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When local music slips through our fingers

Let’s find a better way of preserving unheralded recordings from Madison artists.

Illustration by Scott Gordon, photo via NASA

I recently went on something of a wild goose chase for some releases that shouldn’t have been all that obscure.

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Back in January, I wrote about The Door, a newish record store in Monona. While visiting the store to report my story, I overheard owner John Sands and a customer, Marcus Geishert, discussing the music of Joan Wildman, a deeply respected avant-garde jazz musician and retired UW-Madison professor who died last year. I was surprised to hear her come up in this punk- and metal-focused shop of all places, but it was exciting. It turned out that Sands and Geishert had gotten ahold of some of Wildman’s self-released albums through a local junk shop that had cleared out her house after her death. One of these releases, 1987’s Orphan Folk Music, was something I’d never gotten to hear at all, because it simply isn’t available anywhere.

I’m working on a proper story about the state of Wildman’s recorded works and if you know anything about those, I’d love to hear from you. What I want to talk about here, in what we’ve begun to affectionately refer to as Tone Madison‘s “Saturday rant” spot, is how easy it can be for music to vanish, especially music from locally based artists we should treasure. 

Personally, I don’t think it’s a good thing when a piece of music becomes the province of only the most dogged collectors or the most devoted fanatics, or the peskiest local music writers, for that matter. It’s even worse when people ignore it entirely. Maybe we as listeners have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. No matter how odd or esoteric or just plain unfashionable a piece of music might be, we should make sure that people can access it with relative ease. There is always someone else out there who might get something out of it. 

Sands was kind enough to burn me a couple of CDs. But if I wanted to get the LP of Orphan Folk Music, complete with Wildman’s liner notes, it seemed the only place I could get it was through the junk shop on East Wash. The staff there was playfully cagey. They seemed convinced they had the very last of these LPs, and hoped to sell them for $50 a pop. I talked with them a bit, haggled, felt weird, and eventually walked out with a copy. I went home and listened to Wildman—a classically trained pianist who also delved deeply into the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer—bassist Hans Sturm, and drummer Dane Richeson combine jazz-informed compositions with field recordings, loops, disciplined improvisation, and bold elements of electronic music. Truly a private-press affair, the record lists Wildman’s home address on the North Side. As for the rights, or the master tapes? I still have no idea.

Perhaps even more elusive is Under The Silver Globe, a 1989 recording from the same trio. Wildman also self-released this, but on cassette. I searched around online, and couldn’t find it available anywhere, not even Discogs or eBay. I ran across a playlist from a DJ at the New Jersey radio station WFMU who’s included the release in his shows a few times over the years. The DJ, Tony Coulter, was kind enough to rip the tape to his computer and send me the tracks. I did have luck on eBay with another release, 2015’s Conversations, on which Wildman collaborates with bassist/flutist Joe Fonda. The CD I bought doesn’t include liner notes, but I’m glad to have it anyway.

You can hear a couple of Wildman’s releases online and track down a few things through the Madison Public Library or UW-Madison’s Mills Music Library. But when it comes to most of her recorded work, including some truly daring and delightful music, it’s distressingly hard to find. This is ridiculous. Wildman went against the grain, but certainly wasn’t a nobody. She spent years teaching at UW-Madison, collaborating and recording with artists like Roscoe Mitchell, and (not unlike UW’s current jazz program director, pianist Johannes Wallmann) building bridges between the local music scene and the academic music world—a full, successful career by any measure. Searching through local newspapers from the 1980s, you’ll find that she kept up a busy schedule of live performances in Madison, mostly at long-gone downtown venues including O’Cayz Corral. A few years before arriving in Madison, she once sat in for an ailing Duke Ellington. 

So if Wildman’s recorded works can slip through the cracks, what does that say for everyone else? 

Tracking down this music was kind of fun in a perverse way, and being a nerd about anything means you should be up for the occasional wild goose chase. But it saddened me to think that this music, created with such pride and care, should have such a lonely existence. It also made me think of a whole lot of other local music I’ve covered over the years. Stuff that’s tucked away in CD books or on backup drives. Stuff I only hear about in the first place because some longtime local musician or other shares a bunch of stuff with me, like a varied box of post-punk CDs that showed up on my doorstep recently (thanks, Russell Hall!). Stuff that only exists in a pile of cassettes. Oblivion is always just around the corner.

Is it really anyone’s job to make sure that people can access strange, unheralded works of art without doing backflips through collector hell? We have libraries, which certainly aren’t bad places to start if you are trying to track down an elusive release. We have archivists at organizations like the Wisconsin Historical Society. Record stores, digital music services, and small labels have a role to play as well. Journalists and academics can at the very least document a portion of what’s going on. Fans and, yes, collectors also play an important if often informal role too. Still, each of these things only gets piecemeal at the big, nebulous problem I’m talking about. To better preserve local recordings and keep them accessible, we might need to draw on all of the resources above and come up with new infrastructure while we’re at it. 

