Critics: Licensing proposal would quash local music

Chicago-based Latin jazz ensemble Picante often plays  coffee houses and small venues in the city, splitting $100 in tips among eight musicians on a good night.

If the Chicago City Council passes an ordinance tomorrow requiring event promoters, including bands and some non-profit groups, to spend $500 or more for a license, Picante probably won't be able to afford it, says group leader Rudy Membiela.

"We're not a rich band that can afford a manager, promoter, road crew," says Membiela. "it's going to choke [us]."

The proposed law would require anyone who promotes an event drawing more than 100 people to get a two-year license at a cost ranging from $500 to $2000, get fingerprinted, and secure $300,000 worth of general liability insurance. They must also notify their local police commander of the upcoming event.

Officials say the proposal is a step toward avoiding tragedies like the 2003 stampede at E2 nightclub, which resulted in 21 deaths and dozens of injuries.

But critics of the measure worry that it will crimp the creativity of Chicago's burgeoning music scene by squeezing independent promoters. Small organizations and businesses suggest that it may put a dent in fundraising efforts.

Paul Natkin, executive director of the Chicago Music Commission, says that this will impose unnecessary costs on independent promoters and musicians.

He says that licensed venues accept the risk and regulate conditions closely when they contract with independent promoters, who often operate on small profit margins.

"Most music venues in Chicago are fully licensed and regulated already," says Natkin. "Do we already need another layer of licensing on top of what's already perfectly safe and well-run venues?"

He added that the measure will impact the people who do one or two events a year the most.

"It's the guys in a band that do a concert to help out a guy who's been in a car accident that will be affected," says Natkin. "People are doing benefits for Burma. They'll get four bands together in a club and write a check for the Red Cross."

The problem with E2, he says, is that the city didn't follow up when it noticed violations.

Under the measure, promoters working with venues that have a fixed-seating capacity of 500 or more would be exempt from the ordinance.

However, promoters that cater to venues that include non-fixed seating-often the smaller ones--would be subject to the regulations.

The ordinance exempts non-profits that have been established for three years, and those that have a federal tax exemption.

However, a multitude of small organizations may have to change the way they plan events.

Andrew Huff, chief editor and CEO of the website Gaper's Block, says that his organization will host its 5th anniversary party at the Hideout on May 30. He expects the event, which typically draws between 100 and 150 people, to break even and make "at least a little money."

But tack a $500 license fee onto the cost of paying for artists, performers, and promotions and it becomes "untenable," he says.

Ald. Hellen Shiller (D-46) says that aldermen are aware that portions of the ordinance are problematic and are working to "ensure the accountability without the additional bureaucracy."

In cases where someone arranges an event in a venue that's licensed then, "let their (the venue's) insurance govern the situation if there's a violation," says Shiller. "We're trying to see if we can't make those changes work."

But Ald. Eugene Schulter (D-47), who sponsored the measure, says he sees little chance of a change before Wednesday's council meeting.

The ordinance, as written, protects the good promoters and weeds out the bad promoters, says Schulter, who hopes to "clarify" the measure to a small group of music community representatives with whom he's meeting this morning.

"This will cut down on the constant bickering between venue folk and the promoter," says Schulter. "This way, everything is written out in the contact, so now if there is a situation, there won't be this needless fingerpointing."

Nor does Schulter think the cost is especially prohibitive. The graduated fee structure, which recognizes the special circumstances of smaller venues, is replacing a flat $2,000 fee proposed in last year's version of the ordinance, he says.

Schulter also says that small for-profits that want to hold parties or fundraisers could partner with established not-for-profits to do so.

City Council will consider the ordinance during its regular monthly meeting, which begins at 10 a.m. tomorrow at City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.

Disclosure: The proposed ordinance will likely impact the fundraising efforts of the Daily News, a 2-1/2-year-old non-profit organization.