A few more notes about the Madison Songwriter Conference

Kip Winger is coming, and other highlights from the conference’s launch event this week.

Kip Winger is coming, and other highlights from the conference’s launch event this week.


Madison singer-songwriter Robert J performed at Tuesday's event at the Brink. We're not sure if he brought his own PA.

Madison singer-songwriter Robert J performed at Tuesday’s event at the Brink. We’re not sure if he brought his own PA.

The Madison Songwriter Conference and Festival is one of the items included in the City of Madison’s public-private Madison Music City initiative, but remained a big question mark until this week. In a story published on Tone Madison earlier this month, organizers seemed hesitant to share too many details. We got a few more on Tuesday night, when the conference, planned for June, held a launch event at the Brink Lounge.

First, a few new facts:

-The inaugural conference will take place June 15 through 18, with the “conference” part at the Gordon Dining and Events Center on the UW-Madison campus and the “festival” part at multiple venues including the Brink and the High Noon Saloon.

-Tickets will be $199, but conference organizer Roy Elkins, CEO of Madison-based music website Broadjam, says there will be a period of early-bird pricing at $49 and then $99 before it goes up to full price.

-Elkins and other organizers say the conference part will include Q&A sessions, songwriting workshops, technology demos, and masterclasses. Confirmed guests so far include Smart Studios co-founder/producer/Garbage member Butch Vig, hair metal star-turned classical composer Kip Winger, drummer/producer Martin Atkins (Pigface, Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke), and author/musician Craig Anderton, best known for writing about and developing electronic-music technology.

-The festival part is a lot less defined at this point. Elkins says he doesn’t envision trying to pull in any big national headliners, and would like to have a lot of “open jams.” He also said during the presentation that the festival would take submissions from bands interested in playing.

-Elkins envisions about 300 to 500 people attending the inaugural conference, and wants to build that up to about 1,000. He says that over the years and depending on how people respond to the event, it will evolve and maybe shift its emphasis, perhaps favoring the festival part over the conference part, or vice versa.

Reflections on the launch event itself:

-The launch centered around an hour-long presentation. It began with a video montage of bands, music-related businesses, and music nonprofits from the area. Vig appeared in a video announcing that he’d be taking part in the conference. DJ Pain 1, who’s been on tour in Europe, also appeared in a video. Elkins made some introductory remarks, as did Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon, and producer/engineer/DJ Corey Whitmore shared some bold-strokes information about the conference programming.

-The longest part of the presentation, however, was a “show of strength” in which about 30-odd people made brief remarks about their experiences with music in Madison, usually ending them with one of the conference’s two official hashtags, #ThisIsMadison and #TheWorldNeedsToKnow. Despite having these hashtags, the conference has not posted anything yet on its Twitter account.

-The speakers and 100 or so attendees strongly represented organizations like the Madison Area Music Association (founder Rick Tvedt is one of the conference organizers), Maximum Ink, that whole section of the community. Which is a bigger section than you might assume, but I’d like to see conference organizers try to involve people who aren’t engaged by things like the MAMAs and Max Ink. Not to get into trying to please everybody or to nitpick about whether this or that band is represented or what have you, but it’s reasonable to ask an event representing the city and funded in part by the public to strive for as diverse a cross-section as possible. If a broad swath of the people making music energetic and interesting in our town aren’t taking part in the event, you can’t blame that entirely on those people being apathetic or snobbish. In my experience they’re anything but. A lot of people who don’t participate in, say, the MAMAs have put an incredible amount of work into making our music community better, often on scant resources—from playing in multiple bands to setting up shows to running small labels to establishing venues and recording studios. In fact, I would argue that Madison does have a strong music culture, and it’s our mainstream business, nonprofit, and government institutions that have failed to keep up. A conference like this will be all the more successful if these institutions recognize that they have as much to learn from under-resourced musicians, maybe more, than vice versa. If you’re part of the event, don’t take this as me being a naysayer; take it as a healthy challenge. It’s still early, so of course there’s a narrow core group getting things started; use the next year to broaden it.

-On that note, we try to cover a diverse array of Madison musicians on Tone Madison, but only a handful of the artists we’ve featured were physically present at Tuesday’s event. Admittedly, the slideshows of musician photos at the presentation was a bit more diverse, including Sincere Life, Rob Dz, Clocks In Motion, Dave Stoler, and Tyranny Is Tyranny. Make of that what you will.

-I earnestly applaud everyone who spoke at the event for not making any wrongheaded Madison-Austin comparisons or trying to present the conference as a Madison answer to SXSW. This can only portend good things. There was less restraint on touting Madison’s inclusions in dreaded listicles.

-A lot of the musicians people talked about during the presentation were “legacy artists.” Now, we really do benefit from having straight-up legends like Richard Davis and Clyde Stubblefield in our midst. But the event would have inspired more confidence had people at least name-dropped a few more young and lesser-known acts from around town. And there are plenty to choose from, for a multitude of tastes. It’s a smallish city, so if you’re celebrating its musical contributions, get into some of the weirder corners. What I wouldn’t give to see someone stan out over Trin Tran or Ra’Shaun at an event like this.

-The best thing I got from Elkins and other speakers was a sense that they’re willing to listen to a lot of people, deal with the inevitable roughness of getting an event started, and tweak the conference based on feedback. How they deliver on that will make all the difference going forward.

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