One solution might look like the Yahara Music Library project, which the Madison Public Library launched in 2014 in partnership with tech startup Murfie. Anyone with a library card could access a well-designed, user-friendly digital library of local music for streaming and download. MPL was gradually populating it with a mix of releases from across a good mix of genres—far from comprehensive, but doing some justice to the sheer variety of Madison’s music community. MPL paid the included artists a modest one-time fee. 

But at the moment, the Yahara Music Library platform isn’t even live, and the project’s addition of new releases stalled several years ago because the city has failed to adequately fund the project. The project birthed a successful spin-off company, MUSICat, that helps public libraries around the U.S. and Canada develop similar local music libraries. It’s bitterly ironic that the project that started it all is currently on ice. Staff at MPL are hoping to revive it in the future. If the city wants to promote Madison as a musical “destination,” it would do well to invest in a fuller sense of our musical history.

The internet plays a complicated role in all this. Bandcamp, streaming services, YouTube, and so forth open up pathways to a simply astonishing, overwhelming amount of good music. Still, we can’t count on even the best of these platforms to preserve music forever, and sometimes even artists themselves will take down releases. (Ever hear about the “debut” album from an artist you know for a fact put out their actual debut online years ago? Perhaps that’s a can of worms for another day.) A file on a server somewhere isn’t forever. A file on your own computer isn’t necessarily forever either. Physical formats deteriorate over time as well. It all feels ephemeral and fragile when you really get into that long-term “well, eventually the sun will explode” frame of mind. But between now and that time when we’ll all be vaporized dirt in space, it seems like it’s worth creating more stability.

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Not every musician cultivates a national profile or makes a real effort at self-promotion. (Wildman does not seem to have cared that much about publicizing or distributing records, but I’ll get into that more in my later article.) Some people are content to play for a mostly local audience and develop rich collaborations on a local level. One thing you learn covering a local music community is that people can make worthwhile music no matter the extent or shape of their career aspirations, or lack thereof. Another thing is that the local audience can be fickle. Artists, fans, and music-business types alike often seem to believe that success far beyond one’s hometown is the only kind worth having. Some artists bristle at being called “local” artists (I don’t think it’s belittling to point out someone’s connection to a place, but I get the objection to a point). Some avoid connecting their musical identities with Madison at all and can’t wait to get out, because the support structure for artists and musicians here is so lacking.

This archival problem starts with the conditions under which musicians work. We expect our artists to operate in capitalism and outside of it all at once, navigating business concerns but constantly sacrificing their own bottom line for their “labor of love” or whatever. We do very little to ensure that musicians can get paid for their time and work, or that enough local venues will be able to sustainably operate, but we sure would like it if they’d help us sell some beer. We preach to musicians that if they just develop some more business skills, they might be able to snatch success from an industry we all know is profoundly broken. We entertain fantasies that large concert promoters and shiny-object music startups will somehow meaningfully contribute to a foundation of opportunity for more than a handful of struggling local musicians. We mostly just end up re-inventing the same old hamster wheel.

In this environment of neglect and magical thinking, it’s no wonder that local releases—which generally only come out in the first place because musicians spend their own money to record and distribute them—have such unpredictable shelf life. Most musicians have limited funds and lots of other things to worry about. They do what they can, and by and large we should be grateful that they do it at all.

The vast majority of local releases go through a predictable cycle: A release will make an impression on an artist’s social and creative circles, maybe get the attention of a modest local audiences and a few fans online, get some airplay from a few committed DJs at scrappy local radio stations, but gradually fade into the collective memory hole. It exists in a few people’s shelves and closets and hard drives, but might as well not exist for any sort of broader public. This makes sense on the surface—not every release launches an illustrious career, not every release even finds its small niche. But this says more about audiences and commerce than it does about any lasting value the music may have—so doesn’t it deserve some kind of life beyond that? Who actually takes care of music in the long run? 

Music is a niche world, and even things that have no appeal to a mass audience are worth preserving. Labels like Numero Group and Light In The Attic have put out all sorts of reissues that found audiences for previously overlooked or under-appreciated music. The Madison no-wave band Xerobot serves as a good recent example. Chunklet Industries (also home of the lovably brutal music zine of the same name) recently put out a retrospective of Xerobot’s work, and the initial vinyl run quickly sold out. This is a deeply odd band that broke up more than 20 years ago, but people cared.

You can’t keep everything, and yes, some music does genuinely fall flat, even though that’s still a subjective judgment. I’ve certainly listened to my share of local music that I don’t need to ever hear again. I’ve also listened to a great deal of local music that greatly enriched my life. Sometimes I’ll be having a lousy or stressful day, questioning the work I do, and I’ll listen to something that reminds me it’s worth it. If we can keep that music from slipping through our fingers for even a little while, that effort will be worth it too.

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