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The Chicago Promoter’s Ordinance

| October 31, 2008

Pay To Play?
The Chicago Promoter’s Ordinance In Progress

No matter what side of the music industry one comes from (promoter, artist, record label, press, or fan), chances are rumblings of the “Event Promoter’s Ordinance” have trickled into conversation. Ever since pyrotechnics started by hair metal mavens Great White killed 100 at a Rhode Island nightclub in 2003 or, more locally, the E2 nightclub stampede that left 21 dead and more than 50 injured, several measures have been taken to advocate promoter compliance with fire codes and overall concert safety.

Even with no major incidents since then, the Chicago City Council recently raised the heat on the issue, drafting an ordinance geared specifically around independent concert promoters that requires each to purchase a license every two years (ranging between $500 and $2,000) along with liability insurance (with coverage up to $300,000) for an event even if the club or venue in which it’s booked already carries a policy. The ordinance also calls for all promoters to be at least 21 and undergo finger printing and a criminal-background check.

“I don’t know anyone involved at any [music industry] level that supports it in its current form,” suggests John Benetti, talent buyer for House Call Entertainment, Inc., which books the Beat Kitchen and Subterranean. “This ordinance certainly won’t kill independent music, but it will create many barriers that will slow things down — especially to the small-venue promoters and small bands who can’t just add $5 to a ticket price without serious backlash. We are not against all legislation, but we think that the experts who understand the culture and dynamics of the scene should have a much greater voice. If it is decided upon exclusively by the aldermen, the passion, integrity, and sincerity of independent culture in Chicago will be greatly damaged.”

When this ordinance first earned major press coverage this summer, the music community responded in protest, including several dissenting messages to Gene Schulter, chairman of the licensing committee. Though he turned down an interview request (citing scheduling issues), the 47th Ward Alderman has repeatedly met with industry representatives (primarily the Chicago Music Commission) and continues to field frustrated calls.

“Alderman Schulter is still meeting with representatives from the music and entertainment community and that’s where it’s at right now,” says Robert Rawls, the Alderman’s communications director. “We’ll have more information when the ordinance is ready to move forward.”

The vague response appears to mirror the somewhat loose language of the ordinance, which is unclear about how it will be enforced and has thus far been revised to exempt non-profit promoters. And while for-profit promoters don’t seek to take anything away from a charitable organization, they do point out the liabilities are equal at any entertainment event, no matter which entity receives the earnings.

“I actually find that kind of interesting because of course if a non-profit promotes an event, they can be sued just as easily as a profit-making organization can be sued should something bad happen at the event or someone claim something happened at the event,” says Bruce Iglauer, Alligator Records president/founder and Chicago Music Commission board member. “When this first came out, it included non-profits and a number or people pointed out to the city that, for example, any school that puts on a live-music event in the school parking lot would have to become a promoter, so then they exempted non-profits.”

Enforcement presents another notable gray area; the ordinance suggests a case-by-case basis should a disturbance arise. But in the event the ordinance does pass, how will every independent promoter in Chicago be notified of the specifics and even be aware that they need to apply for a license and start lining up insurance coverage?

“Nobody knows how it’s going to be enforced,” verifies Paul Natkin, executive director of the Chicago Music Commission and veteran photographer. “It’s not like they’re going to send the cops out to check on everybody. The only time there could be a problem is if the police have to be called, so what’s gonna happen is — which is really sad — there’s going to be tons of people who purchase this license and none of them are ever going to be asked for it. So either you’re going to waste your money on a license or create an entire class of lawbreakers who say, ‘Well, they’re never going to catch me anyway so I’ll just go ahead and do what I’m doing,’ and that’s the problem.”

Though the ordinance won’t have much effect on major players such as Jam and Live Nation (who already book hundreds if not thousands of events per year and can more than make up for these proposed fees), it does provide a major burden for those who merely want to host a handful of shows per year without the backing of a major company. Iglauer points out Alligator’s 40th anniversary is a few years down the road and there’s been talk of putting on a celebratory concert.

“We’d have to get a license to put on a single event and paying between $500 and $1,000 is going to be very discouraging to us and our desire to put on the event because it’s just another cost.” He also clarifies this instance would be different than an act on Alligator’s roster being employed by a club like Buddy Guy’s Legends or Kingston Mines to play for an evening. “I think it’s going to discourage a lot of start-ups and a lot of smaller businesses at a time when the economy is suffering, and the last thing we want to do is have fledging entrepreneurs be put in a position discouraged from going into business. Chicago has a wonderful, rich music scene, but part of the reason it does is because we’ve had independent promoters forever putting on shows. The perfect example [is] Jam, who of course can do this dealing at a multi-million-dollar level, but Jam started as two guys working out of an apartment. We don’t want to have the next Jam never exist because it’s too hard to run a promotion business in Chicago.”

That prospect elicits a particularly passionate response from Ben Garvey, also known DJ N Visible, who not only performs around town, but occasionally hosts multi-artist bills. Without minimizing the importance of safety, he feels the ordinance will cripple burgeoning promoters. They simply can’t assume extra fees because the events they’re staging are on a much smaller scale than a major-club or arena show.

“The first thing I think everybody is going to do is try to find a loophole,” he foreshadows. “If you have to start billing a concert as a non-for-profit function and make a donation to a good cause to save money on the insurance, that’s what people will start doing.”

Even with these potential requirements looming over the heads of indie promoters, the ordinance is still in the revision stages and, as Schulter’s office said, the city’s still meeting with various parties, most visibly the Chicago Music Commission. In fact, Natkin notes Alderman Schulter is actually a friendly guy who’s willing to listen and has thus far included a handful of suggestions. “They’re not big changes, but we’ve had some really good discussions and I think we might be getting somewhere,” he confirms. “We do live in a democracy, so let’s respond as citizens.”

Phil Kosch, Double Door’s talent buyer, and most everyone interviewed for this piece agree. “Contact your alderman and the city, letting them know how much it will hurt the live music scene in Chicago and how it helps influence you to live in this city,” adds Kosch. “Talk to the venues you frequent and ask their staff how you can help. The music business is already hurting I don’t see why such a great city would want to hurt it more. Live music has helped bring the city a diverse culture, money, and a wonderful atmosphere. Let’s try to keep that going.”

Despite the many emotions this situation has ignited within all parties, Iglauer urges keeping a level head. He’s quick to point out safety is the city’s priority, though he hopes the City Council will truly take the music community’s perspective to heart before passing the ordinance as it reads right now. “I don’t think anyone’s rubbing their hands together asking ‘How can we put small promoters out of business?,’ but rather ‘How can we make the public safe and look ahead and prevent problems at live events that could endanger the public?’ So the heart is in right place, the problem is that the city committees don’t understand the way the promoter business works and they haven’t yet taken the time to do some exploring of that business and understand better how it’s structured and therefore be responsive to the real business.

“I don’t want somebody to think the city’s out there to screw the promoters,” he continues. “The city’s out there to protect the public and that’s good. It’s a question of protecting the public at the same time that you don’t make it difficult for great live music events to occur in this city.”

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Andy Argyrakis

Category: Features, Monthly

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