Live Music Is Art, Officials Now Say; But Venues May Still Owe Big

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 16, 2016 4:26PM

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Beauty Bar / Facebook

Cook County officials took a positive step this week toward fixing its ridiculous, roundly condemned “amusement tax” ordinance—which required some small venues to pony up substantial taxes, arguing that DJ sets, hip-hop and other genres of live music did not constitute “cultural performances,” as reported in the Chicago Reader article that broke the story. Now, county officials and music-industry operators have come to an agreement to amend the rule; but venue owners may still be on the hook for high back taxes.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey announced on Friday that an agreement—co-sponsored by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle—had been reached that would acknowledge live performances and DJ sets as “recognized art forms.”

“This agreement makes it clear that it was never the intent of the Administration for the County to play culture police and make decisions on what is, or isn’t, music or art, and that fact is bolstered by President Preckwinkle’s desire to co-sponsor my amendment,” said Commissioner Fritchey in a statement. “By bringing together public officials and music industry representatives, we were able to arrive at language that all parties agree recognizes the diverse and robust nature of live music while providing the County with the ability to collect those taxes that are legitimately owed to it.”

Venerable local music figure Joe Shanahan (Metro, Smart Bar, Double Door) championed the agreement.

“This agreement confirms that government officials should not be the arbiters of what constitutes art while affording small venue owners a sense of certainty as they continue to present musical talent to Chicagoans and the many visitors who flock to our venues based on our city’s international reputation as a music capital,” Shanahan said in the release.

Despite the announcement, the battle appears far from resolved. Bruce Finkelman, whose Beauty Bar dance club reportedly owes some $200,000 due to the original ordinance, said the arrangement would still leave the venue liable for those back taxes. Their case should be tossed, he argues.

“Though we are grateful that the County has come to its senses, and appears to be doing the right thing going forward, they are not amending the tax rule in arrears,” Finkelman said in a statement. “Thus we are still being taken to court to fight our position that we should have been exempt from this tax all along, as we’ve always provided a live culturally enhancing experience.”

“The County is trying to claim some sort of victory here, but we all know you can’t be half a jerk,” he added. “So, until they come all the way around and dismiss our case, we will continue to fight.”

Finkelman and his partners have a hearing scheduled for October 24. The Cook County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to hear the amendment on October 26.