On the evening of February 27 police and representatives from the Department of Revenue and Department of Business Affairs and Licensing walked into the AV-aerie and closed it down. They issued citations for operating without a Public Place of Amusement license and for selling alcohol at retail without a liquor license. Marshall Preheim, the AV-aerie's founder and director, is expected in court March 17.
People have been describing it as a "bust," but the scene wasn't as dramatic as all that. The officials had come to shut the show down, but they weren't responding to a noise complaint. The event was a relatively low-key benefit for the Dill Pickle Food Co-op; Tim Kinsella was onstage playing a solo set when the authorities arrived. DBAL spokesperson Efrat Stein said the complaint that brought the city out had been filed beforehand. "The complaint said that there was a party being advertised taking place in a residential building that was charging an admission fee," she says.
The AV-aerie had been shut down last May for not having a PPA, which the city requires of pretty much any venue that charges for live entertainment. When it reopened in June, Preheim instituted changes he thought would nudge the AV-aerie, which operates as a nonprofit, into a loophole in the PPA regulations—specifically the one that says nonprofits don't need a PPA to collect admission at certain fund-raising events. He posted signs and instructed his staff to consistently refer to door charges and money paid for drinks as "donations."
But the nonprofit loophole only kicks in when the event is smaller than 100 people—and it's supposed to allow for only "temporary" exceptions. Where liquor was concerned, Preheim says he was counting in part on the sort of benign official neglect that lets art galleries serve wine at openings without getting busted.
"I'm a great stickler for language," Preheim says. "People at my door are supposed to greet everyone who comes in with 'Hi, we're asking for a five-dollar donation tonight. Whatever you're comfortable with is great.' Same at the donation bar. If someone comes up for the fourth time I say the exact same thing. They can roll their eyes, but these details are important for exactly this reason."
Language was what brought the city around in May, according to Preheim. He says he's long had "strict rules about any publicity needing to be approved," but a theater company that hadn't vetted its press kit "caused the Sun-Times to refer to us as something like 'an underground alternative theater performance venue. Tickets $15.' Each of those words is a red flag in and of itself, 'tickets' being the head shot."
Publicity is a necessity for underground venues, but it's only helpful in just the right amount. Too little publicity can mean no audience and too much can mean unwanted official attention. At the Reader we try to tailor our listings to each venue's level of wariness: we publish addresses and phone numbers for some unlicensed spaces, substitute a URL or e-mail address for others, and occasionally just stay silent.
The AV-aerie was daringly visible, regularly hosting shows booked by the Empty Bottle that were advertised just like all its other events. This was partly due to Preheim's belief that the venue was square with the city and partly because he was proud of the community of independent artists flourishing under his stewardship.
According to the city, Preheim is looking at fines ranging from $300 to $1,000 for the liquor-license infraction and up to $10,000 for the PPA violation. (Stein doesn't think it'll be that bad: "I'd feel comfortable saying $200.") On the AV-aerie's MySpace blog Preheim says he's been fielding offers of aid "from friends, community members, collaborators past and present and even most hearteningly from select city officials."
Stein says her department is more than willing to help venues get their paperwork in order, but it's an open question whether Preheim will be able to secure the licenses that would've prevented this trouble. Liquor licenses are as hard to come by as the Golden Fleece these days, even for spaces without previous violations. And the AV-aerie may be ineligible for a PPA due to a zoning issue. The space is allegedly too close (fewer than 200 feet) to the West Town Academy, which runs a program for former high school dropouts, but the official measurement still hasn't been made. That's why Preheim was hoping to squeeze through that loophole—though he's trying to get a PPA, he says he couldn't afford to keep the space if he didn't reopen while he waited.
"Nobody in the city is specifically out for AV-aerie," he says. But "I'm sure there are plenty of people who would just as soon there weren't folks like us complicating things by trying to make hard-to-define organizations that don't fit well into predefined categories." What bums him out, he says, is the feeling that the city doesn't value the scene the AV-aerie has nurtured. Preheim isn't a troublemaker and has never tried to hide what he's doing—he's made a real effort to fit into Chicago's regulatory structure.
Of course this is far from the only instance of city codes working at cross purposes with the communities they're supposed to protect, and everyone got a reminder of that just days after the AV-aerie incident: on March 3 the latest version of Chicago's independent-promoter ordinance leaked.
For some reason the mayor has latched onto the idea that requiring independent promoters to be licensed would make nightclubs safer, but as I've written here and on the Reader's Crickets blog, precious little evidence connects that conviction to reality. When the ordinance was first presented to the City Council last spring—I'm not counting the botched 2007 attempt that local arena owners shot down—it provoked so much public outcry that even its chief sponsor, 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, disowned it. But a new draft rolled out in July, and now there's another.
The ordinance is currently before the City Council's Committee on License and Consumer Protection, but no vote has been scheduled yet. It's clear, though, that at least one person in city government thinks with enough tries it'll pass. If that person turns out to be right, the extravagant burdens of complying with the ordinance will depopulate Chicago's nightlife—some promoters will quit and no doubt others will back themselves into legal corners, the same way Preheim has fallen afoul of a different set of licensing requirements. If that person turns out to be right, we'll all have to get used to watching the life drained out of venues that don't fit into predefined categories—not just the AV-aerie but places that rely heavily on independent promoters, like Sonotheque, Ronny's, and even the Abbey Pub. And Chicago will be poorer for it.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.