In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher
Comparing Madison to other cities, and especially bigger ones, can go way off the rails real fast. That said, I think we can learn a thing or two from an existential battle taking place right now in Chicago’s live-music scene.
A proposed development project called Lincoln Yards would span more than 50 acres just a bit northwest of the Loop. The site’s developer, Sterling Bay, has also proposed including several brand-new venues that would be operated by Live Nation, a publicly traded company and the world’s largest concert promoter. Sterling Bay has backed off on some of those plans under pressure from local venues, the public, and a Chicago alderman, but it’s not clear how things will shake out in the end. Mayor Rahm Emanuel—whose brother Ari is a Live Nation board member and shareholder—supports the project, and Lincoln Yards even stands to benefit from taxpayer-funded incentives. If you’ve followed Rahm’s tenure, you know he’s rarely met a shiny boondoggle he didn’t love, and Chicago mayors are a persistent lot, to put it lightly. Mercifully, Rahm is wrapping up his tenure in April and not running for a third term.
At worst, the project could end up creating a ton of direct competition for Chicago’s wonderful array of independent music venues. At best, even with the venue plans scaled back, proximity to Lincoln Yards’ pricey high-rises would put a great deal of economic pressure on one of the city’s most beloved venues, The Hideout. As a recent Chicago Tribune story put it, “the risk is that The Hideout would drown in a sea of generic urbanism.” And even the best new-built venue couldn’t hold a candle to The Hideout’s warmly eccentric atmosphere or its pivotal role as a home for many facets of Chicago’s music community. It couldn’t substitute for Smart Bar’s role as a world-class hub for electronic music, or match the dive-y intimacy of the Empty Bottle.
Of course, Chicago is more than 10 times as large as Madison by population, and the two cities’ venue landscapes are inherently different. Rather than try and establish entire new venues from scratch in Madison, Live Nation let Madison-based FPC Live (formerly known as Frank Productions) consolidate several local venues and promoters and start construction on The Sylvee before acquiring a majority stake in FPC Live last year. Even so, there are a few common themes here: Corporate consolidation against independent venues, gentrification against a creative economy that works for everyone, and local politics that fail to serve the needs of music and the arts. Additionally, the initial scope of the Lincoln Yards proposal illustrates that Live Nation will always, always side with its shareholders and not with local music communities. Sure, we shouldn’t make dire predictions about what Live Nation will do in Madison, but at the end of the day the company’s model is a predatory one.
The biggest overarching story here, though, is that music communities need to start seeing themselves as political constituencies and getting involved in local government. The Chicago Reader published a great piece last week on the Chicago Independent Venue League, which formed in response to Lincoln Yards and is pushing for the music community to have a seat at the table in local policy decisions. Journalist Marc Guarino neatly sums up why this effort is so significant: “One reason cities don’t often think of music venues as economically valuable is that they’re micro businesses—any one venue is too small to stand out from the pack, and they rarely work together as a bloc to force the city to think of their industry as a sector unto itself.”
It’s easy for politicians to give lip service to live music, to treat it as an amorphous public good that attracts tourism and business. It’s easy for a mayor and city council to allocate a few tens of thousands of dollars to music initiatives and treat that as a feather in their cap, without really having to explain how or why those specific initiatives actually help local musicians live and work here, or bolster the audience for local music. What Madison needs is for musicians, music fans, and non-FPC Live venue owners and promoters to work together and get city officials to grapple a bit more deeply with the issues that impact music here, from housing costs to zoning to liquor licenses. (This is why I’m always banging on about Madison’s annual city budget process.) That means working together to articulate some policy goals, push for more and better public grant programs for music, and show up to boring Common Council and city committee meetings. Some city officials need a rude awakening. And I’m pretty sure that others—like the members of the Madison Arts Commission, chaired by musician Kia Karlen—would love to hear more from you.
New this week:
Artist Angelica Contreras explores street-art influences and her Mexican-American heritage in a show at the Overture Center.
Terran delves into a psychedelic vortex with a new single and video.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Poet Danez Smith visits WORT’s A Public Affair. New music from Klack. New episodes from art podcast American Bandito. Mekons announce a July 15 show at the High Noon Saloon.
This week’s Madison calendar: Yves Tumor brings confrontational pop to the Memorial Union Play Circle. The noir classic Detour screens at UW Cinematheque. Music, comedy, and spoken-word at Gender Fest. And more.