They’re the best seats in the house, but put a damper on things for everyone else.
The free Jazz At Five series at the foot of State Street, which by the way starts up again next week, is exactly the kind of thing I wish more young people in Madison would go check out. At its best, Jazz At Five brings a good mix of Madison’s best jazz artists, young up-and-comers, and well-respected if relatively lesser-known veteran musicians, and lets student musicians share the stage as well. My only real issue, aside from the all-Capital beer selection, is that big section of reserved tables right in front of the stage. Call me crazy, but something about the white tablecloths, the waiters darting around serving dinner to largely bored-looking customers, just seems to sap that all-important energy between performer and audience. It creates an atmosphere that doesn’t do justice to the programming itself, and it’s something event organizers in Madison should gradually scale down, re-think and phase out. And call me crazy again, but it’s one of those instances where the people dropping the most money seem to be having the least fun.
I say this knowing that it takes a monumental effort to pull together funding for free arts events, and that it’s not getting any easier, and that these table reservations are a big source of revenue for Jazz At Five and the lawn-chairs-and-rosé quagmire known as Concerts On The Square. For instance, a sponsor booking a table for eight for an entire Jazz At Five series brings in $7,500. If you argued that the white-tablecloth section is crucial to making these events happen at all, I’d have to concede your point—but that would still leave the obvious impact it has on the general audience’s experience. In fact, it encourages the majority of the audience to treat these free events as mere background tracks for social gatherings, when really organizers should do everything they can to challenge that assumption and make more people feel they have a real stake in the performances themselves. And there are some really good opportunities there, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Perhaps it’s silly to complain about socioeconomic stratification at a free public concert, and I think it’s commendable that businesses and wealthy individuals want to help fund these events. But still, the whiff of noblesse oblige rankles me, especially when it takes the form of a literal physical buffer zone that—more so at Concerts than at Jazz At Five—can really get in the way of seeing and hearing the actual performance. Keep in mind there’s already a lot of corporate and nonprofit sponsorship in the mix at these things and it’s already prominently acknowledged in event programs, signage at the events, and so forth. (It always amuses me that one of Jazz At Five’s “Sideman Sponsors” is Hovde Properties, as in Eric Hovde, as in “running for Senate as a vanity project,” but anyways.)
Admittedly the last time I actually went to Concerts On The Square, I ended up literally rolling with laughter on the Capitol lawn as a very nice Canadian singer doing a James Taylor tribute set earnestly told the crowd James Taylor’s life story, then later ad-libbed, “How sweet it is to be loved—here in Mad-i-son Wis-con-sin on a Juuuu-ly Wednesday night—by yoooouuu!” Then again, during that same performance I walked up a little closer to the stage to grab a quick photo and an usher, realizing I wasn’t a sponsored-table person, barked, and this was literally the entirety of what he said to me, “Out!” I guess the “bloody peasant!” part was merely implied. Kind of a crap way to treat people in any situation, no? If I’d pulled out a checkbook at that moment, would he have deigned to form a complete sentence for me? Do we want anybody to be treating anybody else like that, ever, at a free public concert?
The good news is that there might be ways to experiment with the whole sponsor-table thing that keep the money coming in and broaden its appeal to different people and organizations. That’s imperative, actually, when a big chunk of your audience is aging. For instance, instead of having tables actually at the event, why not partner with local restaurants to offer a concert-and-dinner package, or if you wanted to get a little more precious with it, a custom-picnic package. That’s exactly the kind of collaboration that local businesses and nonprofits excel at, and that way you could diversify the menu options for potential sponsors. You could even still factor in a preferred-seating zone, but it would be less physically imposing and therefore an improvement for all. There are probably a lot of people and corporate groups who aren’t drawn to the white-tablecloth-zone experience but would love something like this. This might create more work for organizations already busting their butts to make these events happen and keep them free for the public, but in the long run these experiments could put them on a stronger footing.
And actually, Jazz At Five already has one sponsor package that’s a step in the right direction, in which you can reserve a table further back from the stage, with pizza and beer, for $100. That strikes a nice balance and acknowledges the reality that even smaller donors like to get a little something special in return. It gives a family or a small company or individual with relatively modest resources a chance to feel like they’re pitching in and being recognized for it. That’s a powerful idea, and there’s a lot of untapped potential for building upon it.