So, about that songwriter conference the City of Madison is funding

Organizers plan to announce details of the event on October 25.

Organizers plan to announce details of the event on October 25. 

As part of an effort to report on city-funded music initiatives, I’ve been trying to get details on a new event called the Madison Songwriter Conference And Festival.

The conference has been talked about for a few years now, and the City of Madison set aside $25,000 for it in its last city budget. The 2017 budget the mayor and Common Council are hashing out now would include $25,000 more, for a total of $50,000 so far. The event’s main organizer, Roy Elkins of Madison-based music website Broadjam, plans to hold the inaugural event in summer 2017. The event now has a Facebook page, and Elkins and other organizers plan to roll out their initial plan with an October 25 launch event at the Brink.

Update: A marketer working with the event posted in a Facebook group for Madison musicians looking for a band to play the event. The post doesn’t mention the event or venue explicitly but the date and time slots line up. It mentions “exposure” twice and mentions a “limited budget.” Pretty weird for an event that a) has funding from the city and b) is supposedly about helping musicians make a living. It also asks for a band that can bring its own sound person and PA, which is weird because the Brink is a real-ish venue with a sound system. Screenshot below, followed by the rest of this post as initially published.

City funding for the event is part of Mayor Paul Soglin’s “Madison Music City” initiative. Essentially, that program uses some of the money the city collects from hotel-room taxes to support a few music-related programs. The proposed slate of funding for 2017 is in line with what the city has funded over the past few budgets: Money for the Make Music Madison event, Dane Dances, the Revelry Festival, the conference, and a program called BandSwap. Right now Madison Music City does not include a grant program that individual musicians can apply to directly, like, say the grant program the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium recently rolled out.

City of Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf says the city’s goal in funding to conference is to support a successful launch and eventually become sustainable without the need for city funding. One of the overall points in the Madison Music City plan, as detailed in a 2015 Madison Arts Commission report, is to use some city funding to leverage a much larger amount of private support. This makes sense: The city doesn’t have a bunch of staff people who can run music events, and to tap into the music community, it needs help from various non-profits, businesses, and individuals. So most of these initiatives are private-ish, even though they get some city funding and are part of an initiative that Soglin has at times made one of his policy causes.

As for the conference, Elkins seems to be saving the specifics for the big launch event. We exchanged some emails over the past few weeks. Here’s part the big-picture summary he gave me:

“The mission of the Madison Songwriters Conference and Festival is to provide songwriters and composers the knowledge to pursue, the expertise to implement and tools to guide their journey to make a living making music. The event will bring many experts from the music industry to share their wisdom and experiences with attendees, but also to hear and see what the musicians, students and the music industry of Madison have to offer as well. It will be a great learning experience for all who attend, provide great exposure to our homegrown talent and the Madison music business community as well.”  

Wolf shared some additional information, from a planning document, about the kind of programming the conference will offer: “Celebrity Q&A’s, master classes, songwriting and composing workshops, publisher and business panels, One-on-One sessions, DIY career building workshops, showcases and performances, song feedback panels, state-of-the-art technology demos as well as leading music industry exhibitors.” The bullet points she shared with me also describe the conference as “a multi-day presentation of conference and individual consulting sessions, performances, contests, songwriting collaborations and networking events supported by sponsors and based in a physical location shared with sponsored exhibits and demonstrations.”

I asked both Wolf and Elkins how specifically the conference will use its $25,000 in city funding. Wolf did say that these funds cannot be used “for refreshments, travel, or capital equipment.” She also described in a general way what the city hopes those funds will encourage: “I would say that we are hoping to support professional development for local musicians,” Wolf says. “We would also like to attract musicians from outside of Madison to enjoy our resources.”

There was one thing in the initial plan Wolf shared with me that was a bit disconcerting, and organizers addressed it when I pointed it out. A bullet point about marketing says the following: “The success of a marketing program alerting the music community to the Conference & Festival is dependent on messaging by music media companies and organizations that will barter attendee advertising and provide editorial coverage in exchange for sponsorship of the [conference]. This technique has been proven to be successful in promoting similar events.”

The phrase “provide editorial coverage in exchange for sponsorship” describes something that many journalists would consider unethical—essentially, a publication attaching its brand to an event, and in exchange promising to cover the event. Publications sometimes provide free or discounted ad space in exchange for sponsorship, and of course there’s nothing wrong with promoting an event to the press and asking people to write about it. But a quid-pro-quo of coverage for exposure, even if no money changes hands, violates a basic tenet of journalism ethics, which is that “journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.”

I pointed out the issues with this to Wolf and asked her to clarify the statement. She referred me to Elkins and Madison Area Music Association founder Rick Tvedt, who is also helping with the conference. Elkins mostly declined to talk on the record about it, but said the conference’s plan is a “living document” that can change. In response to my concerns, Elkins sent me a revised version of the plan, with that bullet point instead saying: “The MSCCF will partner with media companies and organizations to alert the local, statewide, national and international music communities of this event. The success of a marketing program is dependent on messaging by music media companies and organizations that will barter advertising and/or provide editorial coverage.”

Of course, not everyone looks at the world through a journalism-ethics-101 lens, and I credit Elkins with understanding my concern about the issue. As you can see, he’s removed the “in exchange for sponsorship” language. In sharing the revised plans, he said “I think this clearly represents our intentions more accurately,” implying that the initial plan wasn’t intended to compromise anyone’s ethics. But yeah, if you’re a publication or an event organizer…maybe don’t engage in that kind of thing.

The Facebook event for the launch on October 25 touts the conference as a “tremendous event that will promote tourism and the arts in Madison and the surrounding region,” and also says, “We are anticipating over 150 guests including city leaders, media, business supporters and many notable musicians from the Madison community.”

Another city-funded music initiative, Make Music Madison, has provoked a lot of skepticism over the years from Madison musicians who question why public money is going to an event that doesn’t actually pay musicians (MMM’s city funding goes toward administrative costs). It’s still a fun event that a ton of musicians participate in. But musicians generally don’t seem to see it as something they have a real stake in, or something that’s making the city an easier place for them to live and work. The Madison Songwriter Conference’s big challenge this month, as I see it, is to not start things off on that note, and to realize that they’ll face some skepticism too, even though they have good intentions.

Whatever the details, organizers and city officials need to present us with something that’s good not just for music-industry folks, but for musicians. If the organizers are forthcoming and open to suggestions, it could go a ways toward improving the arts conversation in Madison.

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