Music in Madison can pay, if you’re white and not a musician

A new report details the unequal economic impact of music in Madison, and the opportunities ahead.

A new report details the unequal economic impact of music in Madison, and the opportunities ahead.

Image: A bar chart from a report on the economic impact of music in Madison shows the average income broken down by three racial categories (white, Black or African-American, and Asian) across Dane County’s music sector and the rest of its economy.  In the “music ecosystem,” the average income is shown as $29,968 for white people, $13,485 for Black people, and $12,715 for Asian people. In the “Rest of the economy,” the average income is shown as $50,943 for white people, $31,867 for Black people, and $45,529 for Asian people.

A newly released report on the economic impact of music in Madison and Dane County praises the quality and variety of our local musicians, but also provides stark figures about low pay and racial disparities in local music.


The City of Madison and Dane County commissioned the 59-page report last fall. The consulting firm Sound Diplomacy partnered with Madison-based nonprofit Urban Community Arts Network (UCAN) to analyze data and ask people active in the local music community for their opinions about its strengths and weaknesses. It’s part of the ongoing Greater Madison Music City Project, an effort to make the local music community more equitable and to promote Madison as a music destination. (Full disclosure: GMMC is promoting its Mad Lit event series through a sponsorship on Tone Madison. Please see our editorial independence policy.)

UCAN celebrated the report’s release with a happy-hour event Monday evening at Willy Street jazz club Café Coda. During the event, UCAN president Karen Reece took part in a panel discussion with rapper and educator Rob Dz, musician and City of Madison Planning Division staffer Angela Puerta (who devotes 20% of her work time at the city to music and arts issues), and Dane Arts director Mark Fraire. UCAN and Sound Diplomacy will continue to work together on further analyses of policy obstacles to the success of the local music community, and on a comparison between Madison and other cities of similar size.

In 2018 in Dane County, the report concludes, “the output generated by the music ecosystem was $636 million.” That figure that counts the direct economic impact of the music business in the area (defined as the “economic value of the activities related to the core of the music ecosystem”), indirect impacts on other industries (i.e., people go to a show, pay for parking, eat at a local restaurant before or after), and the “induced” impact from people spending money earned from working in music. But if we do indeed have a “music ecosystem” worth somewhere around half a billion dollars annually, it’s not paying off much for a lot of the people involved.

The report finds that between 2015 and 2019, the average annual income for people working in the “music ecosystem” was $22,709, compared to $48,611 in the rest of the local economy. When the report breaks down those earnings by race and ethnicity, the disparities are appalling: “In the music ecosystem, White-identified workers earn 122% more than Black/African Americans and 136% more than Asian workers.” The report also notes white people hold about 71% of management positions in local music-related businesses.

These numbers on earnings and racial disparities highlight what most people involved in local music already understand: the Madison area has a wealth of talented musicians, but they’re up against systemic racism, fickle audiences, a neglectful business climate, and local governments’ generally paltry investment in public arts funding. The picture presented here is incomplete, of course: Much of the report’s findings rely on federal economic data (from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Bureau of Economic Analysis) that uses flawed categorizations to impose order on messy realities. If someone gets paid in cash for a show at a local bar, and makes most of their living in a job that’s not related to music, that might not show up in formalized data sets. A lot of music happens in places that aren’t full-on music businesses, which also makes this tough to parse. Plus, most of the report’s data is from  2015 through 2019, which means it won’t account for the devastating impact the pandemic has had on local musicians and venues.

The report itself acknowledges there are limits to the data, and that “the music ecosystem is highly informal, with self-employees making up most of the workforce in the area.” Despite that informality, the report finds that about 75% of the employment in the Dane County music industry in 2018 was in “professional and supporting” roles, which the report defines as “manufacturing, publishing and distribution, managers and agents, music venues, radio broadcasting, and music education.” The other 25% are the actual musicians and songwriters. This juxtaposition—a lot of informality, but a disproportionate percentage of people working in formalized roles—speaks both to the difficulty of measuring the way music operates on the fringes, and to the lopsided investments of our institutions.

“I think if we are missing information about ‘informal’ music economy employment, it makes it more difficult to make an argument for why it’s so important to improve infrastructure so musicians and those in related roles can support themselves,” Reece says. “The tension is that more money and support stays with those currently in power or with more access to resources because those in less obvious roles become somewhat invisible in the mainstream economy.”

Reece also acknowledges a big gap in the report’s racial and ethnic breakdowns. “Information about Latinx/Hispanic communities is notably missing in this report because there wasn’t enough data available to draw solid conclusions,” she explains.

Kate Durio, Sound Diplomacy’s CEO for North America and the Caribbean, acknowledges that this is a frequent obstacle in understanding local music’s economic workings. “That’s the challenge really, and why this work is so important—there’s no NAICS code for this,” Durio says, referring to the standardized coding system federal agencies use to classify different kinds of businesses. “[In] traditional economic-development, chamber [of commerce] data, the music industry is unaccounted for. You don’t need a permit to do it, most bands don’t have a registered LLC, not that you can really access all of that information. It’s a gap in our current economic development system, data system, and so there’s no analytics.”

