Chicago Culture Cops Tax Concert-Venues Because Rap, Rock, Country Aren't 'Art'

The taxman plays art critic


Sebastián Silva/EFE/Newscom

When is a live musical performance not a live musical performance? When it takes place in Chicago and the genre is rap, rock, country, or electronica. According to local officials, such concerts don't fall under the category of either "music," "fine art," or "culture"—and hence bars that host them must pay up.

See, under the law in Cook County—which includes the city of Chicago—all event venues are subject to a three percent tax on ticket sales unless the event in question is a "live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performance." County code later defines cultural performances as "any of the disciplines which are commonly regarded as part of the fine arts, such as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings." Most area venues that host live musical performances of any kind took themselves to be exempt.

But the county has recently been trying to squeeze more amusement-tax money out of local businesses by insisting that some live musical performances don't count for tax-exemption purposes because they're not artistic enough. The Chicago Reader reported last week on Cook County's attempt to ring more than $200,000 in back taxes out of Beauty Bar, along with money from around half a dozen other venues "that routinely book DJs or electronic music."

Pat Doerr, president of Chicago's Hospitality Business Association, said the move likely stems from a 2014 appeals court ruling allowing the county to go after the Chicago Bears for $4 million in unpaid amusement taxes. "My suspicion makes me think they wanted to look at every possible way to collect amusement taxes," he told the Reader, "and that's where we're at today."

At an administrative hearing on Monday, Cook County officials clarified their position: it's not just DJ or electronica music that is suspect but rap, rock, and country music also. "Rap music, country music, and rock 'n' roll" do not fall under the purview of "fine art,'" Anita Richardson, an administrative hearing officer for the county, explained.

Under Richardson's interpretation of the code, it's not enough for a performance to merely contain theater, music, comedy, dance, or literature. No, only specific works which live up to county culture cops' standards get a pass. As Bruce Finkelman, managing partner of one of the company that owns Beauty Bar, complained, such a position essentially requires a performance venue to check in with the county for every show it books to see what state art critics think.

Even Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey seems flabbergasted by the position. "No pun intended," he told the Reader, "but I think the county is being tone deaf to recognize opera as a form of cultural art but not Skrillex."

The next administrative hearing for Beauty Bar and co. is scheduled for October. The administrative hearing officer told owners they should bring musicologists to "further testify the music you are talking about falls within any disciplines considered fine art."

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  1. Even Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey seems flabbergasted by the position. “No pun intended,” he told the Reader, “but I think the county is being tone deaf to recognize opera as a form of cultural art but not Skrillex.”

    Let’s hear it for the boy. Let’s give the boy a hand.

  2. So I’m guessing Hamilton, In the Heights and probably Fun Home would be taxable. Not to mention Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

    1. Just wait until Annie Get Your Gun comes to a Chicago stage. Or for that matter, Chicago.

  3. Did anyone else not know that Skrillex was in that awful post hardcore band that every emo girl in high school loved called From First to Last?

    1. I left high school before emo was really a thing.

    2. I have no idea what a Skrillex is.

      1. Wasn’t that some sort of character on DS9?

      2. Start with a powerful source of electricity – hook it to a power-drill, run the lead through your tooth-fillings, terminate at a subwoofer, give the drill to a 5yr old on ritalin, and you’ll get a close-approximation

      3. Not all Skrillex is dubstep (the kids call it brostep), but this is what listening to dubstep can do to you.

    3. I did!

      Funny story, I met him in bar in Hollywood years ago and as a big fan of FFTL in high school, recognized him right away. This was prior to his absolutely massive and successful dubstep ascent, but he hadn’t done post-hardcore in years and already had a decent electronic following. He got a kick out of it that someone recognized him as Sonny from FFTL and didn’t know him as his Skrillex persona at all. A little shy, but a very nice guy.

  4. Hotel California is a modern day masterpiece.

    1. Sincerity or “post-irony”?

      At at this point, does it make any difference?

      1. It’s no Witchy Woman, but it holds up quite well. It’ll be played alongside Mozart in a thousand years.

        1. Were you impressed when Don Henley ripped into The Ramones and MC5 for not being true songwriters while wearing a t-shirt that said ‘SONGWRITER’ on it?

    2. *fires up the woodchipper*

    3. /adds another to the “ignore” list

  5. If a court does rule in favor of the county, Doerr says, “A bunch of venues will shutter?they’ll go out of business.”

    Which will mean a net tax loss for the county. You’ll never find a stranger mixture of arrogance and ignorance than you’ll find in government.

    1. Depends on how much extra they rake in versus the tax loss of venues closing, minus the costs of the court appeals, which the city might lose.

      And just the mere notion of taxation is incredibly arrogant — this specific iteration is hardly rage worthy.

      1. The extra will have to be substantial. If they win and the venues close they will not only lose future “amusement tax” revenues but all of the other taxes they’re currently collecting from the venues.

        1. Well, sure, but you’re looking at this rationally. Versus the POV of politicians who think they can impose taxes and hardly anyone will do something in response to this aggression.

          1. I keep making that mistake.

  6. They should appeal this on up to SCOTUS for the obvious First Amendment violation involved in letting judges in effect censor works via taxation based on subjective emotional criteria.

    Plus, an ex post facto violation. And other stuff I haven’t thought of yet before the coffee kicks in.

