If you’ve ever been to a show at The Velvet Elvis, you can probably stop reading this. What follows is nothing more than something you’ve likely struggled with internally over the past couple of days.
But for those of you who hadn’t ever attended a show at this very special space, allow me to simply state the facts:
- The Velvet Elvis, in my estimation, was nothing more than a gathering of humans who all wanted to see a particular art form performed in front of their face. Sure, it’s live music. It’s louder than an art gallery. It’s more well “promoted” than a house party, because the artists deserve attention. Did it feel raw? It was. It’s presence existed as a result of necessity; any decent music scene trying to honor the idea of live performance does the very same — the world over.
- Really amazing artists have performed at the Velvet Elvis. Nationally touring artists. Local artists looking for a chance. Everything in between. I dare not list the names of the bands here, for fear I may be incriminated for speaking their names. They are perpetrators, and they deserved to be punished. They should burn, yes? Yes? The promoter certainly feels as though he is burning. That's a fact.
- Every musician in this fair city worth their salt would defend The Velvet Elvis and its right to function, without question. THAT is a fact. I'd love to hear an argument from one against it.
- (UPDATED BELOW)
Sure, sure. I am a promoter of live music, too, from time to time. I generally function as a person who books artists into rooms that have stages and full PA systems and where the artists performing expect some sort of “professional” attention. I have no qualms there. I did my time booking house shows, too. If you are in a band, and you perform as a touring musician, there comes a time — not always, but for most — where showing up at the venue you are playing should come along with a certain amount of expectation: a friendly handshake, a discussion about hospitality, a competent and sober sound engineer (every tech rider states this), and a show that has been well promoted, and in turn, well executed.
But let me bring you up to speed: every time there was a show that took place at the Velvet Elvis, the promoter took those same considerations to heart. This was a venue. Sure, sure.
A house show is different than a club show. And the way it's perceived is different, as well. It’s true: performing in a house, as opposed to a venue, changes the expectation. And that’s the very idea.
First and foremost, It eliminates a lot of the BS what-have-you that comes along with having to play on a "stage." Secondly, and more importantly, it exposes the artist in a particular way, and it's the best opportunity to get to where you might be going.
House shows are vital to any music scene. They are the core of its development and growth. Without them, there is nothing to see, nothing to watch, nothing to anticipate. Ask yourself if U2 ever played at a house show, prior to the release of Boy.
Let me save you the fucking suspense.
Isaac Arms ran the Velvet Elvis. He is my friend. What follows isn't some sort of hard core investigative journalism. I texted him to see if he'd answer some questions. He agreed. Easy. That's how it works here, in C-U. We're lucky.
He’s been performing in bands around town here for a decade. He’s also a promoter of live music that isn't his own, and he’s put on shows in clubs and at private residences, and yes — recently, he’s been the purveyor of performances at The Velvet Elvis, a space where many many people have come to understand the value of shows that take place off the stage, and on the floor, right in front of you. Sheesh — looking back, my own band wrote its very last song in the same building back in 2003. Later that year, we rehearsed a Björk set that would play the Great Cover Up.
It's been home to countless artists, house shows, parties, gatherings, for years and years. So many memories for so many people. These things matter.
This past weekend, The Velvet Elvis was rendered impotent, as a show space.
Let me be clear: I do not hold any anger towards those who may have decided that it was time to end it as a venue. They have their reasons, and they are not without cause and I do not resent them for why they did what they did. There's laws involved and that has to be respected, even when we don't agree with them.
There are two sides to every story, and I am aware of both perspectives.* (AUTHOR'S NOTE: UPDATED BELOW)
What is slightly troubling, however, is the way it came to pass. No discussion with Isaac. Nothing up front. Police enforcement at a "big" show a few weeks back forced him to shutter its doors before more than a few folks who wanted to peacefully see the performance were able to attend. No one knew how the noise complaint came through. It's Downtown. There's always noise. Someone was deliberate about this. -
On this past Saturday night, rumor has it that Isaac got a call from another authority figure who basically told him that if he planned on hosting his show that night, he may as well just stop it before it started.
As such, he moved it to Error Records, who graciously opened their doors so the show could still play.
So, I asked Isaac a few questions to better understand what the story is, and how it plays into what comes next. His answers, as always, are illuminating:
Smile Politely: What was your initial directive in booking the Velvet Elvis?
Isaac Arms: I moved to the physical space The Velvet Elvis existed in with the express intent of throwing parties with live music. If you mean to ask, why did I have artists come and perform and why did I ask people to come experience this? Rather than take up all your time in answering that, I might offer a quote from the Dalai Lama:
Scientists are coming to recognise the effects of the mind on physical health. The sense of relaxation associated with inner peace involves not only being physically at ease. If you are nagged by worry or seething with anger, you’re not really relaxed. The key to relaxation is peace of mind. The relaxation gained from alcohol, drugs or just listening to music may seem attractive, but it doesn’t last.
