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Re-mapping the local music ecosystem

How the COVID-19 fallout has continued to affect local musicians.

How the COVID-19 fallout has continued to affect local musicians.

Photo: A basement studio setup is pictured. A silver Pearl Export occupies the middle space, while a TV yellow Gibson Les Paul double-cut sits on a stand to the left, in front of a Fender amp. Between those two is a microphone on a mic stand, with its cable coiled around the microphone. A footswitch for the guitar is resting near the base of the mic stand. To the left, a natural wood-finish Squire J-bass sits on a stand in front of a large Ampeg combo amp. In the lower right-hand corner the top of a PA cabinet is visible, with more coiled instrument cables resting on its surface Small mic stands holding recording mics can be seen in front of both amps and just above the bass drum. The floor is pure cement and the back wall is entirely taken up by vibrant graffiti, spare a small , cardboard-covered window opening above the drumkit. Photo by Steven Spoerl.

Madison’s live-music venues began the process of a gradual reopening this year, with varying degrees of precautions and enforcement put in place. But even the most concentrated efforts can’t take away all the risk—we’re still seeing reports of local shows connected to COVID-19 positive testing—and local music writ large felt alienated from its live moorings in 2021, much as it did in 2020. As someone who found purpose in attending and playing shows, it’s abundantly clear to me that the cumulative effect of the pandemic still weighs heavily on our music community. Now felt like a natural time to offer reflection on Madison’s 2021 musical shifts.

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With the prominence of uncertainty on the organizational ends, it’s no surprise that more musicians are turning toward self-releasing. Everyone’s getting hit hard, so even bands that have the option of releasing through a label—as was the case with Proud Parents’ recent At Home With… and Dirtnap Records—there are built-in delay times when it comes to getting a record public. Funding tightening for venues, labels, and creative teams isn’t a new phenomenon but, over the past two years, extreme financial strain has become the norm. And it’s become a lot more restrictive. Artists like Proud Parents have met that challenge by leaning further into a DIY approach out of both necessity and a zeal for music itself.

Somewhat predictably, a number of artists who sprang up through the DIY punk scene have navigated the ongoing adjustment period well. Graham Hunt, Cal Lamore, and Proud Parents’ Tyler Fassnacht all saw their names attached to a head-turning number of local releases in 2021, positioning themselves firmly at the center of Madison’s indie-punk community. Those changes haven’t just been isolated to one genre, as a number of Madison’s jazz, metal, and experimental artists have been reaching across state and country lines for collaborators with more frequency; a growing emphasis on virtual partnerships has afforded several people more leeway for creative digital exploration.

Within those virtual partnerships is the foundation of a framework that offers enticing possibilities for both musicians and listeners. In going the remote route, there’s a small but significant chance we could see, collectively, a lessened emphasis on access; the type of geographic privilege that previously elevated acts in major media markets like LA and NYC wouldn’t hold as much weight. [Editor’s note: as someone who has lived in both Brooklyn and Madison, I’ve experienced the differences firsthand and they’re notable.] While it’s inevitable musicians in larger markets would still benefit from locational advantage (access to a wealth of publicists, high-traffic publications, networking boosts, high-visibility venues, etc.), the playing field could start being incrementally evened. Listeners, in turn, could also see more avenues of exposure to artists they’d otherwise have minimal chance of encountering via collaboration. Strengthening the symbiotic and communal traits inherent in music at large opens an important doorway to diversity expansion on micro and macro levels.

On the issue of diversity, 2021’s Economic Impact Report on equity in Madison’s music community made it more apparent than ever that Madison has an extraordinarily disheartening problem. Our article, “Music in Madison can pay, if you’re white and not a musician,” which summarized the findings of that report, neatly encapsulated one of the most striking factors of that problem in the headline. While Madison institutions and systems posing as progressive while furiously fighting against progressive practices—or actively setting them back through hyper-corporate fetishism—isn’t anything new, they still pose a startling threat to achieving genuine equity. Funding opportunities in Madison, and especially Madison music, still hugely favor nationally-backed mega-entities over local, independent prospects.

We’ve had nearly two years to think through how to provide the smaller names with more support and are still roughly where we were at the start of 2020, except now independent operations are under even greater financial pressure. Whether we’d like to admit or not, our local music ecosystem is still facing the looming possibility of worryingly harsh outcomes. We should all be thankful that Madison’s musicians seem hellbent on keeping the city’s spark of independent musical creativity alive. If the larger systems around them aren’t there to nurture that spark into a flame, 2021 went a long way in proving that there are still people—and venues, should they survive—who will, and will do so responsibly, even in the face of great personal cost. Our greatest hopes have never rested on national recognition but in local achievement. In 2021, Madison musicians reminded us of what that achievement can look, and sound, like.

This year felt like a critical one for Madison music, not just because of the achievements or the stark reminders of the work still yet to be done, but because of the collective knowledge gleaned from the range of that spectrum. We’ve arrived at a precipice and if we want to move forward instead of idling on the edge, we need to make a greater investment in local music. A week’s worth of intensive Tone Madison coverage honoring and reflecting on its merits will do little to fix the underlying structural issues, but we hope it helps. Our local music community’s enormous, intrinsic, intangible worth is deserving of all the support it can get.

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