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Keeping Madison’s music writing vital

A look back at what Tone Madison’s music writers accomplished and a look ahead to what’s in store for 2022.

Photo: A keyboard sits perched atop two white cabinets. The left cabinet has two open compartments that are filled with vinyl, the right cabinet’s compartments house two crates. Each crate is full of cassettes. Off to the left is an all-in-one turntable that sits on a stand. On top of the turntable are two small stacks of CDs. Within the stand, stacks of 7” records are visible towards the top. More vinyl fills the bottom. A Martin acoustic guitar rests in front of the cabinet holding tapes. A white chair is shown in front of the keyboard. A soft light emanates from behind the chair, providing slight illumination. To the far right, there’s a closed white door. Above the keyboard is a large pastel tapestry depicting a mountain landscape and a sunset. Photo by Steven Spoerl.

Musicians have been scrambling in 2021 as much as ever, navigating uncertain terrain and dealing with the ongoing threat of mass independent venue collapse and corporate consolidation. As scattershot as everything was, with all the exhilarating highs and horrific lows, Tone Madison remained committed to providing context on every advancement and setback. While Madison lost a number of hallmarks, there were still slivers of optimism that crept in, whether that was by way of The Spaceship’s adaptivity, audio engineer Justin Perkins’ return to the fold, the new releases that kept the landscape exciting, or the uptick of fundraising compilations.

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On the latter point, Tone Madison even threw our own hat into that particular ring, drawing internally for music from folks who have contributed to Tone Madison as authors, illustrators, or offered assistance with back-end help. Really, that compilation, Contributors, is emblematic of what makes Tone Madison‘s music writing stand out: we’re not only observers, we’re often active participants as well. While we don’t subscribe to the idea that you have to make music to be responsible for great music writing, the crossover that exists on those fronts isn’t surprising. People that eat, drink, and breathe music tend to be excited about conveying their passion, musician or not. And that’s who we publish.

The genuine love for music and spirit of intrepid curiosity when it comes to the nuances of its creation was definitely present in Scott Gordon’s deep dive on the elusive discography of Joan Wildman, which spiraled out into a few supporting pieces that helped capture Wildman’s importance to Madison music and, more intimately, her contemporaries and collaborators. It’s also what drove my own piece on the legacy and impact of drummer Travis Nelsen, whose life was celebrated with an emotionally-charged tribute show at The East Side Club last September. Emili Earhart’s journey through Xerobot’s history following a reissue also operated with that indefinable but immediately recognizable spark. 

Similarly, the reverence for music and musicians we admire was put to full effect in our profiles this year, which consistently offered the most comprehensive available looks at the acts keeping Madison music diverse, vibrant, and vital. Proud Parents, Louka, Graham Hunt, Godly The Ruler, Hardface The Pilot, Pelt’s Patrick Best, Penelope’s Thrill, B-Luv, Ryley Crowe, Kat And The Hurricane, Aaron Scholz, Chris Joutras, Kyle Merckx, and Fred Stonehouse were all artists that received an in-depth treatment. Kiki’s House Of Righteous Music owner Kiki Schueler, Mickey’s booker Liz Granby, and Secret Records all received profiles as pillars of Madison music’s organizational end. We also made some time for a chat with punk icon Bob Mould.

For the first time in a while, Tone Madison also started running an array of reviews across different styles of writing. Some incorporated interviews with the artists, others simply shared writers’ thoughts on a new release. All of it was done with the intention of showcasing art we thought deserved our audience’s time. Air Cabin, KASE, Able Baker, Soot, Andrew Fitzpatrick, LINE, Johannes Wallman, Dear Mr. Watterson, Luminous Veil, Cicada The Burrower, Louise Bock, Arthur Caplan, WitchUrn, and Moth_OS all earned themselves long looks and longer listens with what they accomplished with their respective releases in 2021.

Condensing reviews even further for an occasional roundup or two was a practice we started in 2020 and continued throughout this past year to punctuate some packed release windows and Bandcamp Fridays by highlighting releases that had managed to catch our attention. Another practice that, for obvious reasons, has seen diminished run on Tone Madison is written previews of live events. Still, a number of interesting events were given consideration throughout 2021 and we even felt comfortable enough to host one of our own.

Holding a live event was not a decision we made lightly. All throughout this year, Tone Madison has reported in earnest on Madison’s handling of COVID precautions when it came to live music. We also kept a keen eye on how the city’s structural handling of arts funding was progressing and were dismayed by the predictably disappointing results of a commission on racial disparity and earning gaps in Madison’s music community (though we will admit to being pleased to see Tone Madison‘s music coverage mentioned favorably within the report).

Not everything was overtly serious, however, as our writers found room for levity to provide some welcome balance to a year that was disheartening for many. Whether that was by airing appreciation for Madison bookings of Pitchfork Festival offshoot shows, examining the nonchalance of the increasingly earlier publishing times for year-end lists, rightfully mocking hubristic NIMBYism, pressing bravely forward with our yearly celebration of Cool Building Day, or taking our readers through the discovery and mystery of a particularly odious amp, we made sure to keep things interesting and unpredictable. One of our key strengths in music writing lies in the variety of perspectives we bring to the table, which continually reach further and further out. 

By the end of December, Tone Madison will have published somewhere between 250 and 300 pieces over this calendar year. Approximately a third of those pieces were directly related to music. Our music writing team handled all of them with tact, sensitivity, honesty, grace, and purpose. In 2022, we’ll be looking to expand the output, scope, and impact of our work on this front. There are already plans to integrate a new series or two throughout 2022 but we’re aiming higher than simple introductions. We want to be here for the long haul and to continue building a supportive, equitable community. We’ll need your help to make this happen. Thanks to two match fund partners, if readers help us reach a goal of $20,000 in donations, it will have effectively raised $53,000 for Tone Madison. Donate here to help us keep moving forward.

If you have anything musical to share in 2022, we’ll be all ears.

Steven Spoerl, music editor. 

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