Apr 22nd, 2009 by Chris Morrow

Chicago Original Music Venues

euphony-productions-photo-chris-morrow1This is the first of any I will write over the next few weeks on where to play original music in downtown Chicago. “So where do you play shows at?” and “What are some places we can play?” seems to be questions I get on a daily basis from musicians, students and friends. It’s too bad there’s no simple answer. Different types of bands play different places. Since I’m playing in so many different styles and types of bands I could be anywhere at any given time. But I’ll try to break this list down into several categories.

Original Music Lives and Breathes in Chicago

downtown-chicago-pictureFor this Blog, lets focus on venues that “Original Rock Bands” would be likely to play. Chicago is such a large market that venues tend to be very genre/style/age specific and different parts of the area feature different types of music. For example, very broadly, you’ll find more original rock, jazz and blues in Chicago-proper and cover and tribute bands in the suburbs. Then you break down different neighborhoods for even more specific styles. For example, very broadly, you’ll find original Rock music on the Northside of Chicago and more Jazz and Blues on the Southside. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules that I can think of too. I’ll also keep this list targeted to places that local acts can reasonably book if they are qualified. I’ll leave out the big rooms that national touring bands tend to snatch up. If your band is at the level that can fill a place like the Vic, then your band probably has booking agents doing this kind of work for you.

Where Can You Go For Information on Venues?

new-paper-stand-photoDisclaimer: these kind of lists change on an almost yearly basis. I’ll try to stick to venues that have been around on the scene for quite a while. To do your own research, read local music periodicals like the Chicago Reader, Red Eye, Innerview and Newcity for Chicago-proper and the Illinois Entertainer and Suburban Nitelife for the surrounding suburbs. You can also find lists of venues in musician periodicals like the Musicians Atlas and the Musicians Guide to Touring and Promotion. These types of periodicals are expensive (the Atlas is $50 at the time of this writing) and covers the national scene as well. If you plan on touring, then they are great investments.

The Types of Venues Around.

picture-of-clubI’ll break the venues down into grades A-B-C reflecting my opinion of the venue. I can already hear the uproar of people that are going to disagree with my grading, but that’s okay. I have based my grades on many factors, but the single biggest factor is the quality of the bands that play there. Again, many will disagree with my opinions, but we all know that good bands bring good crowds and that gives them leverage to play better rooms. If a band can bring 150 people to the Double Door on a weekday, chances are they are a tight, entertaining and talented band. If a band is playing for years and can’t bring 5 people to the Mutiny on a weekend night, they’re doing something wrong. Say what you will about how great you think X band is, but I believe we all know a real good band and a real lame band when we hear them.


band-tour-bus-picture2At these original venues, there are 2-4 bands performing a set apiece of about 45 minutes. Almost none of these venues have a built in crowd. The people that come do so to see the band they came to see.

Show Me The Money!!!

moneyAll these venues pay the door. In other words, people pay a cover charge to get in and the venue splits it up to the bands according to their own deals. In a sense that’s the way the music business really works. It’s capitalism pure and simple. Whoever brings in the money gets the money. However, the real problem is venue size. If you are playing small rooms, there’s a limit to how much money you can make. Plus, that’s also assuming you don’t get ripped off by the venue. Almost every gig it seems I hear something about how the venue shorting the count of people that paid cover. The only way around this is getting someone you trust to collect the door money and the A and B level venues usually don’t allow that. Most of the time the best you can do is have someone standing next to the door man double checking the count. All I can say is that you’d better not expect to get rich playing these venues. Even at major venues, I’ve seen great bands get paid peanuts.

Here are those Club Ratings I promised

(A) Level Venues

double-doorThese venues are large and in charge. The capacity tends to be counted in a hundreds or more. Since the bands have to be able to bring a crowd of that size, the bands are more demanding on the venues for extras. So these venues tend to have nice backstage areas for the bands to chill in, throw in drinks (although even that is changing in these economic times) and have professional sound systems, lights and spacious stages. You generally have to be at the venue early to set up and sound check. Even the monitors might be decent too! However, you’d better deliver a large crowd or expect to never play there again. These venues tend to take out a major chunk of the door money for their sound men and pay the bands the difference. If the venue doesn’t make enough at the door to cover their operating expenses, then you’ve probably burned that bridge. The cover charge at these venues also tends to run higher, usually $10 or so and I typically see bands make between $100 and $150. The larger rooms and higher cover charge rooms seem to favor bands making more money, but this isn’t always the case. I did see a weeknight at the Double Door where four of the best bands in the city cut up $22 between themselves. But, every time I’ve played one of these spots, I’ve been impressed with the other bands and the experience in general. The A level spots are usually worth it to play if you can qualify.

Metro, Double Door, Kinetic Playground, Martyrs, Abbey Pub, Reggie’s Rock Club
My favs: Kinetic Playground and Martyrs

(B) level venues

band-at-beat-kitchenThese venues have capacity of about 30-100 give or take. They usually have sound systems, lights and so on, but the people running them may or may not be up to the task.  I usually find the soundmen good though, although I don’t usually find the monitor mixes up to par. Sometimes national touring bands come through these joints if they don’t have a following in Chicago. The bands I’ve seen at the spots range from pretty awesome to piss poor. Cover charge is typically $5 to $10. But because the smaller size of the rooms and smaller cover charge, you should expect to make no more than $50 unless you bring some kind of a huge crowd. I typically see bands make about $20. These spots don’t have backstage areas, usually don’t throw in drinks, and generally don’t help the bands make the experience any easier. Sometimes these places can be a real joy to play, sometimes Hell on Earth to play.

Elbo Room, Cobra Lounge, Beat Kitchen (good food!), Cubby Bear, Heartland Café (good food), Alive One, McDonnas, Reggies Music Joint (not the Rock Club), Silvies Lounge, Tonic Room, Wise Fools Pub, Subterranean, The Store
My favs: Elbo Room and Reggies Music Joint (good food too!)

(C) level venues

phyllis-musical-innThese venues are the worst ones to play for my money. Almost everything about them is lame. They have no capacity for a real crowd, lame sound, small stage (if there is one), no crowd, no parking, no free drinks (a deal on Pabst Blue Ribbon seems standard at these spots for whatever reason) and the bands that play there are also usually not so hot so the people you do bring might leave before you’re set because the other bands suck so bad. Sorry if that offends anybody who plays these spots regularly, but you should set your sights a little higher if you do. Plus, I’ve never been paid at these venues! If you’re a professional musician who needs gigs to pay rent, then just say no. It’s a straight up waste of time. These kinds of venues seem to cater to first timers, amateurs and other players that money is of no concern. I guess that’s okay if that’s your thing, but be warned now. My beef with these spots is that they are so uninspiring to play. They seem to go out of their way to make the experience difficult. I once played a gig at Phyllis’s Musical Inn that was supposed to start at 9 pm. It was a night of a Cubs game and we had to sound check during the commercial breaks! The game went into extra innings and we didn’t start playing until 11:15! The game hadn’t even finished, we just started because we were so pissed and our crowd had already left by then anyways. There’s no reason for any self respecting musician to have to put up with that kind of treatment from a venue.

Mutiny, Phyllis’s Musical Inn, Cals Bar, Ronny’s, Fantasy Lounge, Red Line Tap, Lilly’s, U.S. Beer Co., Underground Lounge, the Orphanage,
My fav: Underground Lounge (a cool vibe in there I just like)

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