A Look at Madison’s Music Scene and the Mayor’s Proposed Budget; Town Hall at the Bartell Theater Nov. 8

A Look at Madison’s Music Scene and the Mayor’s Proposed Budget

Town Hall at the Bartell Theater Nov. 8


Madison’s Mayor Paul Soglin and Jose J. Madera, Chair of the Madison Arts Commission, will hold a Town Hall November 8 at 6 PM at the Bartell Theater, to discuss the music-related initiatives in the mayor’s proposed budget.

The initiatives have drawn a lot of attention already, the most notable being a $50,000 expenditure for a music video to promote Madison on YouTube which has drawn a lot of fire. Other initiatives include a Summer Solstice festival called Make Music Madison and a $20,000 expenditure for a “study” to see whether Madison can hold a SxSW-type festival.

The first hour of the Town Hall will be conducted by Michael Rothschild and other unnamed “people who will do a few short presentations.” There will be a Q&A session and the second hour is devoted to the Make Music Happen event.

The city anticipates that these initiatives will:

  • Engage the citizen musician in creative place making
  • Lead to increased economic development
  • Help generate more cultural tourism
  • Attract and retain a creative workforce
  • Generally make Madison a greater place to live, work & play

While I have no qualms with any of these goals, I do feel there is a much larger conversation that’s not taking place. Namely, “What is the city willing to do to make conditions better for the musicians that live, work and create here?” And yes, we are talking beyond Overture.

Let’s look at these initiatives and outcomes in a little more detail.



The city is awfully confident about the Make Music Madison idea as they already have a website for it. Here’s the info from the home page:


Make Music Madison

Performed by Anyone, Enjoyed by Everyone

Save the Date: June 21, 2013

Make Music Madison will be an annual one-day citywide, free, outdoor music festival to be held on the Summer Solstice, June 21. The goal is to generate a continuous wall of music as people walk around participating spaces. “Music” is whatever live sound an individual or group wishes to produce, and whatever the hosting space accepts. The festival will be inclusionary in terms of genres, ethnicities, styles of music, skill levels of musicians, and in the use of public and private spaces throughout our community. There now are over 450 communities around the world celebrating the Summer Solstice with a music festival.


While the idea of spontaneous music combusting all over the city sounds quirkily fun, I have to wonder if there is any long-term beneficial impact. Granted, a lot of the details remain to be formulated but there seems to be more important issues facing the city’s musical health. Like how musicians can’t make any money for the most part. Room charges for local music events are resulting in the old, classic pay-to-play scenario where a lot of artists are walking out with less than they came in with. There is no lower bar in Madison; no guarantee that on any given night you can expect a minimum number of attendees at any given venue. People still bitch about a $5 cover charge where ten to twenty people, on average, will entertain them for an evening. That’s 25 to 50 cents per person. Another issue is how those artists that do achieve a certain level of professionalism are compelled to move away from Madison in order to have a chance at success. Could we develop some infrastructure, in a unique and inventive way, that would make artists actually want to come here to prosper?

There must be ways that the city could subsidize some of the maintenance in the clubs while working to promote the artists that are living and working here. It’s called economic investment. God knows the media doesn’t try very hard. How many times have you watched a news report, for example, that talks about a charity event where music was provided but fails to show or mention the musicians who donated their time and material at great cost to them? We know that there have been hundreds of local music releases over the last few years and we’ve seen published reviews in the neighborhood of 5%. I frequently retell the story from Bill Bruford’s biography where he was in an elevator and a guy asked him what he does. When he replied that he was a musician the guy said, “Yeah, but what do you really do?” The economic impact of and investment in the city’s entertainment economy should be measured. That sounds like a worthy budget item.

I was recently handed a 50-page document, The Economic Impact of Music in Seattle and King County, an astonishingly detailed study done by the University of Washington and commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of Film + Music. I was reminded of a call I received several years ago from In Business magazine who, at the time, were doing a two-part expose on Austin-Madison. Part I had been published drawing business comparisons. Now they wanted to publish Part II on the entertainment comparisons and were calling me to ask for statistics. I had to tell him there were none. The reporter was more than a little frustrated and Part II never ran.



Madison has an insanely inflated view itself when it comes to comparisons to Austin. Frankly, I have to agree with former mayor Dave Cieslewicz  that this obsession with wanting to be Austin North is not healthy. Madison has an identity of its own, can’t we just be ourselves?

Never mind that many attempts have been made to mimic the SxSW concept, even using similar monikers like NxNE or MxMW. They’ve failed. There is a good reason why places like Austin,Nashville and Seattle are vibrant. They have a music strip or district and there is investment by the city to help drive it. Madison has State Street, where it’s easier to find a designer candy apple than it is to find live music.



I tell you what, give me $10,000 and I’ll get ‘er done.


I hope you can make it to this event tomorrow night at the Barrymore. If the city is truly interested in putting some funding toward music, these people need to hear your voice. Let’s at least get the conversation started and next time, maybe they might think to hold the Town Hall before they make budget recommendations.

Oh…and one more thing…I have this little project called The MAMAs that the city might be interested in helping.

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About the author

Rick Tvedt

Rick is publisher of Local Sounds Magazine, formerly Rick's Cafe, Wisconsin's Regional Music Newspaper. He is also the Executive Director for MAMA, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces the Madison Area Music Awards and raises funds to promote youth music programs.

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