The nightclub industry is a breeding ground for gossip, and rumors that Sonotheque was closing—its last day was Saturday the 14th—had been floating around for some time before Time Out Chicago Web editor John Dugan confirmed the news in a November 10 blog post. He also reported that the dance-music venue at 1444 W. Chicago was being sold. My Twitter feed was immediately swamped with reaction, and oddly most of the tweets I saw focused on the bare fact of Sonotheque's closure, not on the identities of the new owners. Among them is Paul Devitt, the man behind the Beauty Bar clubs in New York, LA, Vegas, and elsewhere, who's since verified that Sonotheque will become a Chicago outpost of the chain.
His new partners are Bruce Finkelman and Pete Toalson, the Empty Bottle's owner and talent buyer, respectively. The two of them have been presenting shows at Sonotheque for more than five years, and in January 2008 they bought in as managing partners after being approached by original owners Terry Alexander, Joe Bryl, and Donnie Madia—all three of whom sold off their stakes as part of the deal with Devitt.
Finkelman and Toalson met Devitt a couple years ago at South by Southwest—Austin has its own Beauty Bar—and struck up a friendship that so far has segued smoothly into a business partnership. All three have been scoping out potential Beauty Bar locations in Chicago for at least two years, by Devitt's reckoning, including a few in Logan Square. "I came out there and looked at spaces," he says, "but everything fell through. Now finally it's working out."
Toalson says a variety of factors led to the sale, but the biggest was the number of businesses the other owners, specifically Alexander and Madia, had on their plates. They're both among the owners of the Violet Hour, the Publican, and the brand-new Big Star, and independently they're involved in several other ventures; Madia's include Avec and Blackbird, and among Alexander's are Mia Francesca and Danny's. "That particular partnership group were all super, super busy," says Toalson. "Sonotheque was a pretty time-consuming thing for all of us. At one point earlier in the year, as all of us were figuring out how we were going to afford ourselves the time to focus on Sonotheque, Bruce had the idea to contact Paul. We put it to Paul and he was interested."
When the Bottle contingent approached the rest of the owners with the proposal that they sell to Levitt, the idea grew legs. Owners old and new agree that Sonotheque's time was simply up. "I think everything has its shelf life," says Bryl, who also programmed music at the club. "I think when we first started out doing Sonotheque we envisioned it as a listening-lounge type of a place where you could just come in and chill out and listen to beats and grooves, something like a Wax Poetics-slash-Dusty Groove-slash-Straight No Chaser vibe. Then it slowly metamorphosized, intentionally and for other reasons, into a dance club."
"I think it's kind of run its course, to be honest," Devitt says. "The typical life span of a club is two or three years, max. It doesn't have a distinctive personality like Beauty Bar."
I can't agree with Devitt that Sonotheque lacked personality, and I'm not entirely convinced it had run its course. Though the club wasn't perfect—the combination of low lighting, booze, and shallow steps on the dance floor caused more than a couple accidents—it was central to Chicago's dance-culture renaissance of the past decade. During its seven-year run it not only hosted now-world-famous DJs like A-Trak and Diplo but also provided a space for local acts like Flosstradamus and Dark Wave Disco to develop serious followings. And I can say from experience that spinning records in its aquarium-like DJ booth—outfitted with an old-school Rane rotary-dial mixer—was like flying a 1960s vision of a spaceship.
For better or for worse, the glass booth isn't going to survive the upcoming transition. Nor will the rest of Sonotheque's retrofuturist interior. "We're gonna gut it, basically," says Devitt. "We're really going to dissect it." When the space reopens as a Beauty Bar—Devitt guesses early February—it will have a kitschy vintage-beauty-parlor motif similar to those at the other locations.
I find some irony in the mere existence of a national chain of clubs catering to hipsters, who tend to place a premium on uniqueness and authenticity, and it's doubly ironic that such a club will be replacing Sonotheque, which actually was unique to Chicago. But neither Toalson nor Devitt sees it quite that way. Devitt points out that each Beauty Bar is owned independently—though he's part owner of every location, the local investment groups are different. "Typically with a chain you go into a place and it's exactly the same as the other one," he says. "Every Beauty Bar has its own local feel."
From what I've seen, the Beauty Bar in LA is a little nicer than the one in Austin, and they're both swankier than the New York location. But even though they're not branded as strictly as, say, Krispy Kreme or McDonald's franchises, they have something in common besides the theme of their decor: none of them approaches music with the obsessive devotion that Sonotheque did.
That may be where the Empty Bottle folks can make a difference. They'll be booking the talent—Bryl has moved on to the Charleston, where he'll be managing the bar and in charge of the music—and they tend to book a lot of acts I like. According to Toalson the direction of the new club's programming isn't yet settled—he says the schedule might turn out to be more varied than the Bottle's bookings at Sonotheque, which were strictly dance music. On the Beauty Bar's Web site, the events listings for other cities are heavy on DJs who favor indie and retro rock or occasionally electro, but that won't necessarily override the Bottle's own priorities. "We're in the music business ourselves," says Toalson, "and we'll be pretty particular about the programming."
When I ask Bryl if he feels like he and the other original owners did everything they wanted to with Sonotheque, he says, "I have no regrets. We were able to kind of open the environment to more left-wing DJ-driven music in town. A lot of places are doing quite interesting booking now. We opened up different doors and accomplished some things."
But Bryl also thinks the club's success at nurturing dance-music culture in Chicago ended up dooming it as a business. "When we started out seven years ago, the costs of bringing in artists weren't so astronomically high," he says. "We could work with different people because they were a little under the radar. But the burgeoning DJ culture kinda changed the financials a little bit. We tried to keep it on an average of ten dollars per performance. It was hard to do that with what talent was asking for, after a point. DJs have just become of a different stature."
I'm sad to see Sonotheque go. I've had some good times there, and judging by the other Beauty Bar outposts I don't think I'm going to like the Chicago incarnation's version of retro as much as I liked Sonotheque's. But change, as we're often reminded by television commercials and political candidates, can be good. And Devitt is already promising a few things I'd call improvements. "That step thing," he says of the club's treacherous dance floor, "that's all going to come out."