Guest column: All this free live music has a downside

Madison struggles to build a strong arts economy, and cheap audiences share the blame.

Madison struggles to build a strong arts economy, and cheap audiences share the blame.


Jon Langford plays this Sunday with his band Bad Luck Jonathan, at the (free) Orton Park Festival.

Jon Langford plays this Sunday with his band Bad Luck Jonathan, at the (free) Orton Park Festival.

Come Sunday, I’ll walk down to the Orton Park Festival to catch Bad Luck Jonathan. Founder Jon Langford (also of the Mekons) has a big fan in house concert impresario Kiki Schueler (of Kiki’s House of Righteous Music). Kiki is one of the heroes of music in Madison, and if she likes someone I’m there.

What’s to lose? The music is free. I’ll see friends, knock back a few beers and eat jerk chicken. Maybe even bring the dog.

These are the pleasures of a Madison summer. Barely a week passes without an outstanding free musical event—at Central Park, on King Streeton campus, on neighborhood jazz crawls, on the Square, in the neighborhoods. Even at bus stops during the solstice-honoring Make Music Madison.

You never know when good music might strike. I was in the backyard pulling weeds one Sunday afternoon in June when I heard a southern soul band tuning up a few blocks away at the Waterfront Festival. Not just the blues but also that distinctive aspirational howl of an Allman Brothers-quality guitarist aiming for the stars. The weeds got a reprieve. Jerekus Singleton got a new fan.

These are marvelous moments. But these free shows also have a downside. A serious one, I would argue. They undercut the economic viability of the local music scene. When so much great free music is available from regional and even national groups, why should fans dig into their wallets to hear a local band at a corner pub? Usually they don’t, unless it’s a weekend. That’s why I sat on the deck of Mickey’s not long ago, listening to the fine gypsy swing/Hawaiian group Mal-O-Dua without paying a cover.

Yep, there was a tip jar, but that’s demeaning. Musicians shouldn’t be expected to work for charity, any more than plumbers or lawyers should. Here’s the problem. In Madison, music is often considered a free (or “nonexclusive,” as economists would say) public good. Like the Fourth of July fireworks, the parks, clean streets. We all get a free pass to share them.

Oh, the festivals do have an underlying economic logic. Local businesses burnish their images by donating money to fly their banners. Vendors pay for the right to sell me that jerk sandwich. And, the greatest of cash cow of all is, of course, the beer tent.

The irony is that parsimonious Madison music lovers, who won’t pay a cover for a local band, happily feed the grosses of touring bands. For $100 you can get a ringside seat to see Joan Armatrading’s farewell tour at the Union Theater on campus. Indeed, Madison frequently punches above its weight as a concert stop. Bands sometimes sell more tickets in Madison than they do in much larger markets like Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

But the economy around local musicians—well, that’s the abused stepchild. In 40-plus years in Madison, I’ve seen local music repeatedly rise and fall but never sustain momentum. You know the drill: Breakout artists stir things up, make a splash and leave for the big city. The baseline never, ever seems to get higher for local music.


A few years ago I wrote a cover piece for Isthmus arguing that music could be a growth industry for Madison if it were treated as a emerging business cluster that created jobs—not just for musicians, but for hospitality workers, lawyers, accountants, artists—and brought big money into town. Think of the wonder years of Smart Studio and Garbage. Nobody in City Hall or the chamber of commerce ever said: What can we do to build our music industry around these assets?

With few exceptions, the most ambitious musicians pack up and leave for bigger markets. This dates from the Pleistocene era of Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs and Tracy Nelson onward through Lisa Davis, Stanley Jordan, Butch Vig, Duke Eriksen, Robbie Gjersoe, Carl Johns, Patrick Breiner, and more recently folk duo Count This Penny, among others. The scene never hits critical mass, and it never consolidates its gains.

Ben Sidran, who has fashioned an international jazz career, is that rare exception of a Madison artist who came home and still prospered. A few years ago, he told me something that still makes sense: “You can’t subsidize art forever. You have to make it part of the commercial foundation of the community.”

But this is not the Madison way. Art and commerce rarely join hands here. The university with its walled gardens for faculty artists is certainly no help. We’re a town where musicians and other artists pursue grants and work soul-sapping day jobs to pay the rent. Same as it ever was.

Perhaps foolishly I think this could change… for the simple reason that Madison is changing.

Fueled by the Epic ascendancy, the town has shifted into a period of growth and redefinition. The gathering millennials and techies don’t seem to be locked into the old Madison paradigms. Building a startup business around one’s passion is now celebrated and encouraged.

Last week I walked the dog down Winnebago Street and Atwood Avenue and was astonished. So many new galleries and studios have opened up! Arts entrepreneurship is on the upswing.

Why not for local music? Hey, this is something to talk about at the Orton Park Festival over a good Wisconsin beer.

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