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What will our priorities be when this is over?

Reflecting on music venues’ cries for help.

Reflecting on music venues’ cries for help.

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’re approaching the time of year when Madison usually goes into live-music overdrive. From small local bands to big touring acts, fall is king. It’s not the only good time of year to see shows in Madison, but it is uniquely overwhelming. I don’t necessarily miss the overload of trying to keep up with it all, but I do miss the excitement, the weather, and the enthusiasm that local audiences show during this time of year. Heading into this weekend, I’m particularly missing the Willy Street Fair, which is why I chose the photo above of KASE playing our stage there last year.

Fall is a season that local venues, regardless of size, can’t afford to miss out on. The bartenders, stagehands, and other staff who depend on live events for income—many of them the very musicians and artists who enliven our community— have already been out of work for six months. I’m afraid to think about what we’ll be left with by the end of this year, if something doesn’t give. 

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As I wrote in June, the pandemic hit just when our local music-venue landscape seemed to be at a high point. That’s something we can’t take for granted even during “normal” times. This crisis is showing us that if we care about live music and other forms of live performance, we can’t just consume them—we have to fight for them, advocate for them, and build up a better support structure. We have to see live music as not just an amorphous public good, but as something that should truly reflect our values and needs. I hope that will be a priority as the crisis goes on and well after it’s over.

Venues around the country have joined forces to ask Congress and state and local officials to help the live-music business survive. One group, the National Independent Venue Association, has started a relief fund and urged support for the Save Our Stages Act and other legislation that would provide financial lifelines so that venues can stay in business once all this is over. More than 80 venues, promoters, and arts organizations around Wisconsin have signed on, including a dozen here in Madison—among them Café Coda, the Barrymore, Communication, and the North Street Cabaret. (I’m not quite sure what the Overture Center and Wisconsin Union Theater are doing in NIVA’s member list, but if they want to add their heft to the effort then fine.)

Wisconsin venues under the NIVA heading have asked Governor Tony Evers to start a grant program supporting live-entertainment businesses. There’s an online petition, though it might be more effective to reach out to your state legislators, Evers, and Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes directly to voice your support. The petition proposes that “To be eligible, businesses must have either derived at least 50% of their 2019 revenue from the sale of tickets for live events or must be businesses that are directly reliant on ticketed live entertainment events.” I do worry that this will leave out places like Mickey’s Tavern, Robinia Courtyard, and Bos Meadery, where music (especially local music) plays an important community role but isn’t necessarily the cash cow. But it’s still a good start. The state has also started a grant program for cultural organizations.

I doubt we can expect Congress or the callously unresponsive Wisconsin Legislature to do much, but people who work in live music and people who care about the arts should keep banding together, making themselves into a political force that our leaders have to take seriously. Coming out of this crisis with national and local coalitions around this cause will be a victory in and of itself.

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