Maura Walsh raised $37,000 in 2020 for local music venues with Our Tiny Guide to Chicago's Best Music Culture Spots, and she's since collaborated with CIVL on fundraising merchandise. Credit: Courtesy Maura Walsh

Next to its emerald-green door, the Hideout has hung a somber sign that reads, “Sorry . . . we are closed.” For more than a year now, the beloved Chicago venue has been empty of its intimate live shows. Streaming events filmed on its stage, broadcast via Twitch and more recently NoonChorus, have been the only way for audiences to experience the club’s familiar confines. Today, its owners continue to struggle to find the money to stay in business long enough to reopen in some capacity.

After an interminable year, live music is inching its way back into independent venues across the city, and fans are itching for the concert experiences they remember. The Hideout has kept showgoers engaged during the pandemic not just with streams but also with low-capacity outdoor gigs, weather permitting—and many other venues have taken a similar approach. They’re also selling merchandise, applying for grants, and taking part in grassroots fundraising collaborations.

Vaccinations continue to roll out, and in late April the city loosened its Phase 4 COVID guidelines. This is far from a return to normal, though—large indoor venues without fixed seating are still restricted to 250 people or 25 percent of capacity, whichever is less, and smaller venues can admit no more than 50 people. Some venues are planning to reopen fully within the next few months, but for now, the Hideout continues to sit empty, across the street from a baseball field with a Save Our Stages banner blowing from rusty outdoor lights.

Without live shows to provide revenue, venue owners, employees, and musicians have all had to hustle day in and day out simply to pay rent. After months of delays (and fervent lobbying by the National Independent Venue Association), the Save Our Stages Act passed Congress in December 2020 as part of a $900 billion stimulus bill, and it’s supposed to provide around $16 billion to struggling independent music venues, theaters, museums, and movie theaters. But months later, Chicago venues have yet to see any of that federal funding.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, as Save Our Stages is more formally known, offers a glimmer of hope in the form of that $16 billion in aid, available through the Small Business Administration. Eligible applicants may qualify for grants equal to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue pre-pandemic, capped at $10 million per venue. Of the program’s $16 billion in funds, $2 billion is reserved for the smallest venues, with 50 or fewer full-time employees.

But when applications opened on April 8, the online portal crashed the same day due to problems with the site. The portal reopened on Monday, April 26, and though it hasn’t crashed again, it’s still unclear when eligible applicants will get the money.

Robert Gomez, owner of Subterranean and Beat Kitchen and cochair of the Chicago Independent Venue League (which represents more than 40 local venues), reminds the SBA that his entire industry ground to a halt last year—and that support has to include timely action to be meaningful.

“Chicago’s independent music venues, along with venues across the country, acted responsibly by closing their doors during the pandemic,” he says. “We are counting on the SBA as the consequences for our businesses become more dire each day.”

Katie Tuten, co-owner of the Hideout and cochair of CIVL, notes that the crisis will not end when the grants finally come through. She says some independent venues have been stretched so thin that they’re on the verge of closing forever, and that SVO money will only allow them to take baby steps—it will still be a while till they can get back on their feet and run again.

Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten speaks at a CIVL meeting in November 2018.Credit: Kris Lori for Chicago Reader

Because CIVL, unlike NIVA, had formed well before the pandemic struck, it could immediately begin advocating for funding in order to keep the city’s music and arts community alive. With federal assistance still insufficient or delayed, Chicago’s independent venues and artists have stepped up to help one another.

In November 2020, CIVL launched its SAVE Emergency Relief Fund (powered by the Giving Back Fund) to help furloughed staff, performers, and venues, and in March it opened up the first round of applications for grants. The funds come from CIVL merchandise sales, proceeds from the CIVLization online music series, and other fundraising partnerships—including the benefit compilations Situation Chicago and Situation Chicago 2, both of which were recorded, produced, and pressed entirely by Chicagoans. The first application period for SAVE grants closed on March 28, and CIVL expects to disburse the money (earmarked for venue employees) by the end of May. The second window for applications, open to artists and venue owners, will arrive this summer.

The first Situation Chicago, which included 25 tracks by local artists, came out last summer and benefited 25 independent venues. The project’s mastermind, Trey Elder, says it raised around $35,000, which was split evenly among them. Elder didn’t initially plan to release a second album, but after so many more months of hardship for the city’s music ecosystem, it felt like a natural step.

Situation Chicago 2 features ten Chicago artists, and the vinyl edition will come out at some point before Record Store Day on June 12. The digital version, which costs $15, adds four bonus tracks and will be available May 21. The basic LP goes for $25, but Elder is also offering several increasingly elaborate editions for big givers, priced at $33, $100, $300, and $500. Proceeds go toward the SAVE Emergency Relief Fund until all physical copies are gone.

