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Sharp Darts: Kill It Again

The latest incarnation of Chicago's independent-promoter ordinance may seem relatively harmless, but there's still no reason to let it pass.

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In summer 2007, when the City Council first proposed licensing for independent event promoters, it didn't expect much public response, and with good reason—word got out only a few days in advance that the council would be meeting to vote on it. But bad news travels fast online, and dozens of angry promoters and local music advocates showed up to testify, unaware that the city had already bowed to pressure from big players like the United Center and withdrawn the ordinance for a rewrite. This spring, when the proposal reared its ugly head again, it provoked a massive, multidemographic opposition movement that included celebrities like Pete Wentz and Kanye West, and the council backed off a second time.

But when the ordinance made its third appearance this summer? Barely a ripple.

In mid-September the Chicago Music Commission, an industry group that describes itself as a "liaison between live performance venues and City agencies in matters of code and license compliance," posted a PDF of the latest draft, dated July 22. A few bloggers spread the word, but there's been no grassroots protest comparable to the one in May.

There are a few possible reasons for this. The current iteration of the law, unlike the previous two, doesn't have a deadline attached—it's still in committee, with no full-council vote scheduled, so it's tough for the opposition to whip up the same sort of do-or-die urgency. And with this version coming just four months after the previous fight, outrage fatigue is probably a factor—to say nothing of the public's current focus on national politics. And on top of that, there's not as much to be outraged about now—after round one, the city carved out huge exemptions to satisfy the big boys, and after round two, it made sure that things like church picnics and bands flyering for their own shows wouldn't fall under the ordinance's umbrella. But though the current version is far less draconian, if anything that should embolden the people fighting it—the city has conceded twice already. Why give up now?

The requirement that independent promoters purchase million-dollar insurance policies had been softened when the ordinance returned last spring, but even the $300,000 policies currently required would be prohibitive. In a September 25 interview with local podcaster Jim Goodrich, Chicago Music Commission interim executive director Paul Natkin says that if the ordinance goes into effect, it'll be the insurance costs that "break all the young promoters in town." The latest version allows venues to add promoters to their own preexisting policies, but Natkin's impression, based on a survey the CMC ran on its Web site, is that only about half Chicago's venues would do that.

Last spring's draft also replaced the flat $2,000 fee for a two-year license with a sliding scale that goes down to $500, but there's still no single-event option for people who don't know if or when they'll be promoting another event. The current version scraps some of the more ridiculous bureaucratic requirements as well—instead of notifying the police in writing seven days in advance for every event, for instance, promoters are now simply obligated to call 911 if they become aware of illegal activity.

But none of these changes addresses the real problems with the ordinance: it isn't necessary, it probably won't do any good, and if it passes it will almost certainly have a chilling effect on the music scene.

The ordinance seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what independent promoters actually do and how they work with venues. No amount of expert testimony seems to have gotten it through the aldermen's heads that the existing venue-licensing system not only requires liability insurance but also addresses safety issues like overcrowding. According to Natkin, the rare venue that simply "hands over the keys" to a promoter instead of running the show with its own staff—supposedly what happened at E2—can already have its license suspended by the city if something goes wrong, especially if there's no contract to shift blame. Meanwhile, the people the ordinance is allegedly targeting—promoters who book events in unsafe or unlicensed venues—aren't going to be fazed by one more law to break.

Instead of wasting time and energy on redundant, counterproductive ordinances like this, the City Council should be trying to partner with and nurture Chicago's music scene. It's not even clear in this case whether many aldermen know exactly who they're trying to regulate—Natkin says Tom Tunney guessed at a meeting this spring that just 100 to 200 promoters would be affected. Natkin estimates that number to be more than 2,000, taking into account not just regular music promoters but also comedy troupes, theater companies, poetry slams, and all the amateurs who might put on just one event. Many other cities, among them live-music hotbeds like Austin, have government music offices to boost their scenes, but in Chicago there's no parallel—instead we have private groups like the CMC, founded in 2005 because so many people involved in the local scene were worried the Daley administration was going to suck the life out of it. Part of the CMC's mandate is to educate city officials about how the music business works and drive home its value, but that mission is obviously a long way from accomplished.

To abandon this ordinance, aldermen would have to say no to a new income stream—and given the budget shortfall facing Chicago, even a meager source of revenue like a promoter-licensing fee must look pretty good. They'd also have to say no to the mayor—the consensus among city-politics junkies, among them the Reader's own Ben Joravsky, is that this law keeps coming back because Daley wants it passed. Given how frequently aldermen do either of those things, we can safely assume that only sustained citizen action has any chance of killing it.

The initial lack of outrage at the third introduction of the ordinance was disheartening, but the opposition is still out there and it's had plenty of time to shore up its arguments. Every week I run a Google search on "Chicago promoter ordinance," and the list of results keeps getting longer. I'm encouraged by the resolve I sense in each new blog post I see, and I hope that if we beat this thing down a third time it will be the last. Even if it turns out this particular battle can't be won, it will have been worth fighting—if we want to persuade the city government to start seeing the Chicago music scene as an asset, not a nuisance, the one thing we can't do is nothing.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

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