Reflections on why the city-funded music conference feels so removed from the actual local music community.
Between The Waves is a taxpayer-funded music-industry trade show. The conference and festival, whose stated goal is to help musicians “make a living making music,” was held in 2017 and again this past June at UW-Madison’s Gordon Dining and Events Center, with the festival portion taking place at several local venues. I went to this year’s conference and found it replete with advertisements from sponsors, networking opportunities, and professional-development lectures.
BTW aspires to be both a beacon of professionalism and a celebration of Madison’s local culture. This combination leads to some unique phenomena.
“Everybody here is a nobody. I’m a nobody, and you’re all nobodies too, or you wouldn’t be here,” said BTW conference lead Chris Franczek in his opening remarks on the evening of June 14, which drew a nervous chuckle from the crowd who anxiously looked around for somebody.
What Franczek meant was that nobody in the room was, or will be, famous, which is fair. This was the first of many times that BTW organizers and speakers stressed that achieving fame isn’t the point of the event. I think Franczek was also getting at the impossibility of building a creative career without being one cell in a wider community organism. While it was a little belittling to be called a nobody, I appreciated the spirit of Franczek’s remark: Rejecting personal celebrity in favor of mutual support.
Next up on opening night was Roy Elkins, the CEO of Madison-based music-licensing site Broadjam, and the man at the center of the festival’s development from a line item in the City of Madison’s budget. (The city allocated $25,000 in seed funding for the event in 2017 as part of local officials’ Madison Music City initiative, and set aside another $25,000 in 2018.) Elkins stressed the idea that the BTW conference was a chance for musicians to increase their own value by developing new skills, like business management, rapping or reading notes. His philosophy on music begins to approach assembly-line rhetoric, but he’s not wrong when he points out that any working musician in Madison needs certain skills outside of the music itself to make money.
“Making the music is the easy part. I don’t mean to downplay that. It’s certainly hard work to go into the studio. But it’s what happens when that record is done. That’s when the work starts,” Elkins says.
This rhetoric is part of a pattern that has emerged in the way Madison’s cultural bureaucracy understands the tension between artistic craft and professional development. Basically, you’re expected to develop yourself into a part-time manager, part-time artist before you deserve access to public cultural resources. This naturally dilutes the pool of talent and favors artists who are likely to be better at self-promotion than they are at their craft. Therefore, following this line of thinking, there’s a need to make “tools” like promotional and technological techniques more available. BTW represents an attempt to serve that need.
After Elkins laid down the ethos of the conference, a drummer named Sandy Gennaro, who toured with Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett, and who has been “in the industry” for five decades, came up to shred on his drum kit along with recordings of the pop songs he’s played on. Before Gennaro took off, we all sat quietly as he and a staff member fiddled with a laptop and speaker, which cut in and out of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” This was the first of many technological troubles that would plague BTW throughout the weekend, like the constant malfunctioning of microphones, which is excusable, I suppose, since most of the people working were volunteers, and the issues might say more about the Gordon Center than about the conference organizers.
Once Gennaro played through a medley of his hits, he gave a talk that drew the audience into the wild ride of his life, which included the Kennedy assassination, a life-altering Beatles epiphany, and the time he realized he was opening for Queen only after almost not joining because he was tough on negotiations.
Gennaro then went into his acronym for success in the industry: BEATS. The B stands for belief. This was belief in yourself but also, “A power in action in this room right now, on this planet, amongst all the human beings that have ever lived.” He continued, “We are all connected. When we align with that energy, magical things happen, not by accident. They happen as a result of how you treat other people.”
I am actually inclined to agree with this ritualistic argument. We should always remember that the manipulation of time and noise is a mysterious, nearly universal human phenomenon that was great before capitalism and will be great after. Gennaro seemed to understand this, and talked at length about acting in good faith within the music world.
