Billy Helmkamp, 43, co-owns the Whistler (which he opened in 2008 with Rob Brenner) and Sleeping Village (opened in 2018 with Brenner and former Whistler bartender Eric Henry). He’s been a major player in the Logan Square Arts Festival for most of its history and serves on the board of I Am Logan Square, the nonprofit that organizes it. (If this summer’s fest happens, it’ll be as smaller events, on a scale deemed safe by public-health authorities.) Helmkamp is also on the board of directors at the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), founded in 2018, and wears two hats at the brand-new National Independent Venue Association (NIVA): he’s one of two Illinois precinct captains and sits on the national lobbying committee.
As told to Philip Montoro
We took a bit of a funny path with the Whistler. I lived in New York from ’97 till basically Christmas 2001, and one of my first and closest friends out there was my now partner at the Whistler and Sleeping Village, Rob Brenner. He came out to Chicago a couple years before I did. I worked in television, postproduction; he worked in commercial photography. And on the side we’d book and produce concerts, we’d shoot music videos, we’d make concert posters.
Eventually he moved into the building that the Whistler’s in. That was 2005, about three years before the Whistler actually opened. We had a long list of things we wanted to do in that space—artists’ studios, a recording studio, a record store. They all revolved around being able to throw shows at night. Really, we thought it was just gonna be an all-ages music venue, and we put together a business plan and quickly realized we’d be out of business before we ever started if we didn’t sell beer or drinks.
Neither of us had any bar experience, but Tim and Katie Tuten from the Hideout were extremely helpful. I came to them with more dumb questions than I can remember, and they were just happy to answer them every time.
The Chicago Independent Venue League started with a call from Katie: “Hey, can you come by the Hideout? I’ve gotta talk to you about something.” She filled me in on what we were looking at with the Lincoln Yards development, and what we were hearing Live Nation’s role in that was going to be.
When it became obvious what all of us were looking at with coronavirus and mandated shutdowns, Katie and I were talking to Rev. Moose from [New York music-marketing firm] Marauder, who was heading up Independent Venue Week. “Hey, we already have this organization in Chicago that represents a number of independent venues. You’ve got this huge mailing list, you’ve got organizational skills—we really need to start connecting all of these venues.”
Within the next week, we hear from them: “Hey, we’re forming the National Independent Venue Association. We have five committees: we’ve got governance, funding, research, lobbying, and marketing. We’ve got committee heads, we have a board of directors. We are gonna start getting venues to sign up for this, and we really need to go to D.C. for help.”
Because this is gonna devastate our industry. We were the first to close; we’re gonna be the last to reopen. And when we’re allowed to reopen, we’re gonna be doing so at a very diminished capacity. The writing’s on the wall—a lot of venues aren’t gonna make it through this.
When the CIVL members came on board, there were 30-something venues in NIVA. And at this point we’re looking at over 1,200 venues. I’m on the lobbying committee, which is being led by Dayna Frank, the CEO of First Avenue up in Minneapolis. And she is just a powerhouse. I’m on the board of directors for CIVL; for NIVA, another guy named Chris Bauman and I are co-precinct captains for Illinois and overseeing the midwest lobbying efforts.
The average person thinks venues are making money hand over fist, but our profit margins are pretty razor-thin. So we’re talking to our landlord about pausing rent. We have monthly expenses with our POS system provider, our ice-machine company, our glass-washer rental company—these are all people we’re reaching out to and getting our services either paused or reduced.
Right now NIVA has a very narrow focus. We’re really trying to reach the big four in Congress—Pelosi, McConnell, McCarthy, and Schumer—and we’re all obviously reaching out to other elected officials that represent us. But we need revisions to the PPP loan program. We’re looking to increase the loan cap to at least eight times the monthly average cost of all the qualified uses of the loan. Currently it’s only 2.5 months. We’re looking for a little bit more flexibility for loan forgiveness—PPP funds aren’t gonna do any good for covering rent because it needs to be 75 percent toward payroll, at least for any kind of forgivable portion. And we want to be able to extend that program until we can resume normal operations. A lot of venues, just due to the nature of how booking works and tour routing and promotion works, they’re not gonna be going again for another six to nine months after they get the OK. A 1,000-cap room can’t book a show for tomorrow.
We’re asking the government—you need to put more money toward increased testing and contact tracing and treatment and a vaccine. Because none of us think we’re gonna be back to business as usual until there’s a vaccine.
We need to make more noise. We’re important culturally and economically, and we need to remind our representatives about those two facts. NIVA has a section on their website where we outline what the public can do to help raise awareness. If people go to nivassoc.org, there’s a “take action” section. Beyond that, buy your favorite band’s record. Buy their merch, get a shirt, get a hoodie. Musicians aren’t making their living right now.
Katie pointed out that we keep saying, “We’ve got our hand up right now, not our hand out.” If you wanna look at how important venues are, look at our GoFundMe campaigns. She said that just between the Chicago venues, last she checked they’d raised over $300,000 for staff.
We’ve seen some testimonials of people who got Chicago Resiliency funds and PPP funds, who were like, “Oh, thank God I got this—my revenue’s down 20 percent because of this crisis!” And we’re all sitting here, like, “Twenty percent is just a bad month! Lose 100 percent.” v