Rockonsin and My Life as a Judge
I don’t normally think of myself as a judgmental person. Especially when it comes to music; I’ve always been of the opinion that music and the arts are all subjective. A “one man’s treasure” point of view, so to speak. But over the years I’ve been asked to be judgmental about music in various regards and I must say, I’ve learned quite a lot from it.
It’s all a part of volunteerism, really. First there was the Madison Area Music Association and the MAMA Awards program. Now there is a volunteer’s sacrificial altar if ever there was one. For over ten years I ran that (with lots of help) and yes, it was going to kill me. But in terms of being judgmental about music this one really tests the limits. First there was a secret panel of music people who were presumably in the know who chose from a batch of physical submissions. At the time not even those with Rick’s Cafe (now this very Local Sounds Magazine) realized just how much music was being produced and was flying under most people’s radars. Everywhere I went in that capacity I was confronted with, “Have you heard of this one?” or “How could you not know about that one?” The task proved to be ridiculously enormous. All we heard in regards to the panel those first couple years was, “Why do they get to choose? You should let the public choose.” So we did. Then what did we hear? You guessed it, “Why do you let the public choose? You should have a panel!” Well, it did, at any rate, seem to be a good way to get this judgmental stuff away from me.
Lately, I’ve been asked to judge the Triple M Project M competition. This is a hard contest with some worthy prizes and gigs for the winner. Trouble is, someone is going to get voted off the island. I recall at the time being in discussion with Triple M about getting more involved with the music association. Someone said, “Well, we could use Rick as a judge for our Project M…” I decided to give it a shot but was dreading it. I hate reality TV. Just the commercials for American Idol are enough to make me barf. I’ve never watched it. Or any of those other ones, to be honest.
I considered wearing a disguise and adopting a stage name for Project M but unfortunately I was too easily recognizable. I went through the first night and thought to myself, “Hey, this isn’t so bad after all.” Yes, someone gets the boot but the competition was surprisingly strong for the most part. It was a very difficult choice most weeks and the losers were quite gracious overall. I even sensed a little relief from some of them because writing a song a week for six weeks is hard for even the most seasoned of songwriters, especially on demand and with a specific assignment, i.e, “Your color is red!” I learned a lot from it, like how to deconstruct a song on the fly as we judges were also on the spot, having to give constructive comments on a song and performance after only hearing it once, a few minutes earlier.
The best part was, the choices we made were the right ones and those who have won have proven to be worthy. Just like the MAMAs, when there is controversy we ask, “Well tell me which winners don’t deserve it.” Where the bands are gracious almost without fail, the fans are not always.
One time I was asked to help select a winner out of some performers at the Majestic. The prize was an opening slot for Bon Jovi. One of the contestants was a VERY popular act. They really brought the supporters in droves. The fans had signs and offered up huge crowd support. The band was a good one, too. The performance was great. The last contestant was a new band made up of some longtime musicians from other bands, some of whom hadn’t been all that visible lately. They came on and kicked ass. They didn’t bring a lot of supporters. They didn’t have the huge cheers and no-one held up signs. But when the judges talked and we decided they were the perfect fit to open for Bon Jovi, I started to feel nervous. The winner was announced and there was a ruckus. Needless to say I got the hell out of there as quickly as I could.
I was asked to get involved with a youth music competition about a year after we started the MAMAs. It shall go unnamed but those familiar with these things will understand. It was basically a battle of the bands for high school groups, which often had middle-schoolers as members. Now, I’ve always despised battles-of-the-bands because I always felt there should be no losers and that might be crippling. But this was a cause near and dear to my heart: helping the next generation of musicians develop. These kids all got a hell of an experience. If you haven’t been in a high school auditorium lately these things are becoming state-of-the-art. There was a professional crew, it was being recorded and filmed and there was a sizable crowd. It was exciting as hell for them and we gave them pointers – in person – after each band performed. There was some attitude. There was also some really impressive talent. Several of these youth bands have advanced and are now stalwarts in the local scene. The winner and runners-up got gigs at Summerfest. Summerfest – the largest music festival, what, in the world? They were also honored onstage at the MAMA Awards – all four Madison Regional finalists. I’ve served as a judge every year since.
The program has gone through some changes, is now called Rockonsin and is still run by Dennis Graham of Dennis Graham Associates. He does a hell of a job with promotion and building sponsors, all valuable stuff for a guy like me. This year, the Rockonsin competition takes place at Summerfest on June 30 and July 1 at the Johnson Controls Stage from noon to 4 pm. There are more Summerfest appearances and Van’s Warped Tour appearances on the line, among other things. What a great opportunity for these kids. Most bands would KILL to play Summerfest even once. I’ll be there and I’ll be doing my best to not be Simon.
For now, it’s a beautiful afternoon. I’m hanging on Genna’s terrace writing this on a whim. I’m going to go back to my brew and stop being so goddamned judgmental.