This weekend the first Hawk Winter Music Festival presents 70-something acts at 11 venues. At first glance it’s hard to tell what separates the fest from any other three days of music in Chicago–the bulk of the shows were booked months ago and only corralled under the festival’s banner in the past few weeks. But the Hawk does have a theme: it’s a coming-out party for the League of Chicago Music Venues, an association of local club owners and operators that so far represents Buddy Guy’s Legends, the Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the Hideout, the HotHouse, House of Blues, Martyrs’, Metro, Park West, Schubas, and Uncommon Ground.

“We’ve been talking about doing a signature event for a while,” says Metro owner Joe Shanahan. “And that was based on a conversation we had with Mayor Daley’s office. They felt that a live music association was a good thing, and the city was interested in seeing what would happen. We’re creating a dialogue with the city of Chicago, showing them that responsible business owners, responsible license holders, and responsible music presenters are involved in this.”

The League of Chicago Music Venues owes its existence in part to the E2 nightclub disaster in February 2003 and the Great White club fire in Rhode Island later that month. City officials responded by toughening their enforcement of capacity regulations and licensing requirements, putting particular pressure on smaller venues. In May 2003 the city temporarily shut down the HotHouse because it didn’t have the proper license, and in February 2004 inspectors pulled the plug on a Martyrs’ show by Ojos de Brujo–sponsored by the city’s own Department of Cultural Affairs–because of overcrowding.

During this time several club operators and promoters–including Shanahan, Martyrs’ owners Ray Quinn and Kate Hill, Nick Miller from Jam Productions, and Marguerite Horberg, director of the nonprofit HotHouse–started holding semiregular meetings to discuss the problems they shared. But in April 2005, before a formal organization could develop from those talks, they became moot with the launch of the Chicago Music Commission–a group of music-industry professionals that included venue operators, artists, label heads, and studio owners. Hill was on the CMC’s original board of directors, which also included Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, photographer Paul Natkin, and entertainment attorney Walter Dale, and at least in theory the commission represented everyone who ran a club in town. It patterned itself after groups like the League of Chicago Theatres and the state-funded Texas Music Office, which publishes an exhaustive industry directory each year and has tackled issues like affordable health insurance for musicians. The CMC’s mission statement describes it as an information clearinghouse, a networking center, and a “liaison between live performance venues and City agencies in matters of code and license compliance.”

Last spring the CMC’s board met with Sheila O’Grady, Mayor Daley’s chief of staff–who suggested, among other things, that the group launch a music festival and form a subcommittee of venue owners and operators that would meet with her and various city commissioners. Hill undertook the task of assembling the subcommittee–but as it turned out, it wouldn’t be part of the CMC. “We basically stopped hearing from her,” says one high-ranking CMC member. “The venue committee decided to go out on their own, and that’s what became the League of Chicago Music Venues.” Hill resigned from the CMC board with a one-line e-mail.

“They’re very into the idea that the only people who can speak for venues are venues themselves,” says Natkin, the CMC’s executive director. “I have the exact opposite thought. . . . For somebody to be an effective liaison they should not be so invested, but have a little distance.” He adds that the CMC has no intention to abandon its efforts to mediate between venues and the city. “Our job is to help every member of the Chicago music community that needs help,” he says.

Hill insists that venue owners will benefit from having their own organization–one that isn’t spread so thin. “It’s kind of like we’re the restaurant association, while the Chicago Music Commission was more like a chamber of commerce,” she says. “The business aspect is very specific to music venues, and we just felt that it would serve us better if we worked with each other rather than in a huge group.”

The recent passage of Chicago’s smoking ban, which Quinn says happened without any input from the members of the LCMV, persuaded them that they needed some way to make sure their common concerns would be taken into account in city politics. The Hawk Winter Music Festival is the league’s first step in that direction, an attempt to legitimize itself in the public eye. Organizers have pitched the fest as celebrating Chicago’s music scene and “promoting venue safety and security,” but Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten says, “We really decided, let’s just put together an event to see if we can all work together. . . . It’s kind of like deciding in order to get your house clean you’re going to throw a party and that will force you to get your act together.”

The fest does look hastily assembled, and not just in its lineup. A $20 pass is good for all the Hawk shows you can get to on Sunday, but on Friday and Saturday admission is concert by concert. There are several sponsors, the Reader among them, but no plans to include concertgoers in the league’s mission–not even an electronic mailing list they can sign up for to show their interest and support.

Plus, as Natkin from the CMC points out, “Eleven venues is a pretty small number. We’ve identified 260 venues in Chicago . . . from United Center to the corner bar that does open mike on a Tuesday night.” The league’s membership lacks diversity–only the HotHouse, Buddy Guy’s Legends, and Uncommon Ground couldn’t qualify as rock venues, and places that do hip-hop and club music are particularly poorly represented.

Hill says this will change as the LCMV finds its footing, and adds that the Abbey Pub–which hosts big-ticket hip-hop shows several times a month–is interested in joining. “Eventually we’d like it to be citywide and with everyone involved. But we’re still kind of forming the agenda and ideas now,” she says. “It’s not that we want it to be limited, but we just all agreed for the first year it would be better to start something small and know it would succeed.”

Much of the legwork for the Hawk festival has been handled by employees of the Metro, HotHouse, and Martyrs’–the league hasn’t established an official division of labor or even a governing board. Tuten acknowledges that it hasn’t decided what comes after the fest. But if the fest’s goal is simply to announce that the league exists, as Shanahan suggests, then step two might be just to wait for a reply.

“Ultimately, when it comes to live music, us being part of a cultural fabric of the city of Chicago, there is a voice here, and a voice that needs to be heard,” he says. “We hope to see the day where the city would call us and ask our opinion if there’s ever an issue that’s going to impact licensed music venues. We’ve got history, we’ve got experience–why not have a dialogue?”

For the complete schedule of the Hawk Winter Music Festival, see the sidebar on page 36.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Westenberg.