Chicago clubs unite to defend indie music

Venues that have nurtured Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Neko Case form the Chicago Independent Venues League in the face of the planned Lincoln Yards development

Backed by performers and supporters, Robert Gomez, owner of the Chicago clubs Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, announces the formation of CIVL. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Backed by performers and supporters, Robert Gomez, owner of the Chicago clubs Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, announces the formation of CIVL. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Some of the most influential music promoters in the nation banded together in Chicago Thursday to unite against a development project they say threatens their businesses, their independence, and the city’s cultural vitality.

Several owners of small, independent music clubs that have nurtured the likes of Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Neko Case announced the formation of the Chicago Independent Venues League, going by the acronym CIVL, in the face of the controversial Sterling Bay development Lincoln Yards on the North Side of Chicago.

Charging that Sterling Bay had already made an exclusive deal with the music-industry behemoth Live Nation to control entertainment in the proposed $5 billion, 55-acre complex set to straddle the North Branch of the Chicago River, they urged the city government to slow the process and await the results of next year’s municipal election to determine the final size and scope of the development.

Speculating on plans that Live Nation might open a pair of music spots or as many as a half-dozen in Lincoln Yards, along with a soccer stadium, Robert Gomez, CIVL co-chairman and owner of the clubs Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, said, “Is this like a shopping mall of music venues? Gross.”

The owners and their clubs include Joe Shanahan’s Gman, Smart Bar, and Metro, a punk palace that has played host to legendary shows by Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, to name just a couple of major bands; Katie and Tim Tuten’s club the Hideout, which sits in the Lincoln Yards footprint and has nurtured alt-country groups like Neko Case, the Waco Brothers, and the Handsome Family, as well as avant-garde saxophonist Ken Vandermark; Michael Johnston’s Schubas and Lincoln Hall, both of which recently welcomed the Australian breakout band the Rolling Blackouts C.F.; Bruce Finkelman’s Thalia Hall, Promontory, and the Empty Bottle, which booked Phair earlier this year on her “Exile in Guyvlle” anniversary tour; Ray Quinn’s Martyrs’, a North Side neighborhood staple that, like the Hideout, has played host to the seminal British punk band the Mekons; and Billy Helmkamp’s new Sleeping Village and the Whistler.

All emphasized that they’re about fostering small, adventurous musicians and artists who might not be big names now, but who have the potential to influence the entire music industry. They added that they also welcomed other independent music outlets to join them.

Shanahan said their mission is about “ensuring the legacy of the city’s brilliant music and entertainment scene,” and he stressed how it was a continuum — not only about current alternative rock and country and hip hop, but about the Chicago jazz clubs essential to the music a century ago and the neighborhood blues clubs that fostered Chicago blues in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which in turn influenced the Rolling Stones.

“It’s essential to the American music culture,” Shanahan said. “Chicago has a rich tradition as one of the most vital and compelling cities for the United States.

“That’s what we want to continue to protect,” he added. “Our city is really rich, and I want to protect that richness.”

The announcement was made at Park Community Church on Chicago’s North Side in the old Cabrini-Green neighborhood near the North Branch of the Chicago River, close to where Lincoln Yards is set to be built. The news conference was held just ahead of a full-house public meeting on the development attended by hundreds of local residents.

Jon Langford, an original 1977 member of the British punk band the Mekons and now leader of the cowpunk group the Waco Brothers and various other ensembles, said the city’s vibrant and independent music scene and clubs like Metro and the Hideout were what drew him to settle in Chicago in the ‘80s.

“They supported me as an artist, that’s why I’m in Chicago,” he said. “I didn’t get that support in Britain from anybody. I never got that sort of support in England.

“I came over here and I got support for both my visual art and my bands,” Langford added. The small, independent clubs, he said, encouraged an attitude of “be horrible or be brilliant” that created the perfect environment for experimentation in music with the potential to change the entire industry.

Jon Langford talks with Hideout owner Tim Tuten at Thursday’s CIVL announcement. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Jon Langford talks with Hideout owner Tim Tuten at Thursday’s CIVL announcement. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

They claimed the support of local concert promoters Jam Productions, and Gomez pointed out that many of the clubs work with Live Nation and book groups through them. But Katie Tuten, co-chairwoman of the group, stressed that those bigger promoters were about a top-down approach giving music fans the artists they want, while the smaller clubs were about creating the stars of tomorrow and music of a sort fans don’t yet know how to ask for.

“We’ve seen the writing on the wall,” she said. “Independent performance venues are being squeezed out as poorly planned development leaves them behind.

“We’re standing up now to say not here, not in Chicago, not on my watch,” Tuten added. “Conglomerate, corporate music giants should look elsewhere.”

Langford described what he called a “philistine streak to the corporate world and the city government. They don’t really get it. They never really get it, and yet they depend on these people to make their city cool.”

At the same time, all insisted they were not opposed to change by definition. “It’s easy to look at this as an anti-corporate movement or moment, and it’s not that,” Gomez said.

“None of us is really against development,” Shanahan said. “Development is growth, and change is necessarily good, but it needs to be done responsibly.”

Local residents later echoed the club owners in saying they perceived a rush to get the overall project approved before Mayor Rahm Emanuel leaves office next May. During Emanuel’s second term, the city began a reassessment of all its major manufacturing areas, and many feel it’s no coincidence that the North Branch Industrial Corridor including the land for Lincoln Yards was the first to be taken up and have its zoning regulations altered by the City Council to encourage redevelopment.

Local residents also raised objections to a new Tax Increment Finance district set for the area, which will siphon off tax revenues as property values rise and deposit them in what amounts to a slush fund to subsidize the Lincoln Yards development.

Gomez said CIVL was simply asking that the process be slowed down, allowing the soon-to-be-elected next mayor and City Council to make the final determination next year. The group also asked to be granted a “seat at the table” in ongoing negotiations that figure to alter both the look and feel of the immediate area and of the entire surrounding entertainment business, with the aim to preserve the “independent music and performance scene.”

“The reason we’re called CIVL,” Katie Tuten said, “is we want to have civil conversations.”