Ask any touring musician, artists manager or booking agent about their favorite cities to play, and Chicago is certain to rank near the top of the list, thanks to enthusiastic, adventurous and loyal audiences and some of the most renowned venues anywhere in the world.
Now, after several trying years when live music seemed to be under constant assault, the Windy City is welcoming two new clubs that could change business as usual on the local scene.
Chicago has never been an easy place to promote live music, but officials began making it even more difficult after a deadly stampede at the E2 dance club in 2003. Clubs started to receive intense and sometimes unwarranted scrutiny from city inspectors, and the licensing process for new venues went from being merely difficult to becoming almost impossible.
Since Lounge Ax closed its doors in January 2000, the city really hasnt had a club where the social scene at the bar is as much of a draw as the acts onstage. And since the Fireside Bowl stopped hosting regular shows in 2004, there hasnt been a dedicated home for all-ages crowds more interested in dancing and listening to aggressive music than in drinking and hooking up.
The Bottom Lounge, set to reopen later this month in a new location at 1375 W. Lake St., hopes to fill the hole left by Lounge Ax, serving as Chicagos favorite rock n roll bar as well as a prime showcase for up-and-coming artists. And Reggies New Rock Headquarters, which opened several months ago at 2109 S. State St., has finally replaced the Fireside by hosting all-ages punk, metal and hip-hop shows in an impressive facility that also houses a smaller cabaret stage, a clothing boutique and a record store.
Im pretty amazed: Ive never really had a venue that was built for what I do — Ive always kind of squeezed into one room or another — but now I have two places, and thats really exciting, said Brian Peterson, the 38-year-old founder of Chicagos MP Productions, whose four full-time employees book and promote shows at both Reggies and the Bottom Lounge.
Sure, the competition [with other Chicago clubs] is going to be stressful. But at the same time, its a lot less pressure, because Im not having to deal with the logistics of a place thats not made for shows or a staff that isnt supportive of what I do. With Reggies, the staff and the owner are great, and the Bottom Lounge is the same way. Theyre making it easy.
IT STARTED WITH THE FIRESIDE
Peterson first made his mark by booking local and touring bands at the Fireside, the dilapidated bowling alley at 2648 W. Fullerton that served as the center of the citys punk scene through much of the90s, and which introduced a new generation of fans under 21 to the joys of experiencing live music at an age when they were denied entry to most rock clubs and all bars.
The end of the Fireside was bittersweet, but it had served its purpose, and I felt like it was done for some time before it actually ended, Peterson said. Threatened with seizure by eminent domain to make way for a new park facility, the Fireside dodged that bullet only to meet its end as a music club when the owners chose to renovate the alleys and focus on the bowling.
Peterson went on to book occasional shows at established venues such as Metro, the Empty Bottle, House of Blues and the Beat Kitchen, none of which rewarded his devotion to breaking new acts. Things seemed to be going best at the old Bottom Lounge at 3206 N. Wilton, until the CTA seized that property under eminent domain in early 2005 in order to expand the El station at Belmont and Sheffield.
The city was supposed to help with the timely relocation of the club, which had opened as Lakeview Links in 1991. But the process dragged on and on, eventually stretching to more than three years. During the wait, owners Brian Elmiger and Dan Miskowicz found a new partner in Mike Miller, a music fan who honed his skills as a gregarious host during 15 years spent running Delilahs, the endearingly grungy punk-rock bar at 2771 N. Lincoln.
I always used to go up to Mike whenever he came to the Fireside and ask him when he was going to open a club, Peterson recalled. I think having him involved in the new Bottom Lounge is really exciting because we will actually have somebody whos really going to pay attention to drink prices, the quality of the drinks, the quality of the food and the skill of the staff, in addition to the music.
Indeed, Miller said his vision for the new Bottom Lounge is to combine the best aspects of Delilahs with those of first-class concert venues such as Metro and the House of Blues.
What I keep saying to my partners is, first of all, its got to be a great bar — it cant be a great club if its not a great bar first, Miller said. Number two, its got to be fun in and of itself: Regardless of whos playing or what else is going on, its got to be a fun place to go.
Miller and his partners spared no expense when installing lighting and sound for the main room, which is expected to accommodate between 500 and 700 people. (Final capacity and the opening date wont be set until the last round of city inspections, scheduled for later this week.) In addition to the main stage for major local and national acts, the converted taxi repair shop in West Town also will house a bar and restaurant open every night and accessible without a cover charge, and a Tiki bar and smaller club space dubbed the Volcano Room with a roof deck and capacity for about 200 people listening to smaller garage and rockabilly bands.
