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Club owner Bruce Finkelman sees ‘baby boom’ of new bands

The sign that Bruce Finkelman took as a sign that he needed to change his life came true – in the guise of a “For Rent” ad he had once seen in the window of a modest building on the northeast corner of Western Boulevard and Walton Street. -gritty Ukrainian Village neighborhood. It was interesting that the banner was located under the Pabst Beer sign.

It was the early ’90s, and Finkelman found himself wandering around town very late and trying to find a way to get out of his suit and tie job as a manager at the Hyatt hotel. His decision to bet on himself, tap into his entire savings ($923 in total), and rent the hole-in-the-wall space that became the first Empty Bottle would help change the city’s music scene.

More than three decades after the dive’s opening, known for cheap tickets, cheap drinks and all-inclusive performances, Finkelman is managing partner of 16″ at the Center. Operating with managing partner Craig Golden, the hospitality group includes restaurants, bars and music venues such as Empty Bottle, Thalia Hall and Salt Shed.

Few people are more in touch with what area fans hear and see than the Oak Park resident, whose career momentum stemmed from nontraditional experiences in college and feeling like he never fit in with traditional society.

Finkelman personally echoes many of The Empty Bottle’s appeal. He is unpretentious, determined, curious, relaxed and spontaneous. He thinks on his feet, grins slyly, speaks intelligently and seems concerned about the well-being of his employees. He is quick to give credit to his team and divert attention away from himself. It gives the impression that the corporate world will kill his soul and subconsciously he always knew it.

While attending the University of Missouri, Finkelman accepted an invitation to perform at the 1997 Violent Women show at the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri. Even though she made someone vomit on her shoes during the concert, she fell in love with the atmosphere and the people. She never looked back.

When he graduated and returned to Chicago, Finkelman had a better sense of what to do with “creating something for others looking for a place to belong” by frequenting local clubs like Cubby Bear and the now defunct Lounge Ax and Avalon. ”

Finkelman soon discovered many other misfits, and outsiders shared his perspective. It has proven instrumental in providing a credible space for a variety of local acts, including the indie rock scene of the mid-90s, where names like Liz Phair, Tortoise, and Veruca Salt attracted national attention, and the underground improv jazz scene spearheaded by the MacArthur Award winner. composer-saxophonist Ken Vandermark and writer-curator John Corbett.

Ken Vandermark and his avant-garde band perform at Chicago's Empty Bottle in 2000.

These developments emerged from collaboration and community-based scenes. Finkelman thinks many of the same elements are taking root post-pandemic. He believes that like-minded individuals start playing together out of boredom, and that many people have a desire to do something during shutdown that leaves their free time. The amount of new bands emerging, and what that means for Chicago, baffles him to the extent that he calls it the “baby boom.”

“With every new band comes the re-regionalization and renewal of the scene,” he says. “It has always been cyclical. A few years ago, I looked at the headliners’ support slots and many of the same bands were playing them. Now you see new bands and you don’t even recognize their names. “They inject new energy and ideas into the scene and the city.”

Finkelman cites CB Radio Gorgeous, Cel Ray, Spread Joy and Edging among his favorite up-and-comers, and Meat Wave, Ganser and Patter among the more established local names he admires.

Undoubtedly, Finkelman’s current role and responsibilities are different from the days when he managed a single club. He no longer has the luxury of staying in one place for hours and following every group of young people passing by. Similarly, he is aware that musical tastes may not be suitable for younger generations. Out of necessity and choice, Finkelman became a supervisor who imparted his expertise to the leaders on his team. This approach not only gives others the opportunity to realize their vision, but also guards against repetition and staleness.

Concert attendees watch the Japanese Breakfast performance at the Salt Shed in West Town on July 9, 2023.

“We will undoubtedly see new scenes and different versions of music,” says Finkelman. “The exciting thing is you don’t know it’s happening until it’s already happened.”

The live scene now has new levels of inclusivity and empathy as challenges bring it closer together. Finkelman also believes that a spirit of collaboration is essential to maintaining the health of the music scene as it faces increasing adversity.

“What happened before the pandemic and what is happening now are completely different,” Finkelman says. “There are new concepts about getting a job and what is ‘normal’. People are still getting used to living in a world where we go back to clubs and enjoy music as a group.”

People wear masks while listening to Bnny's performance at Empty Bottle in Chicago on September 2, 2021.

While live music continues to weather dramatic audience declines and the widespread institutional woes that plague live theater, it still has to cope with rising spending, a growing problem that everyone in the art world shares, even in a region where living costs are cheaper than in some major cities. .

“The costs of doing business are becoming prohibitive,” Finkelman laments. “Five years ago this wasn’t much of a problem. Now it just comes down to how much money an employee needs to buy food and pay rent. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”

Local concert goers have yet to shy away from the events due to rising costs associated with permits, fees, overheads and more. Finkelman believes in their sense of understanding and Midwestern sensibilities, as well as a desire to be a part of what’s going on around them. He wishes municipal officials to show similar awareness and compassion.

Chicago still doesn’t get the level of administrative or promotional support available in music hotspots like Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas. More than 50 music, comedy and multidisciplinary performing arts venues are members of CIVL (Chicago Independent Venue League) and use the platform to communicate, advocate and support common needs. But a collective network is not the same as government support.

“We have one of the best music scenes in the country,” Finkelman says. “People forget how good we are here. The idea that our city (officials) don’t realize how much cultural and economic impact we have is ridiculous. We need support, and we need them to be our partners to continue growing the live music community.”

Finkelman suggests an easy first step for the mayor, who gave an energetic speech at Lollapalooza supporting both the city and live music.

“Brandon Johnson, call us! Let’s sit down and talk about how we can move this amazing Chicago music scene forward. “We want an open dialogue with people in the office to work together.”

Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.

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