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    Chicago's debate on popular music's "cultural relevance"

    Hello all, 

    It's no secret that the city of Chicago is having some serious money trouble. Schools are closing, the police force is thinning, and I think we went a full year without a budget. Anyway, things are a mess. 

    The point is: because the city can't pay its bills, it is looking for other ways to get the money. In some pretty textbook Chicago politic techniques the city has decided that rock venues that host rock/blues/EDM/DJ/noise etc. are not "culturally relevant" and therefore should be made to pay the city's "amusement tax." This is a reversal of terms from only a couple years ago where the city decided that DJ performances (for one) are culturally relevant, or considered a "live performance" only if the music was manipulated enough and/or accompanied by dancing or other performance. 

    So right now the city is attempting, in some cases, to now collect back taxes on many small venues who were deemed to not have to pay the amusement tax, but now have to. Several venues face hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to the city, which would more than likely they shut down. The below article discusses some of the infuriating arguments made by the city (and county) stating that certain music isn't culturally significant and should be taxed. Classical music, jazz, recitals get a pass, for example. 

    I think we can all agree that categorizing what is "worthy" and "not worthy," or "culturally enriching" and "not culturally enriching" is pretty crazy, and even crazier if the decision is made by bureaucrats. 

    I wanted to get people's thoughts on this, and more importantly ask if anyone would like to get involved in helping these venues defend themselves against an onslaught of lawyers. On October 17th there will be a hearing discussing these things, and deciding the future of many of these small venues throughout the city. I have spoken with Bruce Finkelman, owner of a few incredibly popular rock venues who stands to lose big should the county get what they want, and he let me know that they have a musicologist (he didn't say who) coming to their aid. He said that if anyone was willing to help, or could help, that they are looking for "the cream of the crop" because they only have a few shots to argue their point. 

    If anyone would like to make a statement, or if you are in the Chicago area, or will be on October 17th, please let him know. Or if you'd simply like to discuss the above, we can obviously do that here too. I just wanted to throw this out there because I think it's insane that in 2016 people are still trying to decide if rock music is considered to be part of our culture (or culturally important). 




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    • 8 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Adam, I agree, this is insane, and I am sorry that the music scene in Chicago is under such an unfair attack. I would be happy to provide a statement, and I am sure that many in the SMT community, particularly members of the Popular Music Interest Group, would be happy to do so as well. 

    • Adam, I agree, this is insane, and I am sorry that the music scene in Chicago is under such an unfair attack. I would be happy to provide a statement, and I am sure that many in the SMT community, particularly members of the Popular Music Interest Group, would be happy to do so as well. 

      Thanks, Asaf.

      I think that what would be most effective thing would be to, if you'd like, to provide a brief statement with some contact information and affiliation. I could then compile them and send them to the lawyer in charge of the case. If people in the PMIG were interested I would absolutely love any help they could provide. Thanks!

    • I just wanted to add, and maybe I glossed over this in my excited state while writing this post, but I think that this would be a great opportunity for our community to effect real change. Chicago, like any other large city, has such a vibrant music scene and it would be exciting if theorists and musicologists could take part in helping that scene alive. It is obvious to all of us that such a varied, and important music community is culturally relevant, and important; but it is going to take some academic firepower to convince Cook County otherwise. 

      As I said in the comment above if you'd like to post a statement here, or send one to me as a .docx, or .pages file with your contact info and affiliation I will compile them and send them to the appropriate people. 

    • Adam,

      I don't know if the system here sends out notifications, so just FYI, I sent you my statement in a private message.


    • It looks to me that this matter is mainly about $$ and politics, and primarily about $$. The City is simply looking for new sources of revenue where the "updated" policy is easy to rationalize and implement.

      The only "music-relevant" thing I have to say is that it would be straightforward to construct an argument that a given "blues club" (or whatever) is "culturally relevant", or is "an amusement" or is a "an educational enterprise" or [etc. etc. etc.]. So if certain public officials want to avoid taxing a certain establishment, they can come up with a rationale, or if the want to tax a certain establishment, they can find a rationale.



      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • @IsaacMalitz: Yes that is all true. Everything in this city, and county, is about getting money back from where it has been lost. They haven't turned in a budget in over a year (I'm fairly certain) and are looking for money so that this city doesn't go the way of Detroit (ie filing for bankrupcy). 

      You are right that officials are always going to be coming up with a rationale for taxing any and every establishment. I think what we are all very concerned about is, well there are a few things: this would set a very dangerous precedent. Where would it end? It's essentially censorship, or at least one step away from it. Maybe it's hyperbolic, but is the city basically saying that anything with guitars, or DJs etc. is degenerative art? 

      Secondly: Do we really want legislators deciding what art is? Or what is "good for us"? Are they even qualified to do such a thing? No, they aren't. Either all music is art, or it isn't. |

      Finally, in my mind, if they are targeting rock music, and DJs, well I think that it is pretty classist of them, and I think that this city has a very bad history in doing such things. They say that this is the last segregated city in the country, and I think that it's hard to argue with that considering proposed legislation such as this. Because, let's be honest here, targeting DJs, and rap is targeting something very specific. The city is already shutting down schools on the South Side, and leaving public transit dilapidated in lower socio-economic regions. 

      So, I'll just leave it at that. 

    • I think it's fair to say that now the traditional recording/music sales industry has been obliterated by user choice available on the internet (and not as much need to purchase music recorded materials) that publishers such as BMI, ASCAP, etc. are looking for new ways to collect revenues they can no longer count on from recorded music sales - so they're going after clubs, venues, anybody that uses commercial musics in an establishment to collect $$.  It's not just Chicago, we have experienced this in the Seattle Washington area recently as well.  

    • @carsonics Yes, that is true and undeniable, but this has nothing to do with BMI or ASCAP and they would not be benefitting from these monies in any way shape or form.