Lessons from a massive report on Madison music

The Greater Madison Music City project makes its recommendations for improving our local music economy, and it is A Lot.
A photo shows Karen Reece, left, and Rob Franklin standing on the slightly elevated stage at Café Coda, speaking into microphones. Behind them is a projection screen showing the cover image of the report.
Karen Reece, left, and Rob Franklin present the latest Greater Madison Music City report on December 8 at Café Coda.

The Greater Madison Music City project makes its recommendations for improving our local music economy, and it is A Lot.

Last Thursday at Café Coda, Karen Reece and Rob Franklin (aka Rob Dz) of the Greater Madison Music City project presented a 131-page report recommending ways to create more equity and opportunity in the local music community, and help the music industry in Dane County recover from the damage of the pandemic. (There is also a shorter summary version for the non-masochists out there. And appendices are at the same link if you’re a real sicko!) The research is a joint effort between Madison’s Urban Community Arts Network (where Reece is executive director and Franklin organizes the Mad Lit summer concert series) and the consulting firm Sound Diplomacy.

This latest report drills down into previously released findings that estimated the music industry’s direct and indirect impact on Dane County’s economy in 2018 added up to $636 million. When GMMC’s first report was released in summer 2021, it also showed how unequally that economic impact is shared. Racial disparities in income were greater in the music industry than in the economy as a whole—white people earned 122% more than Black people—and average annual incomes were lower than in the economy as a whole. About 75 percent of the income people earn from the local music industry, the researchers found, is for working in “professional and supporting” roles, not for playing music. About 71 percent of people in management roles in local music-related businesses are white. And these findings drew on data from 2015 to 2019, so these bleak numbers don’t even factor in the economic toll of Covid for musicians and other workers in the industry.

Like Reece’s work a few years back on the City of Madison’s Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment (TFEME), the GMMC research takes a holistic approach, looking at how music intersects with everything from education to liquor licenses to parking regulations. There is a lot to unpack in here, and because no one’s actually studied the economics of Madison music industry in quite this way before, the report opens up a whole lot more questions to explore in the future. Tone Madison is planning to run at least a couple stories about it in the new year. But first, here’s a breakdown of some initial impressions and things that have jumped out at me while trying to digest this report. 

Funding, funding, funding

The first and most immediate recommendation the report makes: establish a Cultural Office within local government, and start by hiring a full-time “Cultural Officer” or “Music Officer” to head it up, within the next year. “We don’t have a cultural affairs office,” Reece told the audience at last Thursday’s event. “Did you know that?” It’s true. The county has Dane Arts, which is technically part of the County Executive’s office and awards grants to local artists and arts organizations. Dane Arts has a full-time director, Mark Fraire. The city has a full-time Arts Administrator, Karin Wolf, but not a distinct office or agency for the arts. Wolf is an employee of the Planning Division in the Department of Planning, Community & Economic Development, and so is urban planner Angela Puerta, who devotes 20% of her work time to the GMMC project. For all the valuable work Wolf, Puerta, and Fraire do, their roles aren’t necessarily set up to do the things a Cultural Office would do, as the report envisions it:

● Bridge the gap between the public and private sectors within the cultural and creative industries

● Provide the music sector with easier access to any resources and support from the City and guidance on how to navigate the City’s bureaucratic processes

● Advocate for the cultural ecosystem, and build relationships that are mutually beneficial

● Oversee and reinforce the implementation of this music strategy and other culture-related strategies moving forward

● Work towards the revision of local policies to make them more friendly to the cultural ecosystem

● Cultivate and promote a more equitable and inclusive environment for artists and professionals

● Promote local music and musicians across the city, county, state, and region

For this to happen, the city and county would have to not suck so very, very much at funding the arts. The city especially would need to become more willing to fund more arts initiatives from its general fund, or find some other way to rely less on its Room Tax Commission for so much of its arts funding. 