After attending the conference off and on during four days of talks, I had a chance to speak to Elkins. He told me that BTW wouldn’t be possible without the aforementioned funding from the city. He later qualified this statement, and said that once BTW is on more stable ground, it’ll be more attractive to corporate sponsorships, but the city money was needed to get started.
Right now, the event’s major sponsors include Elkins’ own company, Broadjam, which received a good deal of promotion at the event—including a whole talk on “Getting the Most Out of Broadjam”—in addition to music and audio companies like Bose, and interestingly, Waunakee Remodeling, which repairs windows.
By my headcount, the 2018 BTW opening and closing ceremonies drew about 50 people, not differentiating between performers, speakers, crew and attendees. The individual talks that I sat in for drew from two to 30 people each. According to Elkins, about 170 people in all attended the conference (he reported an attendance of 175 in 2017; a prospectus for sponsors said that BTW anticipated a 30 percent increase in attendance at this year’s conference), with anywhere from 600 to 800 attending the festival performances. Elkins hopes to grow those numbers in the coming years.
What did musicians actually get out of this weekend? A few attendees I met during BTW and followed up with afterward generally felt that the conference indeed bolstered their professional development.
“I pulled a lot of useful information out of the seminars both from a creative standpoint and a technical standpoint,” says Joe Bordash, a composer who hoped to find more connections in commercial music writing. “I got my money’s worth just on the amount of exposure I had and how I can fit in the industry. I also got a lot of technical tips about building a professional home studio,” Bordash says.
Brennan Haelig, who helps manage artists like the rapper/singer Lucien Parker through the Strange Oasis Entertainment brand, had a more mixed view. Before going into his criticisms, Haelig noted that Parker, who performed at the festival during a hip-hop showcase, was paid fairly, and that the general experience of working with BTW staff went well.
“Unfortunately, their panelists don’t really cover the full breadth of the music industry,” Haelig says. “BTW could be such a huge resource for the music community, but I don’t think a lot of people are even aware it exists. They definitely cater towards a specific demographic of indie bands and singer/songwriter types.”
This catering to a specific demographic, which I can reaffirm from my own experience, wouldn’t be so worrisome if the event wasn’t using thousands of dollars in City of Madison arts funding and didn’t make big claims about representing “Madison’s music scene.” Right now, BTW seems to largely appeal to an insular group of musicians that in no way showcases the spectrum of Madison’s music culture.
One barrier for a large swath of the local music community is that it costs $89 to attend the full conference. This inevitably skews attendance toward middle-class, commercial musicians, who need less help than poorer, younger people. The conference’s free admission for students is nice, but students aren’t exactly the group of people in Madison who most need help breaking into the music world. Many students at both Madison College and UW-Madison have access to a built-in community of fellow artists, and the music committee at the Wisconsin Union Directorate offers UW-Madison students something of a concert-promotion crash course.
But the wider chasm between apparently separate local cultural creators may be the more prominent problem here.
Karin Wolf, the City of Madison’s Arts Administrator, is optimistic about BTW’s effect on the Madison music community. “For most artists and musicians, if they want to make a living in the arts, sooner or later they may wish they had a business plan,” Wolf says. “Those are the artists who with a bit of hard work will then populate our bars and festivals, bring Madison the kind of recognition that attracts tourists, and provide the music and entertainment that tourists desire.”
While I applaud Wolf’s intentions, I would argue it is in this line of thinking that the philosophical disconnection between the BTW crowd and the rest of the music community lies.
My point is, bands that have recently brought Madison national recognition, almost to a tee, are uninterested in the conference (and the festival, for that matter.) Beth Kille and Sunspot are cool, but these artists, both involved in organizing and performing at BTW, don’t generally make waves in the wider national scene. Madison-based artists including The Hussy, Proud Parents, Slow Pulp, Trophy Dad and Trapo (and many others) continue to have an impact outside of Madison, but none of them had any connection to or involvement with BTW that I could see.
As Tone Madison‘s Scott Gordon put it last year, “This isn’t a ‘my favorite band wasn’t included’ gripe. It’s about entire swaths of noteworthy local music—and several recent success stories—not being reflected.”
