that more than 1,200 gigs were canceled forcing nearly 2,000 bartenders, sound engineers, bouncers, bookers, and other staff out of work.
Co-founder of CIVL and part-owner of Chicago bar, Hideout, Katie Tuten, in conversation with Jim DeRogatis on behalf of The New Yorker explained how the “ecosystem” of independent music venues differs from other industries. “You don’t just open the club and turn the lights on and there are shows. It takes three to six months booking bands”, informed Tuten. Like Tuten, other club owners were unsure of what they would have to do after they reopen, from hiking ticket prices to compensate for the reduced capacity of their place, to insisting their customers to wear masks and conducting temperature checks, all the while enforcing necessary social distancing within closed quarters. “We’re listening to the scientists. A lot of these questions can’t be answered,” added Tuten. “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.”
Relying on booking agent David Viecelli who works with touring indie-rock bands, Katie Tuten and her husband, Tim Tuten reached out to other small, independent clubs across the country and formed a new organization called the National Independent Venue Association(NIVA) which includes 1,400 venues from all fifty states of the country. Subsequently, club owners had been comparing notes on navigating the Payroll Protection Program for their employees, and appealing for additional resources.
NIVA spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer cited a study from Chicago which showed that for every dollar spent on a ticket in a small music venue, twelve dollars are spent nearby for dining, shopping, or parking. “I think that we have a good story to tell, on both sides of the aisle… how we’re different from other industries, and not just because of our needs but our ability to bring back economic renewal when that time comes if we are able to make sure that venues can stay alive”, said Schaefer. NIVA is now working on a broader study to show the national economic impact of independent venues but it won’t take into account the effect of recent months on bands like Melkbelly.
Describing themselves as “noisy, subversively catchy, and rhythmically sophisticated quartet [that]emerged from Chicago’s D.I.Y. spaces with its experimental instincts intact”, Melkbelly spent the last five years building a following at clubs like Hideout and were about to reach their largest audience yet. Their second album, Pith which released in April, received glowing reviews, and the band was set to tour almost thirty clubs across the US and Europe before the pandemic hit.
Melkbelly’s drummer, James Wetzel told The New Yorker that,, for him, virtual rehearsals had been an inadequate substitute for playing together in person. Alongside, to a lot of listeners, the online concert streams hadn’t even come close to capturing the power of bands like Melkbelly who played full throttle in small and sweaty clubs packed with people. “As a band, you rely heavily on those moments to not just grow as a group but to feel connected to that sense of community”, said Wetzel. He also worried about how much longer it will be before his band can have the same experience again and if it will ever be the same.
Feature Image Via Unsplash