The size of the main room and the kind of acts Peterson expects to book have already marked the Bottom Lounge as a serious competitor on the local scene, positioned in between smaller clubs such as the Empty Bottle (capacity 400), Subterranean (400) and the Abbey Pub (550) and larger venues such as Metro (1,100) and the House of Blues (1,300).
Am I worried about competition? Im always worried about competition, said Bruce Finkelman, who owns the Empty Bottle and also books the Logan Square Auditorium (capacity 700). The club industry is very much like any other market out there: Its supply and demand. If theres enough demand, everybody wins. If theres not, somebodys got to loose, because were all sharing the same group of people. And you have to look at the other things happening in club land: Youve got the city playing a role in if you survive or not, and you have George Bush saying were not in a recession, even though the dollar is getting really, really tight.
Though he recently suffered the defection of longtime talent booker Sean McDonough to Live Nation in New York, Metro owner Joe Shanahan said he is confident in the ability of his Wrigleyville club to compete with any challenger. Metros independent spirit still burns hot inside me, and I think there will always be a wave of young artists or emerging artists — whether its locally, regionally or nationally — who are going to find their way to my stage. Theyll want to play here because we have a tradition, were part of a heritage, and good luck to Mike and the Bottom Lounge, but its not 25 years old.
FILLING A UNIQUE NICHE
Competition between existing clubs and Reggies will probably be less intense: That new venue is smaller (capacity in the main room is between 300 and 400), it fills a unique niche as an all-ages club and its based in the cultural no mans land of the South Loop. Owner Robert Glick said he chose the location in a former body shop across from the Hilliard Homes because hes lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, though he established himself on the local music scene during 20 years spent owning and running Record Breakers in suburban Hoffman Estates.
We had free shows in the store every Sunday, and it got to the point where bands were calling us from [the] Epitaph and Fat [record labels] saying, Were playing the Metro and wed love to do a gig at your place, too, because weve heard good things about it, Glick said. We figured that if we got the right bands in here — especially with Brian from MP booking for us — we could move the record store into the city, start a successful club and expand on the little niche that we started to carve out for ourselves in the burbs.
Many rock clubs shun all-ages shows because the license is notoriously difficult to secure and because revenue from the bar often represents more income than the clubs share of the ticket charge. Reggies hopes to replace the money from liquor by selling food, clothing, posters and recordings in the other parts of its sprawling, 4,000-square-foot space.
Like the Bottom Lounge, the city approval process for Reggies took much longer than Glick had anticipated, dragging on for two years. But when he finally opened late last year, the owner had done a first-rate job creating a clean, comfortable but charmingly funky space, complete with artists dressing rooms outfitted with showers and a washer and drier, the better to make touring bands used to living in the van feel welcome and at home.
Its still a little confusing to people: Is it a record store or a club or a bar or what? Glick said. But after coming here a couple of times, they figure it out, and a lot of people and bands are saying they love it. Obviously, there is some competition with other clubs: Black Mountain was a band we really, really wanted to book, and we lost them to the Bottle. But I think Chicago is big enough that it can handle a few clubs, especially if there are more places like the new Bottom Lounge or this place — places that arent corporate and that dont feel sterile.
WHATS IN STORE: RISING PRICES OR BETTER CONCERTS?
Club owners are divided about what the aggressive emergence of two new venues will mean for Chicago concertgoers. Some said that when Sean Duffy began booking the Abbey Pub several years ago, trying to establish the Northwest Side bar as a viable venue, the average ticket price jumped by $3 as bands began pitting clubs against one another and bidding up their prices.
Everyones got their f—ing theory, Duffy said. Its a business: The bands want more money, and theres inflation. The way I see it, a lot of other clubs were just fat and comfortable, and I came in and stole everything for a couple of years. I love competition — I love watching everybody squirm and twist in the wind. Dude, its the music business! Were not saving lives; were not changing the world! Were just providing entertainment, and it ebbs and flows.
The rising cost of gas is already contributing to ticket prices climbing even higher, and the competition from Reggies and the Bottom Lounge may only add to the jump. But as Miller sees it, the quality of the new facilities will put new focus on the concert experience and exactly how much value customers are getting for their money at whatever venues they patronize.
My customers are going to know that if the show is at Bottom Lounge, theyre going to have a good time. In my mind, Im not really competing; Im trying to create a better product. Maybe the other guys are a little anxious because theyre not delivering the best product, and they know that if I can successfully apply Delilahs to the Bottom Lounge, theyre all f—ed! The bands are going to rather play here, the fans are going to rather come here, and staff is going to rather work here. What are the other guys going to do? Theyre just going to have to start trying harder.