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Prying it back open

Madison’s venues enter a precarious new reality.

Photo: Tubal Cain playing Art In’s final show in February.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

We have entered a queasy in-between times in Madison. In theory, you can now go out to a bar, give your order through/around a plastic shield, perfunctorily follow some protective guidelines, and maybe not feel like a total super-spreading cretin. Some small venues in town are even having indoor shows again, and Rob Thomas reported this week in The Capital Times about reopening efforts at venues including the recently renamed Bur Oak and Willy Street’s Café Coda. People have less money to throw around, thanks to the pandemic and our abysmal failure of a social safety net. People aren’t really safe, either, but as a society we’ve decided that commerce must crank on, even when it won’t provide for everyone’s needs and might kill a whole lot of people. 

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On top of that, thousands of people have been out in the streets protesting. This adds to the risk and to a certain fuck-it atmosphere, but doesn’t bother me for a second. It’s a largely Black-led protest in a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black people; were it not for that fact I’d be way more hesitant. Nearly every person I’ve seen at the protests has been wearing a mask and taking precautions as best they could. I won’t conflate people fighting for life and dignity with the “I want a haircut” rubes. But where this leaves matters of culture, the need to gather with others, the need for artists to have a platform, is much more of a gray area. I feel incredibly iffy about it, and even about previewing in-person events in this publication—which is, after all, a local arts outlet, and has had its reality walloped upside-down twice this year.

During the lockdown, I encountered plenty of people around Madison who clearly did not understand or care about how to share space with others. After seeing people bulling through the aisles at grocery stores and even handling produce with their bare hands then putting it back, I shudder to think how some patrons will behave at even the most carefully reopened bars, venues, and restaurants. I’ve had a couple of patio beers here and there and feel like an idiot about it. I empathize with people who are feeling cooped-up, and with service workers and business owners who are weighing incredibly tough decisions. 

What makes this moment so torturous is that independent venues in Madison are always riding unpredictable ups and downs. Over the years there are always niches and needs that go under-served, and the places we do have, we can never take for granted. Providing good spaces for local music here depends on people caring enough about it to make the extra effort and nestle live music within some other business model. 

Usually, though not always, that business model centers around alcohol. The places that give your favorite local musicians a platform are almost never getting by on cover charges alone. They depend on something else, whether that’s bar sales, grants, renting space out for private events, or some other creative model. Sometimes there’s even some devoted, over-extended person eating the rent when things are tough. Even the big venues have other revenue streams than just tickets, of course—it’s just that they have more resources to weather tough times.  

We live inside an obscenity of an economic system, and we have to trick it into (barely, sporadically, precariously, not really) paying for the arts, even when we as individuals are willing to kick in a reasonable amount of our own money. When local artists have a variety of good, reliable places to express themselves in front of an audience, it’s truly a triumph over forbidding odds.

When 2020 began, it felt like we were reaching a critical mass of venues that prioritize locally based artists and audiences, in a healthy variety of ways. It was heartbreaking to lose The Frequency two years ago and Art In just a few months ago. But even then, the mix of venues old and new was probably as strong as it’s been in years: Crucible, Bos Meadery, North Street Cabaret, Café Coda, Mickey’s Tavern, the Crystal Corner, BarleyPop Live, an under-construction Arts + Literature Laboratory, Communication, just to name some of the standouts. Even the 971-capacity Barrymore Theatre remains locally owned and felt pretty fresh, after some much-needed renovations that started in 2018. There are still not enough all-ages venues, spaces for local hip-hop, or spaces for experimental music, and rock and folk still reign a little bit too supreme. But on the whole we’ve had it pretty good the past couple of years.

I don’t want to make dire predictions. Venues that were already operating in a tough climate could well pull through. I have faith that thousands of Madisonians will do what they can to help. I wonder what kind of landscape will remain once things are actually safe, not just safe enough to move money around.

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