The city and county both need to find ways to put up more money for the arts, consistently from year to year. Even when it’s hard, which of course it will be. Budgeting isn’t getting any easier for local governments in Wisconsin, and they’ll always have to balance a ton of competing priorities. But sticking up for arts funding is so clearly, demonstrably beneficial. Treating it like an afterthought is a missed economic opportunity—even someone who doesn’t particularly care about the arts can appreciate that. 

Our local elected officials always show up when it’s time to give lip service to the arts. They don’t show up during budget season to push for major funding increases. In local governments’ infernally confusing and inaccessible budget processes, these items get short shrift. Alders and County Supervisors never show much interest in agitating for large, transformative new arts spending. Neither do members of the Room Tax Commission. The overall funding picture doesn’t change a lot from year to year, and it doesn’t get much lively public discussion.

When electeds do create a relatively small amount of additional arts spending—like the $45,000 allocation Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway backed to help fund the GMMC study itself, or the adoption of the city’s “Percent For Art” ordinance—it feels like a huge deal. It also felt like a big deal when, to their credit, Rhodes-Conway and the Madison Common Council refrained from making massive cuts to arts funding in the city’s 2021 budget, and even bumped some allocations up (then again, there wasn’t that much to cut in the first place). It was borderline heroic when County Executive Joe Parisi directed $1 million into the Dane Arts Need Grant (DANG) program, which used a super-simple process to throw artists a lifeline during the pandemic. But that money came from federal COVID-19 relief funds and private donors. 

Rhodes-Conway said during a 2019 candidates’ forum hosted by Arts + Literature Laboratory and Tone Madison: “I have thought for a long time, since my service on the Madison Arts Commission, that we don’t have enough staff working on arts and culture in the city.” Rhodes-Conway clearly has a much deeper grasp of these issues than most other elected officials and candidates in town. As we approach the end of her first term as Mayor, the city still has just one full-time staff member working on arts and culture.

Elected officials also didn’t show up to the GMMC report presentation at Café Coda last week—I asked. State Rep. Francesca Hong was there, but I couldn’t find a single Alder or County Supervisor in the room. 

Changing how grants work

Recommendation 10 in the report is to “develop a grant program specifically geared towards diversifying the music ecosystem.” What’s really good about this is that it acknowledges, not in these words, that applying for grants is a huge pain in the ass for not that much money. Keeping up with the timing of the various funding cycles and application deadlines for Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission takes a good bit of research and planning ahead—it’s far from intuitive. The applications often require a ton of writing work, often asking not just for descriptions of your proposed project but also for budget figures, demographic breakdowns of your anticipated audience, a plan for evaluation. 

In the case of Dane Arts, you apply through an online portal that’s so crappy it’s kind of evil. You do have to be pitching a specific project, because (apart from the DANG grants mentioned above) these grants generally aren’t designed to cover operational costs for stuff you’re already doing or just help you pay the bills. The grant will usually not pay for all your project budget—if you get it, you’ll probably be expected to raise matching funds from other sources. When you’ve completed the project, you’ll do yet more paperwork to report back on how you spent the funds and share your evaluation of the project’s impact.

The report has a couple of specific ideas for making this simpler: having quarterly grant cycles “in order for a broad range [of] applicants to have access to the resources,” and doing away with the match requirements, “given the barriers that exist to the success of marginalized business owners.” Yes. Excellent. Anything to open these funding opportunities to more people who aren’t old hands at grant writing and don’t have the resources of an established non-profit with development staff and so forth would be beneficial. Suggested uses for the grant funds include “acoustic upgrades to repurposed performance spaces,” which is a very smart priority. Most music venues are in buildings that weren’t initially built to be music venues. Retrofitting them properly is expensive, and it’s a struggle to maintain a good sound system while avoiding noise complaints. It’d be great to see this program happen. 

Business practices

The 2021 report noted that “Most popular venues [are] owned by one entity, which limits opportunity.” In case it’s not glaringly obvious what this refers to, this latest report names names. Head to the “threats” part of the report on page 24:

Music stakeholders feel like the switch from local ownership to Live Nation ownership was more dramatic than COVID impact on the music scene.

