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updated: 3/30/2012 2:20 PM

Live music competition intensifies at more suburban clubs

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  • Viper Alley is drawing a variety of acts to its stage in Lincolnshire.

    Viper Alley is drawing a variety of acts to its stage in Lincolnshire.
    Courtesy of Viper Alley

  • Music fans can find a mix of music at suburban spots like the Montrose Room in Rosemont.

    Music fans can find a mix of music at suburban spots like the Montrose Room in Rosemont.
    Courtesy of the Montrose Room

  • Smoking Popes' guitarist Josh Caterer of Elgin says the audience matters more to bands than the location.

    Smoking Popes' guitarist Josh Caterer of Elgin says the audience matters more to bands than the location.

  • Video: Jennifer Hudson at Viper Alley


When Viper Alley opened in Lincolnshire last year, Director of Entertainment Paul Panicali was given a tough job: "Fill the calendar" with popular music acts.

Even though he's a veteran talent booker, Panicali had to call in favors to get bands to come out to the new, 400-seat (650-person capacity) club.

The problem? The venue was in the suburbs.

"The reaction was, 'Where is Lincolnshire?'" Panicali said. "It was a struggle. (Bands) were skittish about bringing shows outside Chicago. There's no track record out here for artists. Only in the city. It's a major disadvantage."

Panicali got "American Idol" winner and Mount Prospect native Lee DeWyze to perform on opening night. Turnout was great, and other well-known acts soon followed, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bret Michaels, Three Dog Night, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Dave Mason.

It took a little while to find its niche, but Viper Alley made its way onto music lovers' radar.

"The more people find their way out here, the more they love it and want it," Panicali said. "People in the suburbs are rediscovering live music ... there's really a love for music out here."

As the demand for music has increased, so has the number of suburban music clubs. Viper Alley, Montrose Room in Rosemont and SPACE in Evanston are each fairly new; Durty Nellie's in Palatine recently expanded, and The Fuel Room in Libertyville is building an addition so it can hold 1,000 people for its live shows.

"The demand has been there for a long time. It just took a while for people to develop that and curate it out in the suburbs," said Tom Neubauer, a talent buyer for Big Creek Productions who books acts at Montrose Room, the venue inside the InterContinental Chicago O'Hare Hotel.

Music fans are finding they no longer have to drive into the city to see quality, live music. They can see shows for less than they might pay at Chicago clubs, enjoy a more intimate setting and even eat dinner (or, in the case of Viper Alley, go bowling) at the club beforehand.

Adding to the appeal, says Fuel Room owner Mark Khayat, is that "We don't charge for parking and we don't charge $12 for drinks."

So far, the "build it and they will come" theory has proved successful, and any Spinal Tap-like stigma of playing in the suburbs is fading away each time adoring crowds fill a suburban venue. When bands feel that love, Panicali says, they want to come back.

That love has drawn many familiar acts to the suburbs recently, including Bobby Brown at The Fuel Room, Violent Femmes at Durty Nellie's, Herb Alpert at Viper Alley, and Lucky Boys Confusion at the Montrose Room.

While it's no longer necessary to call in favors to get bands to play in the suburbs, the competition to book the bands has intensified.

Tough task
When asked if their job is difficult, the talent bookers interviewed for this story all smiled and laughed.

"It's a very, very hard business," Khayat said, declining to go into detail about the business' ugly side.

It's become very competitive in the past few years, and not only from city and suburban clubs, but from casinos, festivals and small theaters such as the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. To get an edge, some talent bookers will keep close tabs on the bookings at similar-sized clubs in nearby states, and try to snatch up the bands before they travel anywhere near Illinois.

Bidding more money for a band is no guarantee of winning them. Khayat said he once outbid House of Blues in Chicago for a band, but they just weren't interested in coming to Libertyville. While this is increasingly rare, it's a wall some bands put up.

Some acts have "90 day/90 miles" clauses in their contracts that usually prohibit them from playing more than one gig in the Chicago area. So if they're booked at Summerfest in Milwaukee or a Chicago bar, suburban clubs are out of luck.

When a band is booked, there's always a gamble involved. Big names sometimes draw shockingly small crowds (one club reports having less than 20 people turn out for a George Clinton show, and another said it lost thousands of dollars from poor ticket sales on a Paula Cole show). Other times, bands are surprising hits, like Three Dog Night selling out two shows at Viper Alley and the Old 97s packing the Montrose Room. Clubs also can be hurt by uncontrollable factors, such as bad weather or sporting events (say, a Bulls playoff game).

"It's either a big win, or a big loss," Khayat said. "When you throw an ad on the radio, it doesn't fix the problem."

Other barriers to filling suburban clubs include the high price of advertising and marketing in a spread-out suburban area that gets its information from hundreds of different sources. All clubs use social media, but building those connections takes time. Most suburban clubs will partner with radio stations to promote shows, like Montrose Room does with smooth jazz station 87.7-FM for its jazz series and with Q101 for younger shows, such as Lucky Boys Confusion.

"We're constantly looking to expand those partnerships," said Montrose Room marketing manager Peter Cook.

Then there's the challenge of just getting people out. It depends on who's performing, but the suburban music crowd tends to be age 30 and up, club owners say.

A band's perspective
Do band members care if they play in the city or suburbs?

Smoking Popes lead singer Josh Caterer of Elgin said his band is more concerned with its audiences.

"A poorly attended show hurts your image more than the name of the town. The thing that you're going for, when you play a show, is that people are excited and there's this exchange of energy between the band and the audience. If you can get it in a suburban venue, that's great. You gravitate toward people that bring that energy," Caterer said. "If you can pack a room and have people excited to see you play, you'd play wherever. You'd play in a tent or in someone's backyard."

Smoking Popes launched its career playing shows in the suburbs, and continues to play suburban venues. Caterer says the suburbs have a different atmosphere and vibe.

"You feel like you're playing at a party rather than playing at a show. There's a little bit of a different energy," he said. "Once (while performing in the suburbs) we said, 'Raise your hand if you went to high school with one member of the band.' And half the audience raised their hands."

Whether there's a direct connection or not, one thing's for sure: The suburbs are a growing force in the live music business.

"As long as we're bringing good, live music to the suburbs, that's what it's all about," Khayat said.

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