Madison Musicians Struggle to Make a Living

Features 23 Oct 2009

ben franklinMadison Musicians Struggle to Make a Living

Ben Franklin resides on the $100 bill. He hangs out in bank accounts, cash registers, and trophy wives’ purses, but seldom does he see the inside of a musician’s wallet, and for good reason. The rock connoisseur’s slim billfold is emptied through countless trips to Guitar Center for the greatest inventions ever created – power amplifiers, microphones and electric guitars. Thank God old Ben flew that kite in the lightning storm.

Madison has been deemed a “musicians’ graveyard” by many; a music scene where venues are becoming extinct and full-time musicians are an endangered species.

Pursuing music is a goliath-sized investment with squirrely payoffs, requiring funds for equipment, transportation, recording, and promotion. Economically, living the musician’s dream is a long shot, as well as a long-term investment. Bands fund their brave endeavors by pooling personal paychecks and taking out loans. If a big break doesn’t come, it becomes difficult to keep the dream alive.

Mike Allen (third from left and the Selfish Gene

Mike Allen (third from left) and the Selfish Gene

After claiming local success and a sturdy fan base with 2007’s pop-rock gem The Grand Masquerade, Madison rockers the Selfish Gene split in early 2008 largely due to financial reasons. “We all took out loans to fund the record. It didn’t immediately pay off,” said vocalist/guitarist Matt Allen. “It’s a long term vision. You have to ride out the storm.”

As any working band knows, relentless guerrilla marketing is what makes up most of the battle.

“Hit the ground hard and confident. Be the king of self-promotion”, added Allen, who helped lead promotional efforts for The Grand Masquerade. For months, the band put in 10-hour days contacting anyone and everyone who played gatekeeper to a media outlet. After mailing CDs, contacting journalists and publicists, calling venues, radio stations, and performing live, band members became discouraged with the small payoffs from their intensive promotional and financial investments. 

Allen explained that all of the band members were equally dedicated, but Madison’s small-scale music scene presented limited opportunities to get noticed. “I would’ve gotten out of Madison a long time ago if I could,” he says.

While Madison provides marketing advantages in its density (four major venues and the UW campus sit within a three square mile area), the outlets for revenue are minimal.  A slew of Madison music venues have recently ceased operation, making it even tougher to make a living as a Madison musician. The Café Montmartre, a staple to the downtown indie scene, is now for sale after 17 years in operation. The Ram Head Ratskeller, the only UW campus bar hosting live music, also killed the stage lights in July, eliminating another critical source of income for local musicians.

“That place (The Ram Head) was a dream gig. It was a crutch for me financially,” said Brandon Beebee, a Madison musician who went full-time a year ago, making a living teaching guitar in addition to performing with his band the Bombshelters.

Beebee states just how tough it is for the working musician in Madison, reasoning that “In Madison, 3-4 hour shows hosting cover bands yields $250-550 per night. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, only two downtown bars/venues host bands consistently at these rates. Shows that host original local music typically pay each band anywhere from $0 to $100, depending on the draw. So as much as you may hate Bono, it’s in your best interest to cover ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.”

While focusing on cover songs undermines the creative output of musicians, music patrons are drawn to bands who play songs they know, and more people means more cash flow for the bar and performer.

guerrilla music handbookJohn Taglieri is a full-time musician and is featured in Bob Baker’s book Guerilla Music Marketing Handbook. Taglieri regularly plays cover songs to make ends meet.

Taglieri proclaims a “Top 5 list of goals” is essential for anyone who wants to succeed as a musician. Each year, Taglieri listed a goal to quit his day job and pursue music for a living. He succeeded after five years.

“I want what I want and you are either going to help me or get out of my way”, stated Taglieri in a recent interview with Ariel Publicity.

Taglieri now has five sources of income revolving around music. He plays original music gigs, cover music gigs, runs a music studio, handles sales and marketing for Cyber PR, and duplicates CDs for musicians. While Taglieri does not draw Coldplay-sized crowds, he fairs well on the independent solo circuit in small venues, making stops around the U.S. and playing consistently at the famous Margaritaville in Key West, Fla.

But few have achieved what Taglieri has as a solo artist, as most musicians depend on a full band to perform. Holding a group of eccentric, independent, wide-minded musicians together is another barrier in itself.

“A band is a giant marriage between five guys”, says Jimmy Linville, frontman of Madison rock band Red Romero. Comprised of UW students, the band parted ways in 2008 after its members faced differing career aspirations.

“The other guys want to be doctors and businessmen. I want to be a musician.”

daniel and the lion

Daniel and the Lion

Linville now scratches his melodious itch through folk duo Daniel and the Lion, gigging relentlessly in Madison and the Midwest. Linville is one of the lucky few who can support himself through music, supplementing his income by helping local artists book shows. As a full-time musician and self-promoter, Linville has learned the business side of the musical landscape. “Always have pre-established financial agreements with your band. Acknowledge it’s a business, but don’t run it like one,” states Linville.

While Madison natives Garbage and The Bodeans have made the bank strumming 6-strings, few others have managed to craft buzz-worthy careers out of the capital city. But despite being a city with relatively few bands and fewer venues to host them, Madison musicians will continue to live off that last tip from their guitar case, especially if it means avoiding a day job. 

← The MAMAs Kick Off a New Year With Lots of Changes Ready for Take-Off: Sexy Ester and the Pretty Mama Sisters →

About the author

Brett Newski

Brett is a contributing writer, local musician and a member of the band The Nod.

Leave A Reply

Leave A Reply