Durio thinks part of the solution is to help more musicians understand the business structures and resources they might have access to, like creating an LLC, applying for grants, or developing multiple revenue sources. Madison has tried to address the need for professional development resources and support in part by providing city funds for the annual Between The Waves music conference. But Durio says cities also need a holistic, long-term approach that gets at the underlying conditions and recognizes the value of what’s already there.

“Madison already has such a head start, but the issue is that a lot of communities get hung up on these silver-bullet projects… but that’s really short-sighted, and really has no business in modern economic development, because there is no such thing as that, and you wind up giving away the farm for a song in hopes you’re going to get a lot of payback, but the lifetime of that kind of an investment is very, very fast and short,” Durio says. The approach Durio advises for Madison, and most other cities trying to build healthy music communities, is “a slow burn, it’s patient capital, it’s the long game, and it’s really the smarter one because you already have people that are choosing to be in Madison, that are producing music and are already contributing to your community, so why wouldn’t you invest in people that have already invested in you?”

Beyond the data, the report also gathered observations from a workgroup of about 40 people involved or connected with Madison music, and categorized those into columns of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Actual musicians and people with on-the-ground involvement in local music had enough seats at the table to balance out the usual corporate and civic suspects. The group included Supa Friends MC Tyler Brunsell, musician/documentarian/recording engineer Wendy Schenider, and jazz bassist Nick Moran, to name a few. This part of the report credits Madison’s local pride and its diverse and accomplished array of musicians (“Local musician work ethic is exceptional,” reads one entry in the “strengths” column). But it’s not sugarcoated: The “weaknesses” column points out that “Audiences are so used to free opportunities that they won’t pay for entertainment,” and that “There’s no ‘spot’ for artists and fans of color,” among other glaring systemic factors. During Monday night’s panel, Reece pointed out that Café Coda is the only Black-owned bar in Madison.


Madison has a long and frustrating history of denying local artists of color opportunities, and especially of discriminating against hip-hop. Reece previously headed up a city-commissioned Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment (TFEME), which in 2018 issued a powerful and detailed report that called out the over-policing of hip-hop events in Madison and offered 31 specific policy recommendations for creating a more inclusive arts and culture landscape. City leaders have been slow to act on most of those recommendations, and some put up open resistance to the TFEME report’s criticisms of local police. And before that, Reece collaborated with researchers at UW-Madison on a study that used police data to challenge the stereotype that hip-hop shows are correlated with more violence than shows for other music genres. There has been some movement—Puerta, from the city’s Planning Division (which also houses the city’s one full-time arts administrator, Karin Wolf) is spending part of her work time on trying to implement the TFEME recommendations. Reece is keeping the policy obstacles in mind as the economic impact report comes out.

“Unfortunately, I’ve found that hard data isn’t always enough to shift the narrative,” Reece says. “I do think that change happens when we stay consistent and continue to push for a shift. We now have a UW study on music genre and violence, the TFEME report, and this analysis. Early next year we will have a comparative analysis and regulatory/policy analysis from Sound Diplomacy as well. All of those pieces make it harder to ignore the reality of what musicians and other artists have been saying for decades.”

Another weakness the new report cites is that “Most popular venues [are] owned by one entity, which limits opportunity,” and as a threat, it notes the “Power in local venue/entertainment to maintain and grow monopoly.” Though it doesn’t name names, these are obvious references to FPC Live, the Madison-based concert promoter in which Live Nation bought a majority stake in 2018. Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, acquires promoters all the time, around the world, so Sound Diplomacy has studied plenty of other places where it has a footprint. Durio doesn’t see Live Nation as “the big bad wolf,” but thinks local governments need to take a long-term approach when the company comes to town.

“What we typically recommend is, can you do some kind of cooperative endeavor agreement with Live Nation, to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll let you be in our town or we’ll let you do this venue, but we also want spots for some of our local musicians,'” Durio says. Right now, it’s not clear who at the city or the county would even carry out these sorts of negotiations.

Live Nation, Durio says, “is not negotiated to enough. They come at it like they’re doing you a giant favor, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. You really have to offer venue owners solutions and make sure that we have enough places that are featuring local artists, so that it’s not just like Anywhere USA coming through town.”

Durio thinks Madison is somewhat ahead of the curve compared to many other cities, in that organizations like UCAN have already been digging into the sorts of issues Sound Diplomacy works on, including equity and the complex ways in which the arts intersect with many facets of public policy. And just as importantly, we have a lot of people in Madison who make music that’s worth hearing.

“They’re already here,” Durio says. “We don’t have to attract them. They just want to know that they’re seen and supported, and they want to start seeing some effort to help them in what they’re already trying to do… that seems to be a pretty modest and really no-brainer ask.”

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