“It’s a labor of love,” Elder says.

The second compilation will primarily support local artists in need of financial assistance, not venues. Live shows are a main source of income for many musicians; when the pandemic hit, Vivian McConnell, who performs and records as V.V. Lightbody, took a short hiatus and then began teaching in order to bring in enough money to get by.

Last month McConnell released the single “Really Do Care,” and it also appears on Situation Chicago 2. Like many artists, she’s desperate to get back to playing shows, but says she won’t be comfortable until she knows venues are taking the right precautions.

“That’s why venues need help right now, because I’m sure they don’t know the answer either to how to properly reopen,” McConnell says. “Even though the Save Our Stages Act passed, when thinking about how to keep venues safe, it’s going to cost a lot more to operate a venue. The support is so needed.”

Venue owners need revenue in order to reopen and stay in business, but if they put the safety of their staff and customers first, they’ll have a rough time bringing in as much money as they did in the Before Times. The city hasn’t provided specific guidelines to ensure COVID safety, but whatever measures a venue takes, they’re unlikely to be free—and ongoing capacity restrictions will mean fewer ticket sales and fewer drinks sold. Owners are left to determine what works best for them: Requiring guests to show vaccination cards? Installing new infrastructure to ensure social distancing? Waiting longer before opening at all?

Sean Mulroney, founder and co-owner of Wicker Park’s defunct Double Door, is reopening the venue in a new Uptown location later this year. He says he’s fortunate to be opening a club this late in the pandemic, because he knows up front to install a serious HVAC system and other safety features—a simpler task than retrofitting an existing venue.

Venue owners and artists both want concerts to return this year, but it has to be done right. Brian McSweeney, who appears on Situation Chicago 2 as part of the band Miirrors, has used the pandemic to spend time getting intimate with his writing and recording processes, but he says there’s no replacement for the way it feels to attend or perform a show.

“Live music is such a part of life,” he says. “Walking into a venue . . . these are sacred spaces. You go into a venue to engage with a different part of yourself. It’s like a circus—you go to experience wonder.”

Post-pandemic, it’s hard to say what that wonder will look like.

Gomez says the difficulty of social distancing at live shows comes from venues’ need to operate at full capacity—not just to be profitable, but also to give fans the experience they want.

Anthony Gravino, mastering engineer for both editions of Situation Chicago, says the arts community has often been overlooked when it comes to federal COVID relief, as if it exists in a vacuum. But artists can’t create when they’re worrying about how they’ll pay rent, and venues can’t operate when they can’t pay their employees.

Tuten speaks for many owners when she says that she wants nothing more than to see venues reopen—but that they need more support and attention to do so. “Chicago’s cultural lifeblood is recognized around the world,” she says. “It includes thousands of jobs and billions of dollars every year to our economy. Chicago can’t truly reopen, with a vibrant culture and economy, until people can safely enjoy live music and dance again.”

Fess Grandiose, a producer and DJ featured on Situation Chicago 2, had big plans for 2020, which he says all “fell apart.” He’s made the most of the past year, lining up streaming gigs through Reverb and Cafe Mustache, but he still lost the great majority of the income he’d been receiving from performing live. Like so many other artists, he’s been forced to earn money other ways to make it through.

With the uncertainty of the pandemic still hanging over everyone’s heads, Grandiose says that even if venues reopened fully right now, he wouldn’t feel ready to get back to performing live sets.

“I am looking forward to rebuilding the music community when everything is back to normal,” he explains. “This compilation album is a foundational step toward that rebuild.”

Grandiose hopes fans don’t take the Situation Chicago compilations (or any other grassroots initiatives to help venues and artists) for granted. Some of the musicians on the new record, such as Neptune’s Core—a young indie-rock band consisting of two sets of sisters, whose parents met at Schubas—quite literally wouldn’t be here without Chicago’s venues.

Billy Helmkamp, co-owner of the Whistler and Sleeping Village, and Trey Elder, who put together the two Situation Chicago compilationsCredit: Courtesy Billy Helmkamp / Trey Elder photo by Joseph Mietus

CIVL board member Billy Helmkamp, who co-owns the Whistler and Sleeping Village, says that as the city’s COVID restrictions ease and the disbursement of SVO grants grows closer, there’s more on the line than the success or failure of music venues. Many of their owners (to say nothing of their staff) are on the edge of burnout and collapse.

“We’re in this on a personal level,” Helmkamp says. “The Shuttered Venue Operators Grants are some venue owners’ last chance for survival.”  v