How should the City of Madison pay for its music initiatives?
When the Wisconsin Union decided last fall to cancel its annual Revelry Festival, that freed up $5,000 the City of Madison had set aside in its latest budget to support the 2017 edition of the event. The city also provided the same amount to Revelry in its 2015 and 2016 budgets.
That money was allocated as part of the Madison Music City program, funded by taxes levied on hotel-room stays in the city. That program also funds events like Make Music Madison and the upcoming Between The Waves music conference, re-branded since it was first announced in the fall. So the next logical step was to redirect the Revelry funding to another city music initiative.
In February, Madison’s Room Tax Commission voted to allocate the $5,000 to the Yahara Music Library, an online repository of local music the Madison Public Library launched in 2014. Anyone with a Madison library card can stream and download music in the YML collection, which currently spans 77 releases ranging from classical to folk to hip-hop to metal. The project also pays a modest licensing fee to artists included in the collection. (Full disclosure: YML sponsored one of Tone Madison‘s concerts last year; that money also was used to pay local artists.) This all seems like a win-win: Musicians get paid, the public gets increased access to local music, and the collection manages to cast a wide net while applying some curatorial taste.
But after their decision in February, some members of the Room Tax Commission—which includes city alders, tourism-business representatives, and members of the public—wanted to reconsider. Mark Clear, who also represents the west side’s District 19 on the Madison Common Council, said some colleagues on the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau board challenged him to justify funding YML with room-tax dollars, which are supposed to be used to promote tourism. He couldn’t.
At its May meeting, the Room Tax Commission revisited the issue and, on a 3-3 vote, reversed its decision. That money’s off the table now for the Yahara Music Library. The project will stay online, but currently can’t afford to do much else.
“Without that funding, it makes it that much more difficult to sustain the project, let alone expand it,” says Guy Hankel, a Madison Public Library reference librarian who co-founded YML. “I’d love to be able to add to the existing catalog (both older and newer music) at regular intervals. Without funding sources we can count on, we obviously can’t create a deeper archive or keep things fresh.” Hankel and City of Madison Arts Administrator Karin Wolf would also like to make YML accessible to people without library cards, and expand it in other ways. Hankel mentioned in a 2015 podcast interview with Tone Madison that it could even grow to incorporate non-audio material.
When voting to pull the funding they’d previously allocated to YML, members of the Room Tax Commission made it clear that they had nothing against the project itself or even having city funding for it. They just felt that room taxes weren’t the appropriate way to pay for it. “I think it’s pretty cool, actually,” commission member Glenn Krieg said before casting his vote against it. Clear said he was “regretfully” voting no. “I think this is a very valuable and worthy program,” he said. “I just can’t quite make the leap from how the Room Tax Fund is the right source of funding for this.”
At issue was whether YML does, in fact, promote tourism. At the meeting, Wolf offered a broader view, hoping to save the funding. “We’re using this as a way to brand and market our music scene,” Wolf told commission members. “Cultural tourism is a really big thing. We could be doing better, for sure, but we need to start somewhere and it’s a pretty small investment.”
The Yahara Music Library might not directly drive tourists to come to Madison and spend money on hotel stays and other amenities, but Wolf argues that the city needs to “support a whole set of conditions” that build Madison’s reputation as a culturally stimulating place to visit. Still, commission members repeatedly raised the question of whether a project like YML generates, in hospitality parlance, “room nights.”
There might also be a concern here about running afoul of a 2015 state law that requires local governments to spend at least 70 percent of their room-tax revenues on “tourism promotion and tourism development.” That 70 percent is what the Room Tax Commission handles, and the other 30 goes to the City of Madison’s general fund. (Some local governments opposed the law, saying it would undermine basic services that in turn can help to attract tourists.) However, tourism dollars support all manner of things, and it’s not clear that devoting them to music programs would really be out of bounds. Additionally, as City of Madison Finance Director David Schmiedicke explained at the May meeting, the city is bringing in less revenue from room taxes this year than expected, though a push to build more hotels in Madison, including the recently opened AC Hotel on East Washington Avenue, might help.
As reasonable as these concerns are, it’s a bit strange to raise them for money that would have otherwise gone to Revelry. The festival had a couple successful years before flopping in 2016—when construction at the Memorial Union shifted it indoors to the Orpheum—but it was never intended to bring in out-of-towners. It was aimed at giving UW-Madison students an alternative to the noisome Mifflin Street Block Party. The only people generating “room nights” would have been the touring artists themselves and maybe some managers and crew members. The Room Tax Commission has existed since late 2015, so it’s had time to think about this in the context of Revelry’s 2016 event and its canceled 2017 edition.
It’s also not clear whether other Madison Music City-funded programs do much to drive tourism. Dane Dances, a summer series of free concerts on the Monona Terrace rooftop, is aimed pretty squarely at local audiences. So is Make Music Madison, a local chapter of a worldwide event that aims to flood cities with free outdoor performances on the day of the summer solstice. Between The Waves wants to attract out-of-towners, but organizers declined this week to say how many ticket buyers so far are traveling to Madison for the event.
One problem, Wolf admits, is that the city has put up money to fund these programs, but none to evaluate their impact or craft a broader strategic plan around them. The city doesn’t have any staff who’d be dedicated to such tasks, except for Wolf, who, as many people involved in the arts in Madison can attest, already does a lot with modest resources. If people are indeed traveling to Madison and booking hotel stays for events like Make Music Madison or Between The Waves, the city doesn’t yet have data to prove it.
The objections the Room Tax Commission raised about Yahara Music Library could easily be raised about any of the other Madison Music City funding items. Wolf worries that’s where the conversation is headed, and that the funding could fall victim to “the narrow definition of butts in beds.”
“I’m guessing that this is an indication of the direction that things are going,” Wolf says. “Unless we can really come up with some hard data about the millions of dollars our music industry generates, they will probably try not to use room tax funding to fund it.”
And Yahara Music Library can show at least some economic impact, even if it’s not tourism-related. Originally a collaboration between the Madison Public Library and music-digitization startup Murfie, the project spawned a company, Rabble, which built it out into an open-source platform called MUSICat. Now public libraries in Seattle, Nashville, and Edmonton, Canada use MUSICat to host their own digital local-music collections. It would be dissonant if Rabble’s own home city—eager to become a startup town and a music town—didn’t support it.
Rabble CEO Kelly Hiser says the novelty of such digital collections often means local governments have to get creative with paying for them. “Funding them isn’t usually a simple matter of pulling from an existing budget line,” Hiser says. “Most libraries launch MUSICat projects with some kind of special funding, like the Madison Public Library did, often with money from their respective foundations. The expectation is that if the projects are successful, funding will shift to come from the libraries themselves, usually from collection budgets.” YML, for instance, has received private funding from the Madison Public Library Foundation.
Some of YML’s other growing pains resulted not from funding shortfalls, but from technical problems that MUSICat takes responsibility for. “We weren’t able to keep Yahara up to date with the MUSICat app for a significant portion of 2016, and as a result, the library lost momentum in collecting new music and promoting the collection as a whole,” Hiser says. “Now that Yahara is fully up to date and functional, we want to contribute whatever extra help we can to reinvigorate the collection and make it sustainable.”
Hiser and co-founder Preston Austin are disappointed in the most recent funding decision, but believe YML will survive and grow. They say MUSICat will keep it going pro bono if needed, and have been in contact with library staff about future fundraising efforts.
“I do live here after all, and I love a lot of the stuff in the collection, and folks should do more things for artists for free anyway,” Austin says.