Of Kids and Critics: The Character of the Madison Area Music Awards

Features 15 Jun 2009

When it comes to the MAMAs, I’m certainly not some unbiased, balanced commentator.  But the ways in which my views may be out of balance seem, in some odd way, to balance each other out.

As a former MAMAs musical director and selection committee chairman, I know the huge amount of effort and energy that goes into making this event and this organization the success that it most certainly is.  I also know the vast effort involved in making it an honest and forthright organization, responding to the community and working hard to be fair.  However, as a musician in a heavy rock band, the lack of representation by the hard rock and heavy metal contingent in the MAMAs makes me question if the “best” are really being involved.  As a piano teacher and an advocate for music education in our schools, I am beyond amazed that this organization has weathered as much as it has and continues to help local kids thrive in their musical endeavors while honoring the efforts of the teachers who inspire and motivate the next generation of rock stars.  However, as a fan of local music, seeing certain acts dominate while other deserving acts are never heard from at these awards makes me question the method by which the MAMAs determine the “best” this town has to offer.

I sat in my seat at this year’s event with Kaya, my 14 year-old piano student, sitting next to me.  I’ve been struggling to keep her interested in the piano as her exuberance towards her boyfriend, her cell phone and Guitar Hero continually dominate her attention.  I hoped that this event might motivate her by showing the respect and love that this community bestows on our musicians while hearing some incredible musicians perform incredible music.  It did. 

The show opened to a packed house with a video of a group of children performing Coldplay with all the exuberance and passion they had in their tiny little bodies as a young music teacher led them.  I really felt it.  I felt pride for music teachers.  I felt joy for those among us who are just now learning what music can mean and what performing music can do for our souls.  I looked over at Kaya and I smiled as her eyes remained glued to the screen, obviously moved by the performance.  This is what the MAMAs do well.  They inspire with the promise of the next generation of musicians finding their voice and singing.

Rising Gael (Photo by Dave Newton)

Rising Gael (Photo by Dave Newton)

This year’s event seemed uniquely focused on honoring the hard work of music teachers and, sitting there with Kaya, I felt quite proud.  I found myself moved and emotionally engaged throughout the night.  From child musicians playing hip-hop on violins to experienced, dedicated teachers feeling the deserved pride of a lifetime fostering creativity, from the style and history of Clyde Stubblefield to the rousing energy and creativity of Rising Gael, the night was mesmerizing.  The music was incredible with a fantastic line-up, thanks to this year’s musical director, Katy Tomlinson. 
When Rick was honored with a citation from the governor, I was moved that his years of hard work and dedication to this organization and this community was being held up for the praise it deserves.  I have worked with him for years, from Rick’s Café to the MAMAs, and consider him to be one of the most dedicated and stalwart supporters of the arts in this community.  It was incredible to see him humbled by this recognition of his hard work.  As I stood along with everyone else to applaud, Kaya stood and applauded, too. 

Rick's Acceptance Speech (Photo by Dave Newton)

Rick's Acceptance Speech (Photo by Dave Newton)

The show was awesome, as it is every year.  The music was great, the set was excellent and the professionalism of the presentation is unlike anything else this town has to offer.  It is remarkable how much good has come from this organization and I’m proud to be a MAMAs member and supporter.  As we walked out, Kaya was feverishly texting her boyfriend, making plans to attend next year’s event.  She was impressed and that’s not an easy thing to do.

However, there is another side that is straining to balance my unbridled enthusiasm for this organization, for Rick and Roy and the entire board, for the good they do in this community and for the instruments now making noise in the hands of so many kids.  The problem is not the organization.  The problem is not the show.  The problem is with how the “best” in this town is decided by this program.

I’m certainly not the first to express this concern.  The Isthmus ran a recent story claiming the same thing and calling for a group of music professionals to help determine the winners.  While I cringe at the very notion of agreeing with the Isthmus, being the true Rick’s Café veteran that I am, this echoes some of my own concerns.  After all, as talented a man as Lucas Cates is, being awarded for Country/Bluegrass, Folk/Americana, Pop, Rock and artist of the year is evidence enough that the voting system in place at the MAMAs not only can be abused, but has and continues to be abused. 

2009 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Marvin J. Rabin (Photo by Dave Newton)

2009 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Marvin J. Rabin (Photo by Dave Newton)

There was not a single heavy rock ‘n’ roll act nominated for any awards this year.  And we live in a town with bands like the Skintones, Brainerd, Droids Attack and the rest of the Crustacean acts not to mention the huge contingent of hard rock bands dominating the stages of virtually every club virtually every weekend. 