    1. All that would mean is that after a very long and expensive litigation, if the city lost they’d just take every venue – and subsidize the ‘art’ ones even more.

    2. If dancing nude (stripping) counts as free speech, then I don’t see how exempting ‘fine art’ will pass constitutional muster.

  7. “The administrative hearing officer told owners they should bring musicologists to “further testify the music you are talking about falls within any disciplines considered fine art.””

    Oh, I think I get it.

    “Hello, Chicago Democratic Party? I was wondering if you knew any musicologists I could hire as expert witnesses…”

    1. It sounds like someone has a useless relative with a degree they can’t get a job with…

    2. “May it please the tribunal, I would like to offer the testimony of a distinguished panel of 20 musicologists, all of whom are either professors at distinguished institutions of higher learning or else perfectly qualified to be such. And they are all residents of the great city of Chicago, bringing to bear their local knowledge.”

    3. The best way to judge something subjective is obviously to have ‘experts’ make pronouncements.

  8. The administrative hearing officer told owners they should bring musicologists to “further testify the music you are talking about falls within any disciplines considered fine art.”

    Why is this necessary to argue to these parasites the content is fine art when venues…are not subject to the tax as long as any cover charges or admission fees are for “in person, live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performances.” ?

  9. They are not “art” because they make money and there is real cash to be had taxing them. If the Chicago Symphony or Opera started making the kind of cash on a given night a Taylor Swift or Kayne West make, those venues would suddenly stop being art.

    1. I thought the reason was just that rich, connected shitbags didn’t want to pay the prole sin tax for their entertainment. It’s not like “doesn’t make money” has ever stopped government from taxing a business before.

    1. Expected a Downfall meme.

      1. I respect the shelf-life of memes.

    2. ENB wishes she could pull that jumpsuit off.

    3. She has been corrupted by that great seducer Postrel.

    4. That hair? That voice? That’s Robby.

  10. The administrative hearing officer told owners they should bring musicologists to “further testify the music you are talking about falls within any disciplines considered fine art.”

    The opinions of musicologists will be read into the record and then duly ignored. This isn’t about what counts as art, this is about the city squeezing every nickel of tax revenue it can.

    1. ^This.

      It’s especially about sqeezing every nickel of revenue that the taxpayer doesn’t see (and then blaming the greedy venues for the rise in prices).

  11. Wasn’t this covered already?

    I think I need more coffee. I didn’t sleep well. My dogs were going nuts all night.

    I have a bronze muscadine that really had a bumper crop this year. I made two gallons of bbq sauce (muscadine habenero), about five gallons of wine and enough jelly for ten years. That was less than half of the fruit. I left the rest on the vine for critters. I am starting to regret that. All damned night long there is a parade of critters to and from that vine. First last night was a family of raccoons, then a family of possums, then more possums and the raccoons were back this morning just before sunup. I suppose the dogs can smell them outside and lose their shit pacing, barking, whining. It is hell on my sleep schedule.

    1. Have you considered freezing the extra fruit, and slowly working it into your foodstream?

      Be worth it just to get some sleep.

  12. Spending recklessly and then trying to pay for it by squeezing money out of local businesses on dubious legal rationales…*that* is an art in itself.

  13. Now, back to the wholesome goodness of the libertarian “carbon tax”. What could go wrong?

    1. And “I can’t explain what fine art is, but a know when I see it……”

    2. You forgot the scare quotes around “libertarian”. Just because GayJay says something doesn’t mean it is remotely libertarian. I mean, Fair Tax? WTF?

  14. Chicago Culture Cops Tax Concert-Venues Because Rap, Rock, Country Aren’t ‘Art’

    And nothing else happened.

  15. What’s the problem with bringing in such distinguished musicologists as Doctor Dre and Professor Griff – you gonna argue with a doctor and a professor?

  16. I guess ENB really was mailing it in – an article that was a link in the Mourning Lynx she already posted?

    1. My thoughts and prayers are with you in your time of need.

    2. The links and separate long-form posts on the same issue has always been a thing on Reason – I only object when it’s a tired old re-hash of some old shit. Like last week when they had a links post about Donald Trump saying something stupid and Hillary Clinton saying something evil – hell, that story’s months old. (But I’ll bet they’ll trot it out again sometime in the next week – “OMG! Trump said something stupid and Hillary said something evil!” Like that’s a newsflash.)

    3. I can see how covering a story in more depth than a single bullet-pointed sentence would be confusing and enraging for someone who reads Links threads.

  17. This sort of shit reminds me of how we dodged a bullet with Robert Bork – I’m sure he’d be right there with Chicago arguing that there’s obviously a difference between art and entertainment and there’s no free speech or equal protection issue here. Just as he argued that the right to free speech was intended to foster robust political debate and therefore only political speech was protected under the First, not all this silly pornography and obscenity masquerading as meaningful speech. As if my wearing a “Fuck You” T-shirt isn’t a political statement to the effect that I support the right to wear a “Fuck You” T-shirt.

  18. Amusement Tax…


  19. So just start blasting Twisted Sister at the hearing?

  20. Artists should start performing a Shakespearean sonnet to open every performance, and say that is the part they are selling. The fact that some base, vulgar music is performed after is just a freebie.

  21. No worries – just bill any act as a “play about rap (rock & roll etc)” and you’re in. Nothing to see here culture cops, just a fine arts play; move along – – – –

  22. Does a Trump campaign event qualify as a theatrical performance?

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