Exploring Madison's Music Scene
Apr 15, 2013
09:34 AMLocal Sounds
Make Music Madison: Harmless Fun or Symptom?
Madison sure has its share of music festivals and other events that co-op the talents of musicians. Whenever there is a worthy cause, Madison musicians can be counted on to lend a hand, and they do this thanklessly in most cases. Local media is especially remiss at covering events, and even when they do cover them, the professional musicians donating their time usually get shafted. For instance, how many times have you seen the obligatory televised blurb on an event, the reporter speaking to an organizer while in the background you can hear the music or perhaps see the performers on a stage in the distance? I remember one instance where I could see the musicians’ feet on the stage! Perhaps the report allows for a split second of airtime for the performers but doesn’t mention their name or even bother with a graphic. Maybe this irks you and you wonder why they can’t get simple recognition. It’s like the late-night talk shows; the performers are last and are rarely, if ever, spoken to when they are likely to be infinitely more interesting than the show’s guests.
Musicians don’t have to do these charitable events. They do them because they believe in causes that help people. This does not task logic because, after all, that’s what music is supposed to do: be of benefit to people. They also do it to expand their audience in a setting that is different from the bars, clubs and coffeehouses they usually frequent. Oftentimes you will hear the overture, “Think of the exposure you’ll get for participating in this event.” Well, as I’ve heard Clyde Stubblefield say, “’Exposure’?...People can die from that, man!”
To be honest, I have to admit complicity in this to some degree. As Executive Director of the Madison Area Music Association, I’ve enlisted countless musicians to fundraise at events for us. Asking musicians to donate their time has always bothered me and MAMA has finally gotten to a financial point where we have begun to offer stipends to the participating artists. Of course, we always allow them to donate that back. Most believe in the MAMA mission to foster the next generation of musicians and to keep music alive for kids for countless reasons. For us, not providing compensation was purely financial necessity. For the newest music event, Make Music Madison, it’s not so clear.
While Make Music Madison may seem like harmless fun, many wonder to what end does it exist and how does it help Madison musicians?
Make Music Madison is the brainchild of Michael Rothschild, a retired UW marketing professor, and is based on his experience at “Fete de la Musique,” which began in Paris in 1982. Over 450 communities now offer their own versions of the event on the summer solstice. Publicity distributed by Make Music Madison describes the event as one that will:
“offer opportunities for Madisonians from all walks of life and with all levels of skill and experience to perform as part of a celebration of live music, creating a citywide buffet of musical merriment. Virtually any way in which citizens can imagine to make music can and will happen. The music performances will transform parks, front yards and more into impromptu musical stages, dance floors, and community gathering places. The libraries, the zoo, and the airport all want performances. There will be music on sidewalks, in parks, in front of businesses, and in public and private spaces all around Madison. Anywhere can be a venue as long as it is outside, anyone can be a performer as long as they love music, and of course everyone can enjoy this unique day of musical celebration.”
And, naturally, no one will be compensated, except the festival itself, which has received $25,000 from the city of Madison. Rothschild has indicated that only $20,000 of that is available and the city will retain $5,000 for unforeseen expenses. $16,000 of the grant will go to pay a staff person. The remaining money will be used for other expenses including liability insurance. Rothschild does not expect the event to be in the black but they are accepting donations. These donations are tax-deductible since Make Music Madison is fiscally sponsored by a nonprofit, the Dane County Timebank. Though the festival is geared more toward the novice rather than the professional, more than a few professional musicians have been expressing their ire.
It may sound like sour grapes but the Make Music Madison grant is exactly $25,000 more than the city has ever offered to help fund the Madison Area Music Association or countless other projects that actually have local charitable recipients and work to improve conditions for local musicians. While Rothchild’s idea is not inherently a bad one, and the festival is committed to making improvements and being receptive to any and all feedback, it’s still largely a head-scratcher and symptomatic of the city’s lack of connection to its local music scene as a viable economic revenue generator. It’s also symptomatic of the disrespect musicians have received down through the ages, but that’s another topic.
Mayor Soglin somehow sees Make Music Madison as a good way to promote music in the city. He also thought that spending $50,000 to create a music video to promote Madison’s music scene would be a good idea. Thankfully, more rational heads prevailed on that one. At his Town Hall meeting last November, where Make Music Madison was publicly introduced, Mayor Soglin stated that “he would no sooner not pay a musician than he would not pay a person who came to fix his furnace.” He also claimed that making sure musicians were paid an honest wage was a top priority. Meanwhile, I and others have been repeatedly contacting the Mayor’s office to talk with him about initiatives we have that are far less costly and would make dramatic improvements in the lives of working musicians. We have yet to get any response.