Chicago’s Venues Look to Reopen After a Year of Cancellations
By Laura Herbert and Thomas Peters
When Chicago shut down in March 2020, the staff at Fitzgerald’s Nightclub in Berwyn thought they would use the time to deep clean.
“Looking back, I was probably in denial,” said Adriana Rose, then an employee of Fitzgerald’s and now manager of Golden Dagger (formerly Tonic Room) in Chicago. “Our talent buyer, Donnie Biggins, was in the process of rescheduling shows. We were saying our St. Patrick’s Day celebration was just postponed.”
Jake Schiveria, accounting manager of Lincoln Hall and its sister venue Schubas, was similarly optimistic.
“At first, everybody thought it would just be like a week long thing — like two weeks max,” Schiveria said.
But over a year later, Chicago music venues haven’t opened for live shows.
Despite her initial thought of a speedy bounce-back, for Rose, the signs of a long road ahead were there early on.
“Leading up to the closure I started to notice attendance was dropping quite a bit,” she said. “There was a private event — a private party — we only had about 30% of people show up.”
An analysis of 10 independent music venues throughout Chicago’s North Side, West Side and suburban neighborhoods shows that, comparing scheduled events from April 2019 and April 2020, more than a 96% decrease.
For a venue like Lincoln Hall, that meant going from 22 events in April 2019 to just a single event in April 2020. And Lincoln Hall was lucky — seven of the 10 venues studied were unable to find ways to schedule any type of event that month.
Finding ways to continue to provide live music took both creativity and means. For Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s, their relationship with video production company Audiotree was invaluable.
“We’re in a unique situation with this because we’ve been recording live music for over ten years now,” said Schiveria. “We’d have some bands come into the venue and we would live stream it. We had all the tools to do that and the staff that knew how to do that — to produce a quality video and have a ticketing system and a platform.”
Places without easy access to live-streaming capabilities, like Fitzgerald’s, took different routes to provide live concerts.
“Fitzgerald’s was voted №1 by Chicago Reader for Best Outdoor Venue and Best Drive-in Concert Series,” Rose said. “We did our first stay-at-home truck concert series. Fitzgerald’s bought a truck, they threw a band on the back, drove through your neighborhood, and live-streamed the event. It was a crazy idea.”
The Empty Bottle also found a bit of footing in streaming live shows, with five events taking place in July 2020, some donation-based, others with an “entry” fee. The purchasing of venue merchandise by dedicated patrons has also been helpful for the Empty Bottle.
“It’s been hard to try and compensate for the lack of in-person shows,” Empty Bottle Manager Tim Gurnig said. “Having so many people support us through merchandise purchases have been encouraging.”
Schiveria called the profit margin for live-streamed events “pretty low,” though all of Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s live-streamed shows break even. But without any meaningful way to supplement revenue many venues were waiting on assistance from the federal government in order to survive.
In December, that relief finally came with the passage of the Save Our Stages Act — a $15 billion government assistance package aimed at helping live music venues across the country. Though applications did not open until April 8, 2021.
“It took way too damn long,” Rose said regarding the timing of the aid. “I was surprised it even got passed at all. I was surprised, but obviously thankful for any little bit that we got.”
The rollout for the aid hasn’t been without fault, either.
“Unfortunately when the application went live, the website wasn’t equipped to handle all of the people at the same time,” Schiveria said. “Right now, [Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s] haven’t been able to submit our applications for it.”
“Our staff is definitely going to be tested frequently. And I’m guessing 50% capacity is where we’re going to be at first. We’re not just going to jump 100% back to normal.”
The question on everybody’s minds, of course, is when Chicago venues will start scheduling live, in-person shows again.
Fitzgerald’s finally reopened to the public on March 31, 2021, indoors for the bar and outdoors for concerts.
“We technically could be doing indoor shows right now,” Rose said, then added, “but we’re not. We’re keeping everything outside and we’re going to be doing that through this summer season.”
Golden Dagger opened on April 21, 2021, and Rose said they’ll be sticking to live streamed shows for the time being.
Larger venues without outdoor space such as Lincoln Hall are erring on the side of caution. Per Schiveria, “we have something booked for November. Our aim is for the winter.”
This aim is just after what is historically one of Lincoln Hall’s most booked months: October. In 2018, Lincoln Hall held 22 events in October, making up nearly 12% of total shows that year. In October 2019, they averaged almost one show per night with 27 events.
Once doors do reopen though, the demand is there, that is, if Fitzgerald’s is a good indicator.
“We’ve had a great turnout every night,” Rose said. “Reservations are booked for the next six to eight weeks.”