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Beauty Bar Rips County Over Small Venue Tax: 'Art Is Dead, Go Bears!'

By Kelly Bauer | August 30, 2016 3:34pm
 Window art shows the Beauty Bar's message to Cook County's attempt to tax small music venues.
Window art shows the Beauty Bar's message to Cook County's attempt to tax small music venues.
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Facebook/Mary Williamson

CHICAGO — The Beauty Bar has one message for Cook County: 💅.

The Beauty Bar, where you can get a manicure along with a martini and live music, has decorated its windows with the words "FINE ART" and a series of nail-painting emoji (including one making an obscene gesture).

The art is a challenge to the county: A hearing officer recently said small venues should pay an "amusement tax" for rock, rap, electronic music and country performances, arguing they don't meet the county's standards of "fine art" — which is exempt from such taxes — according to the Chicago Reader, which has been covering the issue in depth.

That could mean small musical venues end up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes since they haven't had to pay the "amusement tax" for years, according to the Reader. The tax is 1-1.5 percent of admission fees or charges.

The Beauty Bar and other musical venues are challenging Cook County's idea of what constitutes "fine art." One such challenge: The Noble Square bar's new window art, which includes an image of an animal's behind alongside the words, "Art is dead. Go bears."

The Beauty Bar couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

But Cook County CFO Ivan Samstein said the county taxes the same regardless of the genre of music being performed. The hearing officer is not a Cook County employee and he "can't speak" for her, though, he said.

The only reason a DJ set might be treated differently from other genres is if the DJ was just hitting "play" or spinning pre-recorded records instead of making new music, Samstein said.

"The issue at hand in these cases had nothing to do with the type of music being played, and the county has never treated different types of music differently," Samstein said. "The reality is that when a business is or is not registered, our auditors will identify a business that has failed to register for an amusement tax and reach out to them and ask them to register and produce bills and records."

Samstein, who declined to address specific cases, said businesses will get hit with a penalty if they "ignore" auditors. But the hearing could be found in favor of the businesses, in favor of the city or a mix, Samstein said, noting that businesses that do get "hit with an assessment" could appeal that.

The hearing officer's words have been controversial: More than 5,000 people have signed a petition calling for the county to recognize rock, rap and DJ sets as fine art.

Eric Bonner, who started the petition, is concerned musical venues will have to shut down if forced to pay the tax — and that would mean the city's artists have fewer chances to find success and Chicago's reputation as a cultural city would be challenged.

Bonner's battle is also personal: Growing up, his cousin had a band and played in Chicago. Bonner was inspired by his cousin's work and now runs a music zine and is passionate about Chicago's music. Two of his favorite venues, Moe's Tavern and the East Room, are also among the businesses that could be hurt by the amusement tax.

"Those places don't have enough income to maintain their overhead and continue to be a small business and have this six-figure lump sum that they have to pay," Bonner said. "If these businesses go away, artists won't be here [and] they won't come here. Kids who have an opportunity to follow something other than sports or other than street life won't have" the chance to succeed with music.

The city has undergone a musical "renaissance" in recent years, Bonner said, noting the rise of artists like Smashing Pumpkins and Chance the Rapper. Those musicians wouldn't have found the success they have if not for being able to perform at small music venues in Chicago, he said.

"If you get rid of venues, where are kids going to perform? Where are people going to do these things?" Bonner said. "It's important to the youth, it's important to musicians. ... This has a much more profound effect than I think the county realizes."

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey is introducing an amendment on Tuesday that would protect venues when they have rap, rock, electronic music and country performances. Fritchey's amendment would change the term of "fine art" to "art" and will specifically include DJ-driven music as being exempt by the amusement tax, he said.

Fritchey hopes the amendment will ensure Cook County isn't "playing cultural police," he said. It will also make the county's tax more like the city's so business owners have "a sense of certainty and consistency." He's confident it will pass after speaking to the administration, he said.

"I grew up in the city. I spent a lot of time in my younger days at various music venues and still go to a lot of shows. I know a lot of people in the industry and I am a big fan of not just music but a lot of the artists that have come out of Chicago, dating back to whether it’s Frankie Knuckles or looking now at Common or Kanye or Chance," Fritchey said.

"So, when I hear comments from a hearing officer questioning whether rap or DJ-driven music really constitute music, that’s something that caught my attention and something that needed to be fixed."

Fritchey will also give a letter to Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president, asking her to ensure the county's Department of Revenue will "comply with the spirit of the ordinance," he said.

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