In this, I disagree with the Lama. Music, for me, paves the path to peace of mind. It is my compass; my shoes; my spyglass; my map.
SP: What do you believe that house shows brings to a music scene?
Arms: I don't know what I would call a "music scene" any more. House shows are, in some cases and/or in some ways, illegal. So they bring danger. If rock 'n roll has forgotten how to be dangerous in 2013, perhaps the danger must needs be supplied externally to help those numbed by a bombardment of culture tap into the id.
SP: Are you going to stop booking shows?
Arms: Are there good places to throw shows?
SP: How do you feel as though this reflects on the music scene in general?
Arms: I don't think anyone, ever, should be quoted on the music scene. In general.
SP: How can the music scene improve from here on out?
Arms: I should not be special; nor should I be an archetype: there are people all around working hard to organize others, and express themselves. The music scene can improve if the economy gets a phoenix down and people don't balk at cover or merchandise. Or perhaps if it further tanks and mediocre musicians throw in the towel. I trust there are people far smarter than me working on solutions in subsidized offices as we type. <end>
Two points I’d like to make (of the many that I could) from this quick Q and A.
- There are good places to throw shows. Rose Bowl? Iron Post? Mike 'N Molly’s? Canopy? Monkey? Highdive? Clark Bar? IMC? Herring? Buvons? Your living room? All open rooms. All available to you. Plenty of them. Yes, there are good places to throw shows. We are still fortunate to live here. It's not fucking Bloomington-Normal for chrissakes.
- Isaac is not special, as he states. No one who throws shows is. As the wonderful Steve Sobel once elucidated at the very end of his run as the exceptional host of Openingbands.com: anyone can throw a show, anywhere, at anytime. He even wrote out a road map of how to do it after a couple of years of doing it himself. It's not rocket science. It just takes the desire to make it so. Isaac has been doing this for years, and the fact that his space has been eradicated is a loss for us all. Literally and even economically. Even for the bar owners who host venues.
Essentially, here’s what’s what: most every band that had ever performed at a house show, a loft party, an underground space, an open mic, has envisioned that they may, at one time, propel into a place where they are valued enough as an artist to the point where they are paid a living wage to perform. That's when a true venue is needed. That's when tickets go on sale in advance. That's when hospitality is not just needed, but required. That's when a sound engineer must remain sober.
But, before that happens, house shows are where those artists cut their teeth. It’s where they learn their craft. It’s how they gain the steam to be able to feel good about charging their audience a “ticket” price to watch them express themselves. It's where it starts.
I quote Nietzsche, by way of the non-award winning film, Coming to America: "He who would learn to fly must first learn to stand and walk. One cannot fly into flying."
Champaign lost something special this past weekend.
The good news is that we’ve been through this before. Urbana once had its own music scene in the State streets just east of campus. It spawned artists that changed music, internationally, forever. I am not being hyperbolic. That's real.
What comes next is up to us. It’s ours to create. We live here, and the music scene will persevere. So will Isaac. If you know him, that’s not a question that crosses your mind.
It’s just one of those facts that you understand; easy yet important; simple, yet pragmatic: like the idea of a house show.
(UPDATED: 11:31 P.M. Monday, December 9, 2013):
4. On one hand, Isaac was simply organizing something that happens all the time: house parties. Nothing more, and nothing less, on the surface. Seems simple and like not a big deal. In lots of ways, it's not a big deal.
But on the other hand, what he was doing was flat out illegal and frankly, unsafe in some regards — and that has to be taken into consideration. When one signs a lease to rent a space in which to reside, one can't simultaneously utilize the same space to host unchecked paid performances that are open to the public. Private parties are one thing, but public shows are another.
Beyond that, here is another very salient point: bad shit happens at parties some times, and I am sorry to remind you, but what happened at the Great White show back in 2003 is even more likely to happen in a space like the Velvet Elvis. Or that balcony that collapsed in Chicago. It's all fun and games until there's a really bad accident.
Is that reactionary? Paranoid? Sure. But again — that's an old building, and I highly doubt that it's been rated to manage the load of over one hundred people at a rock show. Chances are nothing bad would ever happen, but because it's the job of the Fire Marshall to make sure that it doesn't, it's a liability and it's something that needs to be considered. It's something I should have considered when I initially wrote the article. So I am updating it now.
In the end — The Velvet Elvis was operating without a license. That's a fact. It was also the best venue in town in a lot of ways. As a result, it's closure was to be expected. Isaac did a good job in promoting the venue. Too good of a job, so it seems. But if you know him, that comes as no surprise. The venue was a reflection of his work ethic.