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Bowling Green, Ohio, metal band Big Fat Japan performed at Strangelight on Saturday night.

For youth seeking music, it’s more basements than bars

by Leor Galil
March 09, 2010


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DIY concert organizer Matt Harmon (left) surveys the entrance to Strangelight.


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Chicago concerts organized by age restrictions at eight venues in March.


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Chicago concerts organized by age restrictions at eight venues in April.


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A comparison of age restricted shows in Chicago and Washington, D.C., in April.

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Jason Soliday, a DIY events organizer, discusses hosting experimental events for people of all ages.

Related Links

Audio slideshow: Building communities in all-ages, DIY venuesAll-ages, DIY spaces have deep roots

All-ages graphs explained

The graphics included with this piece compare age-restricted access at eight commercial music venues in Chicago that host concerts and events on a regular basis. The data was collected from the calendars available from the Web sites of each venue. Only venues that offer all-ages shows, and only venues that regularly host events multiple times during the week were included.

Here are the names and addresses of the eight commercial venues:

Beat Kitchen: 2100 W. Belmont Ave.

Bottom Lounge: 1375 W. Lake St.

House of Blues: 329 N. Dearborn St. (Information in graphs includes eight “Gospel brunches,” an all-ages musical performance that occurs twice every Sunday.)

Lincoln Hall: 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.

Metro: 3730 N. Clark St. (Information in graphs excludes listings for Smart Bar, Metro’s bar that frequently hosts events for people ages 21 and older.)

Reggie’s Rock Club: 2109 S. State St.

Schubas Tavern: 3159 N. Southport Ave.

Subterranean: 2011 W. North Ave.

The third graph combines the age category numbers for all eight venues’ April shows to compare the total availability of all-ages shows with those in Washington, D.C. Though the nation’s capital has a smaller live music scene than Chicago, the projected April schedules for three D.C. venues – the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat and the Rock & Roll Hotel – offer more all-ages options than eight Chicago venues.

Information in the graphs is subject to change as more concerts and events for March and April may be added or dropped after publication.

The E2 nightclub tragedy

On Feb. 17, 2003, 21 people died in a stampede at the E2 nightclub, 2347 S. Michigan Ave. The two owners were sentenced to two years in jail in November 2009.

The city's independent review panel report, issued July 2, 2003, uncovered a number of issues that several city departments were alerted to before the February tragedy. The building E2 occupied allegedly had 11 violations of the building code and E2 had its liquor license suspended in January 2003. An estimated 1,100 patrons packed the nightclub’s two floors on the night of the tragedy. The maximum occupancy for E2’s first floor was 327, and no patrons were supposed to be on the second floor, according to the report.

In response, the panel recommended a more thorough licensing process, more communication between departments on issues concerning public safety and stricter inspections and enforcement of laws dealing with public places that host entertainment.

It’s a common practice for anyone seeking an evening of entertainment: Trade a handful of cash for a concert.

At Strangelight, a new West Side music venue, the setting is a little different. Instead of entering an ornate concert hall or arena, patrons give $5 to enter a dingy basement for a few hours of noisy punk rock. 

Strangelight is one of several dozen DIY – short for Do It Yourself – and underground music venues in Chicago. These music spaces exist in basements, lofts and living rooms in Wicker Park, Logan Square, Humboldt Park and throughout the South Side. No one knows how many there are, and their locations and numbers keep changing.

The shows are cheap – usually $5 in donations – and the money goes straight to the musicians. Venues use Web sites like MySpace, Blogger and Facebook to let music fans know about upcoming shows. The music itself runs the gamut from punk rock, experimental noise, hip-hop, folk to sludgy metal.  

Most of the venues operate without city licensing or approval, and those who host bands in their homes face potential fines and even evictions. 

These underground spaces also are a refuge for young people who want to see concerts in Chicago.  

Though Chicago is the third largest city in the country, there are few options for youth looking to experience live music on a regular basis. Only a small portion of the commercial venues that host concerts on a near-daily basis offer more than a few opportunities for people under the age of 18 to see a gig. Some of Chicago’s most popular music clubs, such as The Double Door, only offer shows to those of drinking age. 

