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Will the Amusement Tax Get the Ax? / Postscripts

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Will the Amusement Tax Get the Ax?

The short list of people interested in nurturing any local music scene rarely includes politicians--in fact, in Chicago the pols seem too busy fielding complaints about the noise and booze that go hand in hand with live music. Yet last month at a City Council meeting, 43rd Ward alderman Charles Bernardini and 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen introduced legislation designed specifically to help smaller clubs around the city.

Bernardini and Hansen--whose combined turf includes Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park--are proposing an exemption from the city amusement tax for clubs with capacities of 1,100 and less. The 51-year-old tax, which amounts to a cut of the gross take from sporting events, movies, theater, bowling, and pay TV as well as concerts, has increased considerably during this decade. After a long stay at 4 percent, it was hiked to 6 percent in 1993 and then 7 percent in 1995. When Cook County got into the act, levying its own 3 percent amusement tax in February 1997, the total amount skimmed off the top ballooned to 10 percent. For venues presenting cutting-edge rock or nonmainstream styles like jazz and ethnic music, that can mean the difference between breaking even and losing money.

"There's a certain segment of the entertainment industry that just can't compete at the current structure," says Hansen. "We want to make sure that the cultural and economic boom that we're capable of getting here continues."

In 1992 the City Council recognized the cultural and economic contributions of live theater and gave houses with 750 seats or less an exemption like the one Bernardini and Hansen are proposing. "If we're trying to nurture small live theater, wouldn't that also hold true for small live-music venues?" says Bernardini.

Though he is quick to deflect credit, Jam Productions co-owner Arny Granat seems to have been a major player in bringing the issue to this point. He called it to Hansen's attention in late 1996, after trying to book the Broadway musical Rent into the Vic. He'd eventually had to pass on the deal, because on top of the expense of putting on a musical the amusement tax would have broken the camel's back. Granat also contacted Bernardini, whose ward contains quite a few live-music venues. He's met regularly with both men and written letters to club owners across the city, urging them to urge their own aldermen to support the ordinance.

Though the exemption wouldn't have helped in the Rent case, as the Vic seats 1,200, Granat and Jam obviously stand to gain if it passes--they book more than 200 shows a year at 1,100-and-under clubs like Lounge Ax, Park West, Metro, Double Door, Schubas, and Martyrs'. But it would also be a boon to hundreds of establishments with no ties to Jam, including most blues clubs and jazz clubs like Jazz Showcase and the Green Mill.

In smaller clubs, which tend to rely on liquor sales more than ticket sales to cover their operating expenses, more money at the door may translate directly into more money for musicians. Without the amusement tax, Metro and Double Door owner Joe Shanahan says, "I would probably be able to afford three or four more bands a week. I could take more risks and develop more artists."

Julia Adams, co-owner of Lounge Ax, says she could pay more bands closer to what they're worth. "The club makes very little money from the door, if any," she says. "We allow for the tax when we structure deals. When we have to keep a little more of the door to pay our taxes, we have to give bands less money."

And, notes Granat, smaller clubs can't make up the difference by raising ticket prices. "If you have Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones, the ticket can be almost any value," he says, "but if you have acts playing 100 to 400 seats, you can't charge those prices. Nobody gets rich doing small shows. It's not about making money, it's about breaking new acts and trying to exist."

According to Bernardini the proposed legislation will go to the council's finance committee next month. If it's approved there, it will go to a vote by the council later this year.

Postscripts

After its late show this Sunday at Metro, Triple Fast Action will join Veruca Salt and Loud Lucy on the sidelines, the latest casualty of the Billboard-inspired Chicago signing frenzy. While they have their fans, TFA's professional career can best be described as one long stumble. Capitol, which signed the band in 1994, took more than a year to release its completed debut, Broadcaster, and less than a year to let the band out of its contract when the record stiffed. The New York indie Deep Elm released TFA's second album, Cattlemen Don't, to similar critical and popular indifference. The band's second guitarist, Ronnie Schneider, left between tours for Cattlemen, and with drummer Brian St. Clair moving to New York, singer Wes Kidd and bassist Kevin Tihista have finally decided to throw in the towel.

Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire has moved the extended run I wrote about on May 8 from the Ivanhoe to the Mercury Theater. There will be no performance at either venue this week, but the band will play at 8 PM every Friday and Saturday from May 29 through the end of June.

Northwestern University's radio station, WNUR, can be heard live on the Web starting Friday at 4 PM. The address is www.wnur.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.

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