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Sanity Might Still Prevail in Chicago Over What Kind of Music Is and Isn’t “Art”

Cook County, in Illinois, swears it’s not trying to define art.

The Chicago Reader broke the story in late August that some small venues that host rock, rap, DJ and country sets are facing several years’ worth of back taxes, up to $200,000 each, because they hadn’t been subjected to a 3 percent amusement tax. The county, which has an ordinance exempting venues that host “fine art” performances like opera, theatrical productions and classical music concerts, is arguing that the venues should have been taxed because the other types of music aren’t “art.”

Now, Cook County CFO Ivan Samstein tells the Reader that amusement taxes hadn’t been collected previously “on the basis of what type of performances they book. He disagrees with the hearing officer’s interpretation that only those genres traditionally considered ‘fine art’—such as chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras and opera—are exempt from paying the tax.”

Fine art is a relative definition, he told the paper, asserting that no one in the county is “in the business of saying what is and is not fine arts.” The county, like Chicago, “draws a distinction between DJ sets composed purely of prerecorded music and performances that include significant manipulation or modification of prerecorded music. The former would be subject to the amusement tax, while the latter would not.”

A DJ set by Frankie Knuckles, one of Chicago’s native sons and a legendary mix artist, would not be taxed, for example, as long as the venue where he performed had a capacity of 749 or less.

There are two county codes in question here, one applying a tax to venues with a capacity of 750 or above, and another that defines what constitutes live cultural performances, the Reader explains.

County Commissioner Anita Richardson, on Aug. 22, said during an administrative hearing between commissioners and attorneys for the venues facing back-dated tax bills, “that the businesses would need to successfully argue the live music they book constitutes ‘fine art’ in order to prove they are exempt from the county’s amusement tax.”

In light of her comments, lawyers for two of the venues facing tax bills—Beauty Bar and Evil Olive—have said they’ll invite a DJ to a county commission hearing in October to prove that DJ sets are as much live music performances as a philharmonic orchestra or a production of Shakespeare.

At least one commissioner, John Fritchey, is trying to nip the ridiculous controversy in the bud before it gets even more out of hand. He’s pledged to introduce an amendment to the county’s amusement tax ordinance during the next meeting, on Sept. 14, which would rewrite the county’s tax ordinance to more closely resemble the city’s and was drafted in concert with music and entertainment industry representatives to “have a rational view of ‘music’ while still providing safeguards to prevent businesses from avoiding legitimately owed taxes,” the paper reports.

We’ll continue to monitor this case as it proceeds. In the meantime, the Reader deserves praise, credit and followers for doing the hard work in bringing this story to light.

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Amber Healy has 523 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

One thought on “Sanity Might Still Prevail in Chicago Over What Kind of Music Is and Isn’t “Art”

  • When it comes to definitions of Art, I can’t think of any better than the one Brian Eno gave during his BBC 6 Music 2016 “John Peel Lecture”. His definition of art is “anything you don’t need”. We need to move, but we don’t need to waltz, tango, jive, breakdance, or moonwalk. We need to communicate, but we don’t need to mime, act, sing or rap.

    I think someone should tattoo those four words onto the bodies of those who think anything less than 150 years old is not art


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