“We’ve basically managed to shut out a huge generation of young people from experiencing music on any level other than corporate radio, MTV and, you know, big arenas,” said Todd Patrick, a Brooklyn-based DIY events organizer. Patrick, better known as Todd P., has become the face of the national underground music organizing community.  

“I think that young people have more enthusiasm for live music, and any kind of music really, than anybody else does at any point in their lives,” Patrick said. “It’s sort of backwards that it’s the exact people that we’re telling at the door, ‘you’re barred from entry.’ ” 

For many of Chicago’s smaller commercial venues, the choice to hold shows with age restrictions comes down to simple economics. 

I’m all for letting as many people as possible see a show,” said Matt Rucins, the talent buyer and promoter for Schubas Tavern. “But, in the end, we are a bar and we rely on that.” 

So it falls upon the underground venues to fill the void in all-ages gigs in Chicago. It’s a task that 25-year-old Matt Harmon, who runs Strangelight with his 23-year-old brother, John, is more than up for. 

“It’s got to be all-ages, because it’s [music is] for everybody,” Harmon said. “It shouldn’t be about age or selling a product.” 

On Saturday, Harmon hosted Strangelight’s fourth show since he moved into the space in September, where he and his brother live and host shows. With four bands packing their equipment into the spacious Strangelight basement to perform for a couple dozen kids, it looked like a normal gig, regardless of its underground location or reputation. 

There's no money in it for Harmon, so why does he do it?

"I don't think any of us have been really interested in making money off shows here," he said. "We'd rather work hard and pay for it that way."

Yet, in the government’s eyes, the activities at venues like Strangelight are not to be condoned.  

“It’s very unsafe to have a large crowd gathered in a place that has not been inspected,” said Efrat Stein, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department. “On the surface, these types of parties may seem like a good idea, but from a safety perspective, it’s not.” 

Strangelight and other underground venues that operate without the government’s knowledge not only skirt the city’s approval, but the licensing and inspection process as well. All commercial music venues in the city must hold a Public Place of Amusement license. To receive the license, venues must meet standards for zoning, fire, plumbing, ventilation and electrical. They also are subject to the Department of Buildings’ special inspection program, an onsite inspection, and applicants must undergo a criminal background check.  

Venues must undergo the rigorous inspection process every two years to renew their license. The city bolstered its inspection and licensing process after a stampede at Chicago’s E2 nightclub in February 2003 left 21 people dead.  

Considering the tragedy that occurred at a commercial nightclub on the city’s watch, it’s no wonder city officials express concern about gatherings at venues they have no control over. Yet, for someone like Harmon, who makes $5 an hour delivering sandwiches and recoups none of the money collected at shows, the ability to pay the high licensing fee is out of the question. It also doesn’t help that Strangelight is a storefront space zoned for commercial, not residential, use. 

“With the landlord, I think it’s very much a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of thing,” Harmon said. Though Harmon walks a precarious path between not alerting the authorities to the activities at Strangelight and continuing to put on shows, safety and control is a primary concern. Harmon had to tackle these issues early on, when Strangelight’s second show featured Algernon Cadwallader, a punk act popular on the DIY circuit. 

“We had young kids emailing us, being like, ‘I’m going to drive from out of state and come catch the show,’” Harmon said. “So now, we’re trying to prepare ourselves for the fact that there might be 50-plus 16-year-olds from who knows where at our house, which, I hate to say it, ultimately we are responsible for.”

Harmon estimated approximately 200 people attended the February concert, which went off without a hitch. 

On Saturday, Harmon carefully surveyed the staircase leading to Strangelight’s basement while he collected money for the out of town bands. When a concertgoer popped up from the basement and announced he was going on an alcohol run, Harmon was quick to rebuke. There’s no alcohol or drugs at Strangelight, Harmon informed the bemused guest.

Whereas youth are barred from seeing concerts because of alcohol, for Harmon, it only seems right that alcohol is kept out of Strangelight so kids can experience live music.