I suspect that some younger bands with national potential are uninterested in BTW simply because they already have the tools to start working towards “making a living” in music. They’ve spent the hours practicing and writing within a local context they discovered and cultivated naturally, and they’re either able to handle their own business, or meet people to help along the way. For these people, the focus on finding tools for “making a living” is redundant. Their paths to success are deeply intertwined with building community, rather than with getting involved in the “music industry” as we conventionally conceive of it.
As I noted before, BTW isn’t necessarily blind to the power of community. But BTW’s industry-centered approach puts the onus on a completely unempowered pool of laborers, instead of on their employers—including local venues—and or on a local infrastructure of recording studios, promotional outlets, and labels. Indeed, the infrastructure that is developing around these people, like the new venue Communication and small labels like Rare Plant (and again, many others), were largely absent from BTW.
So, instead of the “collaborative artistic environment conducive to exploration, interaction, and shared learning” BTW promises in its promotional materials, we have a trade show where industry old-heads talk at us about techniques that are surely useful to a few individuals, but not necessarily to the Madison music community as a whole.
The touted star of both years of BTW so far, musician and producer Butch Vig, is certainly an exemplar of a once locally based musician who made it big through tireless work and business savvy—his Smart Studios offered an essential service to local, regional, and national bands and made Vig an in-demand producer. The question is whether the lessons of Vig’s career can resonate with the challenges young musicians face in Madison today. When I asked him during one BTW panel about Live Nation’s recent consolidation of several local venues and promoters, he answered that he doesn’t care about such issues as who owns the venues. (This fall his band Garbage will play The Sylvee, a venue built by newly minted Live Nation subsidiary FPC Live.) This apolitical stance should raise eyebrows. The sidelining of questions that clearly affect a city’s music scene makes BTW all the more alienating.
With this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy, BTW completely dodges the real reasons it’s hard to make a living in music in Madison. It’s actually very simple: Madison is an expensive place to live with musical infrastructure that is not tied to the wider national scene.
Bands that want a life-long career in music often need to leave to make a living. It’s not that musicians here aren’t business-savvy enough, or that we just need to figure out time management. It’s that a significant chunk of the city’s limited arts-and-culture budget goes to people who are entrenched in power through bureaucratic and professional connections, and who may not actually be the pillars of culture they claim to be.
BTW offerings like the “Fostering Diverse & Inclusive Music Communities ” panel—which was hosted by local journalist and musician Emily Mills (who occasionally contributes to Tone Madison) and featured DJ/Queer Pressure organizer Sarah Akawa, Gentle Brontosaurus’ Huan-Hua Chye, Clean Room/Gender Confetti/Lurk Hards drummer Elyse Clouthier, and Coordinated Suicides drummer Jonathan Brown—are a great start, but it says something about the crowd that BTW draws when, according to Mills, only two people showed up (Elkins also stopped by during the panel for some lively discussion). These ethical debates are far more useful than speeches that a YouTube how-to could replace, or a festival that has yet to showcase talent you couldn’t see on any other given night.
“We all agreed that ‘diversity and inclusion’ needs to be an element of every single panel, not just a token panel discussion,” Mills says. “We would also love to see more programming directly related to the nuts-and-bolts of being a musician in Madison in particular—like how to do your taxes as a freelancer, best practices for booking and/or running a show, etc.”
After Tone Madison criticized BTW last year, there was an idea floating around that critics would find something to be upset about no matter what, but that’s not a real argument and doesn’t mean I’m wrong. This retreat from a critical space is actually one of the more disheartening aspect of programs like BTW and the MAMAs.
Madison deserves a meaningful use of its tax dollars, and that means a city conference that apparently overlooks an entire cross-section of the music community should draw intense scrutiny. Thankfully, Elkins is open to more voices coming in to BTW, and invited Tone Madison to come speak up at planning committees. Hopefully we’ll be able to stop the tide of stock photos.