This is not a problem of an organization not recognizing these great unsung artists.  The problem is that the only bands nominated are those that submit their music to an Internet audience, hoping to get a fair shake.  It comes from a system that allows bands to enter their music in categories that bear no resemblance to their actual musical identity and then winning because their Internet audience and on-line mailing lists are big enough to sway the vote.

I was there when the decision was made to go this route with the voting and, in all honesty, while I disagreed, I understand how the MAMAs came to this decision.  Several years ago I held the chair for the MAMAs selection committee.  I gathered a group of highly talented and open-minded musical professionals, from DJs to journalists to producers to music enthusiasts.  We painstakingly sorted through submissions and, when realizing certain acts hadn’t submitted material but deserved to be considered among Madison ’s top talent, we contacted them to solicit material.  There were long meetings filled with passionate arguments for going one direction or another, for what category a band should be included in and what category it shouldn’t, for what the difference is between hard rock and heavy metal, between country and bluegrass, between pop and rock.

I was amazed at the dedication this committee gave to the process and the results were impressive.  We managed to truly get down to the best music that came out of this town that year and we recognized it as the stand-out music that it most certainly was.  But others disagreed.

Natty Nation (Photo by Dave Newton)

Natty Nation (Photo by Dave Newton)

The press questioned how these winners were decided and thought our methods were questionable.  It was recommended by both those in the press and the larger musical community that we allow the public more of a say and allow internet voting, a system The Isthmus decries in their most recent criticism.  Questions came from critics and thwarted nominees thinking this band isn’t hard enough to be get the metal award and this other band should have been in jazz and that whoever was running this thing had no idea what the hell they were doing.

Let me tell you first hand that these criticisms were absolute bullshit.  Stupid, uninformed, misguided bullshit.  Not one of those that criticized our methods ever contacted me to find out what the process had been.  They spewed baseless crap based on innuendo and misunderstandings.  And those same sources this year call foul for the MAMAs moving towards their earlier position. 

The following year we mixed public voting with a committee.  The public had an equal voice to the committee.  It was convoluted and difficult to understand, but it was the result of a valiant attempt to please the public.  That still wasn’t enough for critics.  The following year, the committee was abolished and the awards have since been decided by only considering votes of paid MAMA members on-line with all the proceeds going directly to help kids get their instruments. 

Kids Performing for Marvin Rabin (Photo by Dave Newton)

Kids Performing for Marvin Rabin (Photo by Dave Newton)

So, while I may critique the method the MAMAs uses to determine winners, my critique of the fickle press and on-line forum dwellers that decry this organization and its motives are far more pronounced.  There’s no doubt the MAMAs was trying their best to be as fair as possible.  The same can’t be said for the critics and their digs at the integrity of the organization.

This isn’t a perfect system.  There is no such thing as a perfect system.  And no matter what the MAMAs decides going forward, the fickle press and the forons will most certainly feel obligated to shit all over the process.  And here I am, a member of the fickle press, adding my shit to the stinking pile.  Who do I think I am?  Why won’t I just shut up?

I felt all of these feelings clash as I sat there, proud at being a music teacher and seeing the success of this organization in fulfilling its noble mission alternating with my annoyance at yet another Lucas Cates award, as admittedly talented and impressive as he and his music is.  It also seemed clear that the typical critics would bear their teeth over the next week as sore losers meld with a misunderstanding and misguided press to dull the sheen of an incredible event for an even more impressive cause. 

But as the din wanes and the naysayers find something else to whine about from the cozy confines of their laptops, the MAMAs are planning ways to get more instruments into the hands of more children.  The reason Rick, Roy and the rest of the MAMAs crew keep doing this isn’t to please the masses and vacillate with the shifting winds of the Madison music community.  They do it to get kids instruments.  That’s it.

I’m not sure how the MAMAs voting system will go next year or the year after that.  But I don’t really care either.  Next year and the year after that, there will still be kids that want to rock and the MAMAs will still be there to help them do just that.  I’m hopeful that a system can be devised that will correct some of these legitimate concerns.  I’m also hopeful that those who feel outside the system will join the MAMAs, submit their music, and get involved. 

But no voting system will ever be infallible and there is no chance that all of the apathetic bands and critics out there bitching will actually get involved and contribute.  But what will happen, with all certainty, is that as long as the MAMAs continue their work, as long as this community continues to support them, more kids will get more instruments.

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