Someone vaguely Googled “Madison” and “music” again

The glory of Madison’s music scene, according to gibberish.

The glory of Madison’s music scene, according to gibberish.


A generically rockin' stock photo for the rockin' metropolis of Madison, Wisconsin! Photo via unsplash

A generically rockin’ stock photo for the rockin’ metropolis of Madison, Wisconsin! Photo via unsplash

Look, at this point the silly city-ranking listicles mentioning Madison will probably never stop. We at Tone Madison probably need to just chill on our pathological hatred of these things and the toxic filler they represent in our civic and cultural discourse.

But! The people who write these listicles keep doing really lazy things. The same exact lazy things over and over again, actually. And people keep sharing these things, especially on venues’ and bands’ Facebook pages. And everyone involved could just not do these things.

The latest thing you might see bouncing around on your Facebook feed (the Orpheum has a sponsored FB post about it, with many shares), is a new Thrillist article, “The Most Underrated Music Cities In America.” Madison is included, and sure, there are good reasons to include Madison in such a list. But they are not articulated in this piece. Here’s the two-paragraph entry on Madison:

“Second only to Austin in ‘rock shows-to-residents ratio,’ Madison’s Midwestern nice aesthetic cultivates a welcoming vibe where it’s not uncommon for fans to buy a round of beers for the band or invite them home to play shows in their living rooms. And according to a study by Martin Prosperity Institute, Wisconsin’s capital city has the fifth-highest concentration of record labels, recording studios, distributors, and music publishers in the nation. It’s also the fourth-least-expensive city in the country for average ticket prices.

“While most famous for producing ’90s alt-rock band Garbage and legendary Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins/Green Day producer Butch Vig, the town is also a hotbed of indie talent, from former University of Wisconsin student Zola Jesus to solidly under-the-radar labels Crustacean Records and Kind Turkey Records. Catch rock acts at places like the Majestic Theatre, High Noon Saloon, and Orpheum Theater, or head into town for more highbrow offerings during the annual Isthmus Jazz Festival.”

The big issue here is that Thrillist writer Jay Gentile is regurgitating almost every previous article about Madison music on an outside website, from Livability.com’s music-scene rankings to Tidal’s hilariously incoherent roundup of Madison bands to a Sonicbids roundup of local music scenes. Why, it makes Paste’s 2013 piece “10 Wisconsin Bands You Should Listen To Now” and The New York Times“Winsome Rock Hits Wisconsin” look like masterworks of investigative reporting. Let’s break this down:

  • Like many city-ranking listicles of all stripes, this cites Richard Florida’s Martin Prosperity Institute (home of the “creative class” theory) as if its findings and theories about urban economics and culture are gospel, when in fact they have been hotly debated for many years. Anyone who quotes that stuff uncritically is selling you something.
  • It cites a 2010 Songkick study about our “shows to residents” ratio, which basically means nothing. Madison does have a lot of bands and shows for a city of its size, but it’s not clear what this ratio is counting. And as someone who dabbles a bit in data journalism, I can safely say that not all numbers really tell a convincing story.
  • Garbage and Butch Vig. Yep, gotta get that in there. The shortest of shorthand when writing about Madison music. The blurb could at least be recent-lazy and work in a mention of the new documentary about Vig’s Smart Studios, but nope, it’s just regular-lazy.
  • Continuing on that, the local bands and labels cited in these stories are always a bit off. Zola Jesus left here for L.A. several years ago. Again, Gentile could at least be recent-lazy and mention Phox, or some of the other local artists who’ve recently popped up in national music outlets, like Trapo, Chants, Samantha Glass, or Ra’shaun. Kind Turkey, the label run by The Hussy’s Bobby Hussy, is still going, but has been a little slower of late, and things have also been slow for Crustacean Records, with one of its founders moving out of town.
  • What the fuck does “hotbed of indie talent” even mean?
  • I guess the Isthmus Jazz Festival is kind of highbrow, but it’s mostly pretty laid-back and accessible. How highbrow can you be on the Terrace?
  • Majestic, High Noon, Orpheum. OK, an incomplete list of important local venues, but good enough for a more cursory overview like this. Also, all these venues and the Terrace are in central Madison, so you don’t have to head “into town” to get from one to the other.

Look, it’s too late to expect people to stop churning out Nondescript Content like this, or even to take more care in writing it. Things are rough out there in the media world and boosterish gruel is having its day. But if you live in Madison and care about your city and the conversations we need to have to strengthen local culture, do yourself a favor and stop sharing this stuff around as if it has any validity.

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