Nederlander in Chicago: They Came, They Saw, They Left

Eight months ago, the Nederlander Group blew into Chicago from its Poplar Creek redoubt in Hoffman Estates. Mark Campana, the company’s man in the midwest, announced that the organization, one of the largest concert promoters in the country, would thenceforth be putting the full-court press on Jam Productions: “We plan to work the China Club, the Chicago Theatre, the Arie Crown, the Rosemont, and whatever else becomes available,” he said. Noting that Jam’s World Music Theatre was a decided challenge to Nederlander’s Poplar Creek, Campana said that the company would in return start doing smaller shows, with an eye to creating a vertical booking structure like Jam’s. The company’s starting point would be the 1,000-capacity concert room of the China Club, the enormous west Loop dance club.

That’s all well and good–save for the fact that a Nederlander Santana concert at the Arie Crown Theatre in October turned out to be the sole non-China Club Chicago concert that the massive entertainment company was able to muster. Its agreement with the China Club fell apart, too, and with it the club’s plans for an “urban Ravinia” outdoor concert venue for 2,000 people that Nederlander was going to fill with national touring acts. The final indignity: a squeeze put on by Jam was affecting even the shows done by the China Club’s own booker, Michael Yerke. Rumor was that the venue would stop doing live shows altogether, but now it has decided to continue, though in a circumscribed way.

“Jam was on me constantly,” says the frank and open Yerke. “It almost came to the point where we couldn’t get anything! Nederlander finally started to realize, ‘Hey, we’re really up against something here.’ I’m like, ‘No shit.'”

The 28-year-old Yerke studied marketing at DePaul and was planning on a career in advertising when his interest in music–he plays in the local band Maybe/Definitely–led to the job of booking the Avalon. He spent two and a half years there, bringing in groups like De La Soul, Primus, Helmet, and Arrested Development. He moved to the China Club last June.

“They really wanted to take on Jam and be very aggressive,” says Yerke of Nederlander. “They thought they were going to be putting on 50 or 60 shows a year. It all sounded great, but it became apparent that the couple of shows we did get were ones where the price started going up and Jam dropped out. There were very few times that we had a home run and got something away from them that they wanted.” Which ones? “Um…”

The China Club is an interesting operation. A counterpart to Yerke, Tony Bitoy, books acts in the club’s dance room: they tend to be bands with national dance or top-40 hits. But those shows are essentially promotional: the dance room’s function is to be packed with people who’ll spend money on drinks. In this context, a room dedicated to live music–which is what Yerke oversees–will strike the conscientious business owner as something of a downer: Fans pay the cover and have a drink or two, sure, but in a couple of hours they leave, and then what do you do? “The music room has a four o’clock license,” notes Yerke. “And after the show was over it would be empty.”

The club broke off its agreement with Nederlander some time ago, but cordially. “There’s no bad blood,” says Yerke. “If they have something they want to do, we’ll do it.” Of late, however, Yerke had a new problem: things had got so bad booking-wise that management was seriously considering dropping live music altogether. This week Yerke got the word: live music would continue. Yerke’s going to shy away from the “risky” shows and concentrate on bringing in large numbers of people. “The Webb Wilder night [last Saturday] was ideal for that room. We had 600 people for him, and then a Q101 live broadcast, a Club X type thing afterwards. We were crowded from 9 to 4.”

Nederlander is left with Poplar Creek and a new agreement to manage Alpine Valley, the shed in East Troy, Wisconsin. The China Club’s plans for a small-scale downtown amphitheater, on empty land directly north of the building, are on hold. The club had originally been collaborating with Jam on the project; last June it obtained a city license for a 2,000-seat open-air hall, to open that summer. Then Nederlander was going to book the venue; now all bets are off. “One of the owners came to me,” Yerke says. “He asked, ‘Would you invest $100,000 of your own money for a venue that Nederlander would book?’ I’m like, no.”

More Venue News

The Elbo Room has cashiered its upstairs restaurant and remodeled: If you’re reading this on Thursday the 27th, you can see booker John Litz–who’s negotiating with some other employees to buy the place–showing off the new interior at a party at 9. While the downstairs has a certain basement feeling due to the low ceiling, it’s intimate and warm; Litz says they’ve put in new light and a new sound system and turned the upstairs into an adjunct to the club (with a pool table and jukebox). Litz says to look forward to some more- adventurous shows from the previously fairly staid operation. Evidence: the noisy brats in Rights of the Accused, playing June 12.