News & Cues: Do DJs Make Fine Art?

by Manojna Yeluri

It might not seem obvious, but taxation laws and cultural industries share a rather intimate (and sometimes confusing) relationship with each other. As tax laws and ordinances have the capacity to dictate exactly who gets which expenses exempted, they play a crucial role in determining audiences’ accessibility to art. Recently, audiences, DJs and venue owners in Cook County, Illinois have been forced to rethink their definitions of electronic/dance music as art, following a dispute regarding the levying of an amusement tax on venues hosting certain kinds of musical performances.

Why are the venues paying tax?

The trouble began when the municipality of Cook County decided to ask two local venues — Evil Olive and Beauty Bar — for payments of around $200,000 each as back taxes. The tax in question was the amusement tax levied under the county code, which states that venues holding less than 750 people are exempt from paying the 3% tax on the admission charge to a performance so long as the 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”.

So where’s the bit about electronic music, rap or rock?

That’s just it; there is no mention of any contemporary musical genres, and the absence of an explicit mention is Cook County’s justification for charging tax arrears to Evil Olive and Beauty Bar, venues that primarily host performances by DJs. Besides the tax implications, the dispute’s hearing has led to another interesting revelation — Anita Richardson, the administrative law judge in charge of the court’s proceedings, has stated quite clearly that the music produced by DJs and rappers/emcees does not fall under the definition of fine arts, as it is meant to be understood in the county code. Although Richardson has also clarified that she is open to hearing more persuasive legal arguments, testimonies from musicologists and even live music from a DJ witness, her statements have been the cause of some annoyance and confusion among audiences and music professionals alike.

Who gets to decide what is fine art?

Richardson’s statements have struck a dissonant chord with many people who feel no need to discriminate between forms of music, especially considering the code’s ambiguous and antiquated language. Chicago, the county seat, has had a famously rich heritage of birthing the careers of significant musicians across genres, and a tax that will undoubtedly burden small venues seems rather unfair and intrusive to many.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey has responded to the controversy stating that he does not believe the government ought to be deciding whether a musical genre is fine art or not, leaving the decision instead to the people. He has added that he will introduce changes to the tax law before the final October hearing of the case, hopefully taking care of the matter before it escalates any further.

Who cares about these definitions?

Although at first glance the whole issue may seem rather inconsequential to those of us who are not residents of Cook County, disputes like these are in fact hugely significant, as they speak of larger issues such as government interference and culture policing. If we intend to create platforms and infrastructure that encourage all art forms, we need to ensure that our governments do not encourage discriminatory policies that might, for instance, divert better funding to the preservation of classical art forms while leaving contemporary artists to fend for themselves; or in the alternative, constantly focus on current artistic forms while destining traditional art forms to obscurity. Furthering creative freedom while attempting to create disciplined structures around art and performance is not easy, and that’s why policy discussions on the arts ought to be open to all stakeholders in the cultural industries — officials, creative professionals, venue owners and audiences alike.

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