And a few bullet points later:

Frank Productions and Live Nations (sic) have shaped the scene to be a National top-down experience so local artists no longer have many venue performance options. There needs to be a separation between large companies and smaller businesses/entrepreneurs.

It’s good that the report acknowledges that the economic plight of musicians has a lot to do with the choices businesses make and the increasingly consolidated state of the music industry. The report also points out that the “informality” of a large part of the music industry makes people vulnerable to low pay and unfair deals. (That informality can also make it hard to get good data on musicians’ pay, which Reece has acknowledged is a problem.) GMMC recommends creating a “fair pay policy for musicians,” though the details (page 93 in the full report) sound more like a voluntary, negotiated effort than anything with legal force behind it. 

The report also notes, just briefly: “The musicians are not paid fairly and some are forced to play for free or even asked to pay to be able to perform in big venues.” Reece says she doesn’t have specific information about which venues are engaging in pay-to-play practices, but just the mention of this in a city-commissioned report is a big red flag. I’m planning to look into it more. Anyone with information to share about these practices in Madison can email me or reach me on Signal (608-982-4002).

Can our institutions adapt?

The one big thing I wrestle with about GMMC’s study is that it’s premised on a marriage of music and tourism. Its tandem goals are to build equity in the music community, and to attract more tourism by strengthening that music scene. Sure, these goals can complement each other, but I still think it’s an awkward combination in this context. Mostly because, again, so much of the city’s arts funding comes through the Room Tax Commission, which means a lot of that funding has to be justified in tourism terms. Equity and opportunity for locals is the real substance of this, as it should be. I can’t help but wonder if the tourism stuff is just a spoonful of sugar to help this go down better with Room Tax and with civic and business muckety-mucks. And to its great credit, the report places a lot of emphasis on helping musicians connect with the local audience (it really is weirdly easy to miss all kinds of stuff happening right under your nose in Madison), not just on attracting tourists.

In one passage about establishing a music or cultural office, the report cites this as a “best case” example: “Nashville’s Music City Music Council is a collaboration between the Mayor’s Office, Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Corp.” I find it hard to imagine the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce doing something like this in a way that resonates with local musicians and isn’t embarrassing or odious. The Chamber has taken downright repellent stances on issues including fighter jets and Covid policy, so it’s bound to turn off a lot of musicians based on values alone. It’s hard to imagine the Chamber coming down on the right side of a fair pay policy for musicians. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though.

Destination Madison has a useful online events calendar and could wield its marketing powers for good. Obviously it’s still going to push big touring shows to draw in out-of-towners to come here and spend money, so it would have to put a bit more emphasis on local artists and figure out a balance there. The usual brochure-friendly cliches about Madison and music (Smashing Pumpkins slept here! Garbage! Come to the Sylvee! Sorry about all that unpleasantness, Otis!) are never going to connect people with what actually makes our local music community interesting. We should definitely try to get more people to come here and check stuff out, but I hope we don’t sanitize it.

If institutions like these had a clue about what local musicians really need, or a genuine interest in helping them, we’d likely be a very different city than the one this report describes. To help out, they’d need to learn and adapt quite a bit. And even then, we’ll still need new and different institutions to make real progress.


The report links out to an interactive map of venues and other businesses that have something to do with music. Not surprisingly, most of them are concentrated downtown and on the near east side, and half of them fall within Common Council districts 4, 6, or 8. But the data also identifies “clusters” of music businesses in District 14 on the south side and District 19 on the far west side. In those two areas, the clustering has less to do with venues, of course, and more to do with stores, places that provide music lessons, radio stations, the offices of music-related non-profits, and so on.

The report also states that “Most of the venues in Dane County fall primarily in [the category of] venues not exclusively designed for live music.” That probably isn’t news to anyone but it does acknowledge the economic complexity of music, and hints at the way it’s entangled with and often peripheral to the alcohol industry.

It would be interesting to learn more about how these geographic concentrations have changed over time. It will also be interesting to see how much it changes in the future, as gentrification and new high-end developments make it more expensive for venues to stay open in central Madison. 

This report opens up a lot of questions, but only time will tell if it touches off meaningful change.

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