words by Britt Julious
When it comes to innovation during these unprecedented times, the Hideout remains a leader. This comes as no surprise for fans who’ve followed the beloved music venue for years. Before the state’s shelter-in-place orders were official, the Hideout was the first local venue to close its doors. And it was among the first venues to transform the live music streaming experience at home, creating a curated lineup of events, specials and regular programming that was the closest to capturing the spirit of the “before times.”
Now, the venue will launch a new programming series, To the Front. Focusing on emergent talent, To the Front aims to spotlight the artists who haven’t yet broken through to wider audiences. “It’s something that’s important to our mission and our hope is to be a place that introduces new acts to people,” said Sully Davis, program director of the Hideout. The first To the Front event, featuring a lineup curated by soulful singer-songwriter Tasha, launches Thursday.
The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic for the arts and entertainment industry continue to unfold in surprising and unexpected ways. During the initial days of the pandemic, livestreamed performances on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitch became a novelty for the many people now confined to their homes and seeking alternative forms of entertainment. Many emerged successful in the aftermath.
Consider neo-soul icon Erykah Badu, who launched her own paid livestreaming platform and service, or DJ D-Nice, who gained more than 100,000 viewers during an early Instagram Live dj set. Verzuz — an online, hit-for-hit beats battle between Swizz Beatz and Timbaland — has even grown into its own successful business with a partnership with Apple Music and something called “The Verzuz Effect,” which helps boost participating artist’s album sales and streaming numbers in the days after their live competition.
But those success stories were more likely the result of previously successful artists with built-in audiences gaining more clout. It is easy to find more success when you already have success. It is much more difficult for emerging artists to make a name for themselves amidst the already-crowded noise of the music industry. Competing for eyes and ears among bit hitters seems impossible.
Enter the Hideout.
Although the venue is operating on a much smaller scale than something like Apple Music, it does have the local and national cultural capital to elevate artists. Some of our most beloved indie artists made a name for themselves in the venue. “The Hideout isn’t known for Andrew Bird; it’s known as the place where Andrew Bird got his start,” said Davis.
Part of the appeal of the live music experience is learning about new artists. Watching opening bands for headlining acts is an easy way to discover a new performer one may like, but had never heard of before. And a place like The Hideout, which is beloved for both its music and its vibe as a bar, was a key local spot for discovery. The loss of live music during the pandemic means a loss of discovery, too.
“You go to the Hideout because it’s a place you kind of know,” Davis said. “But you also go to see shows with friends. It’s a very social sort of thing. Your friend may be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to this show tonight. What are you up to?’ And then you discover something in that way.”
When they moved to online performances, they noticed that for the event to be successful, they had to focus on more established acts, both locally and nationally.
“We sell out the Hideout with new bands on the weekends all the time. Why can’t it be the same for introducing new bands on an online platform?,” asked Davis. “An online platform isn’t great for introducing people to new things. Paying a ticket for something you’re not really sure about is a lot harder [of a] sell, right now especially.”
And even if you have the attention of your audience, keeping their attention (when they are surrounded by the comforts — and distractions — of home) is difficult.
“When we’re looking at the new model of live streaming from venues, there’s not really a way to have changeover where one band goes on and performs, clear the stage and then another band goes on,” Davis added. “You lose viewership.They can’t go to the bar to get a drink. They can’t turn around and chat with a friend. So you don’t see those same things.”
To the Front aims to solve that problem by using the draw of a “big name” artist to bring in fans and then introducing them to lesser known artists. “It would be great if somebody they really trusted set them up with each artist. Why don’t I make the songwriters the host, and then everybody can be elevated in that sense?” said Davis.
The programming also allows for the Hideout to diversify their lineup of performers and bring in new audiences who might not have tried the venue when it was open to the public. Launching next month with Tasha, future editions of the show will include Lavender Country, Kelly Hogan, and Sen Morimoto. Davis said they are working with artists of different age ranges and backgrounds so where they start from is as varied as possible. In a time when the state of the music entertainment world is at a precipice, the Hideout hopes to be a salve and a solution.
“I’m not the best customer for the Hideout. We don’t necessarily serve 29 year old white men all the time. That’s not the only people that come to the bar,” Davis said. “I want more perspective in this thing, especially given the opportunity during this time to try new things.”
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.