The Sound and the Fury: The “Event Promoters” ordinance and Chicago’s politics of noise

The recently tabled “Event Promoters” ordinance, originally scheduled to be voted on by the Chicago City Council on Wednesday, May 14, is so patently fatuous and overbroad that you are moved to wonder how it was ever considered for passage into civic code. While the entire proposed law runs to several thousands of words, its most egregious proposal must be that “event promoters” register every performance they organize with the city of Chicago and pay a filing fee scaled to the expected size of the audience. The price of a promoter’s license ranges from $500 to $2000 for two years. Fines for offenses under the terms of the license range from $500 to $1000, and penalties for holding events without a license can reach $10,000. The definition of an “event promoter” is among the worst of the proposed law’s perversions; the tortured wordiness of the proposed ordinance makes every small-scale music professional, from the booking agent at the Empty Bottle to a singer-songwriter scheduling his or her own shows, subject to the law’s requirements. For the courageous few willing to pay the ridiculous registration fees, more strictures follow: every applicant must be over 21 years old, subjected to a background check, and fingerprinted. And each event promoter would have to inform the police of any performance seven days in advance of its scheduled start.

Small venues and the artists that frequent them are the obvious victims of such a law, but they are not the only ones. The law, in its wisdom, is careful to note that only venues with permanent, fixed seating will ever be exempt from being reviewed for performances, which means that the Metro and even the gargantuan Riviera Theatre will be extorted for more cash. Granted, these venues might be able to weather the intervention with reduced profit margins. Smaller venues and storied ones like the Green Mill and the Checkerboard Lounge will not.

The response from the Chicago music community has been swift and furious. Chicago Music Commission board member and Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer’s statement was the most representative and diplomatic: “The ordinance will reduce the amount of music in Chicago, make events more expensive for consumers, dampen the large and growing economic engine that is Chicago music, and create a much less supportive business climate for Chicago’s small music business community. As Chicago competes for business with cities from around the world in addition to our own regional suburbs, we cannot afford to put this ordinance’s well-intentioned but overly broad financial weight on Chicago’s music community.” Iglauer’s words are kind enough to appeal to the practical implications of the law’s passage: in the post-industrial culture economy–the successful development of which has saved Chicago from Rust Belt oblivion–killing off your music scene for minimal added tax revenue makes little sense. Yet, like most politics in the Chicago of this Mayor Daley, the law has little to do with practical sense. The barely–and pointlessly–concealed attempt to surreptitiously pass the bill with no explanation of its purpose remains a small stroke in a broader political canvas. In this Chicago, the city of Millennium Park, countless monuments to the mayor, and an ill-advised Olympics bid, symbol and effect always outstrip the demands of reality. And that, ultimately, is the purpose of the “Event Promoter” ordinance. Its implied message is: “We have the power to silence your noise.”

This is not the only time in the past year that the city has aptly demonstrated essayist Garret Keizer’s contention that “human noise [and its control] is political from its inception.” The confrontation between the city and the Zhou B Art Center was another example in which the arts community took its artistic freedom too far. Though the city’s building commission provided the technical reasons for why performance events have not been allowed there since last July, there is little doubt that the local politicos of Bridgeport, Mayor Daley’s home neighborhood and the cradle of the Democratic machine, pulled strings to get rid of all those unsightly hipsters in their tight jeans. If even the Zhou brothers, the beloved exemplars of the kind of cultural city Mayor Daley wants to create, lose these kinds of fights, it’s not hard to imagine that the feelings of Chicago’s music underground mean even less to civic legislators.

Expressing local political power, while fulfilling the bill’s only conceivable purpose, creates an enormous symbolic political tension. Most laws and ordinances concerning noise are aimed at the individual. The social goal is the establishment of sustainable symbiosis. To paraphrase Keizer, every big noise must be quieted so that all small sounds can coexist peacefully. The kid with a boombox can’t disturb the napping grandmother unless he is willing to endure her cranked television in kind. The problem with the “Event Promoter” ordinance, then, is the individuals it seeks to quiet: the culture workers who make Chicago an appealing place to live and who are politically conscious enough to fight back. If noise is political, popular musicians have always been its rebels. There’s a reason Dick Hebdige opened his seminal study of the 1970s punk subculture by calling the punks “noise” on the surface of society. Further, the symbolic here runs again into the practical demands of reality, the unavoidable fact that the culture industry underpins much of Chicago city life. These people are not worth pissing off.

The fury that was raised last week was effective. In the face of popular opposition, the passage of the bill has been delayed “for further research.” We hope the inquiries find a reason for it to even be considered.