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Editorial: Hey Mr. DJ, are you really an artist?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

There's an entertaining showdown underway in a Cook County courtroom that sounds like the plot to an old Elvis Presley movie: Can a bunch of cool kids convince an old fogy judge that the modern music they love has artistic merit and isn't worthless noise?

The pivotal scene would play out at a tax hearing where the musty official in charge, who hates rock and rap music, allows a hip-hop-style DJ to perform in defense of his art. The DJ, of course, wows the fussbudget with his superb beats, the case is dismissed and everyone dances, including the judge. The End.

Back in reality,here's what's going on: Two Chicago clubs are in trouble for not charging patrons a 3 percent county amusement tax on the ticket price for special DJ nights. To be clear here, the issue isn't about oldies DJs who spin discs at a club for a few hours. It's about the skilled DJ performers who create danceable soundscapes from song snippets, computerized drum beats and other noises.

The city of Chicago already has specific tax-exemption rules in place for musical and cultural performances at clubs, including for performing DJs. On the county side, however, the amusement tax exemption is vaguely worded and clearly out of date, which is how the two venues, Evil Olive and Beauty Bar, found themselves in front of Anita Richardson, a Cook County administrative law judge. The county is going after the two clubs for nearly $200,000 each in back taxes.

The county ordinance, like the city's, grants the tax exemption on admission fees for live musical, theatrical and cultural performances at venues that hold up to 750 people. The problem is the county ordinance appears to define music as a genre that stopped evolving in about 1949. It says the exempted performances are "part of the fine arts, such as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings." No contemporary music genres are mentioned.

Richardson, at a hearing on Monday, read over the ordinance and saw the reference to "fine arts" and told lawyers representing the venues that Cook County appeared to have made up its mind about the definition of culture. Rock 'n' roll, rap, country and DJ-produced music aren't "fine art," she said.

"You're going to have to make a legal argument that places what disc jockeys do within the scope of fine arts," Richardson told the venues' attorneys, the Tribune reported. "I think you're going to be hard-pressed to prove that the (Cook County Board) commissioners meant for rap music to qualify as the fine arts. None of the definitions that I've come across have included the activities of DJs doing what they do as fine art."

Richardson said she'd be open to hearing live music from a DJ witness at the next scheduled court date in October, but attorneys also should provide testimony from an expert musicologist.

We're not the experts she seeks,but as Chicagoans we know how steeped our city is in modern musical culture, which makes this debate downright embarrassing. Chicago is a birthplace to the blues, it's a jazz capital, hometown to some of the world's greatest rappers and most influential indie bands. This is also, ahem, the city that gave its name to Chicago house music, the pioneering 1980s effort by local DJs like Frankie Knuckles to turn mashups of disco, funk and other grooves into a new genre of nightclub performance.

Each of those musical styles, including DJ'ing, represents a cultural experience and deserves the same encouragement and tax treatment as does a theatrical drama or classical concert. Some musical artists write and play songs on traditional instruments; performance DJs create danceable tapestries of sound. The DJ scene is especially vibrant these days: Flosstradamus, a Chicago DJ duo, was a headliner at Lollapalooza, playing for thousands.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey tells us he doesn't think government should be playing culture police. He plans to introduce changes to the county ordinance before the October hearing to sync up with the city's enlightened view that all music, including DJ performances, get the same treatment. We hope his effort is enough to fix the ordinance and head off that October hearing. If not, it's sure to be a lively court session, with a great dance beat.



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