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Amid an entertainment world shut down by coronavirus, The Hideout is still working to make a human connection

“How do we keep people connected?” asked Sully Davis, program director of The Hideout. “How do we keep the Hideout around when people think of it as just a space?”

Those questions are the ones that continue to plague performance spaces and venue owners throughout the city as the state of Illinois enters its third month of shelter-in-place. But the Hideout, the beloved 100-year-old bar and performance venue, has found a smart solution: keep the party going.
Longtime followers of the Hideout know pushing forward is the modus operandi of the venue. Being first is too. Whether it was closing down operations well before the state’s shelter-in-place order or setting up a GoFundMe for employees, the Hideout has never been afraid of making challenging, progressive decisions in the face of adversity. It comes as no surprise then that rather than simply go silent, the Hideout has taken its beloved IRL bar and performance venue experience online.

In an increasingly overstuffed livestreaming world, how could the Hideout separate itself from the noise? “That’s probably one of the most frustrating things: trying to program a calendar for the future right now,” Davis said. “I thought, what could we do for the Hideout right now? What could we do to keep people connected?” The idea came to Davis around the end of March and he spent the next week researching and learning the ins and outs of streaming, editing software, and troubleshooting for cell phones. “It’s a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be,” he admitted.
Yet soon, the Hideout Online was born, and with it, programming that feels more akin to a television network than social media. The Hideout team aims to curate a streaming experience that reflects the spirit and community of the Hideout as much as possible. That means programming that features a mix of talk shows, regular music programming, bingo, and even a happy hour. And rather than rely on the hour-long limits of platforms like Instagram or the choppy streams of places like Facebook, the team turned to Twitch, most commonly used within the gaming community.
A closed sign is posted next to the entrance of The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Chicago. The venue is currently closed because of COVID-19, or coronavirus. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
A closed sign is posted next to the entrance of The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Chicago. The venue is currently closed because of COVID-19, or coronavirus. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)(John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Davis said watching concerts from a cell phone is awkward and he often got distracted. Twitch, in comparison, is a static page. It is easier to direct people to one page rather than use something like Instagram, where a user may be inundated with post notifications, direct messages, and notices about numerous other live streams happening at the same time.

“As the older guy, I’m into live music, a live venue. I want people coming together. … The kids are at home watching this (stuff), and all the old conservatives are at home watching horrible stuff, and if we could just get together in a bar, a music venue, maybe we could see some stuff and celebrate together,” said Tim Tuten, co-owner of The Hideout. “It’s a cliche to say the internet is a global community, but we’re using it the right way.”

The result is a one-of-a kind experience that is more vibrant than what is found everywhere else online. On the programming side, it also allows the Hideout community at large, both here and thousands of miles away, to all connect in one place. For example, the popular talk show “A Scientist Walks into a Bar” can select guests not just from the Chicago area, but from across the country. For the Cosmic Country showcase, some performers were in Los Angeles and New York. Show creators and performers were encouraged to take what they’re used to and make it more special and unique for a streaming platform.
“It’s challenging people to try something new or be comfortable with performing to a phone or a computer or to a video camera,” said Davis. “Just trying to figure out how that live feel is happening and making performers feel great and not feel like they’re sacrificing their performance to do something.”
Building community in the face of a pandemic may be difficult. Many people find community not between the walls of where they sleep, but in “third spaces,” the places where they could sit back with a good beer, a good show, and good people. That certainly describes the energy of the Hideout and why it has thrived for decades. From the club beats of Ariel Zetina to the alt-country of Robbie Fulks, most music fans could find something special, just for them.
It is unsurprising then that the team has found a way to translate that experience, however temporary, to the internet. It is not equivalent or perfect, of course, but it is something unique and special and true.

“In a way, we’re trying to reflect our programming, but we’re not trying to do a subpar version of what we would have in the Hideout,” Davis said. “The idea is to create something new and special for this platform and engage people while they’re there.” Tuten agreed, adding, “It’s also reminded us of two things: One, we love coming together and being in the space together. And although we’ve spread out around the world, we still have that connection to each other.”

Britt Julious is a freelance critic.
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune