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Wisconsin delivers some relief for small music venues

The state’s venue grant program still heavily favors larger players in the concert industry.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ administration has awarded an additional $1.5 million in grants to music venues, festivals, and music-industry businesses, after an initial round of COVID relief funding that heavily favored large non-profit venues and corporate concert promoters. The latest round of funding under the COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Grant Program, announced December 30, includes a few small Madison venues that were left out at first, but also a substantial amount of additional money for larger venues and promoters.

The pandemic has cut off revenue for venues large and small, and even as vaccination efforts get underway, there’s no real certainty about when in-person live events can start up again. Venues and promoters are continuing to advocate for relief from both public and private sources. The $900 billion federal stimulus package adopted in late December includes $15 billion for entertainment venues, and we’ve yet to see how that money will filter down to the local level.

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A promotional graphic for the Mad Lit events series shows the series' logo and text stating (8 p.m. until 11 p.m., Every other Friday, 100 block of state St. July 1st-October 7th. A collage of performers and audience members is visible to the right, and the logos of event sponsors are visible along the bottom.

As for the state grant program, awards in Madison include $15,711.18 for Willy Street jazz club Café Coda, $20,449.81 for the recently renamed Bur Oak on Winnebago Street, and $4,743.60 for non-profit arts and music space Communication (full disclosure: Communication is Tone Madison‘s partner organization). This still doesn’t bring the relief funding anywhere close to the level that large organizations like FPC Live and the Overture Center have received, and still leaves out a number of Madison’s important small venues.  

Here’s a chart with the Madison-area awardees from both rounds of the grant so far:

Unlike the first round of the state’s Live Music and Entertainment Venue Grant Program, this round of funding includes organizations that aren’t brick-and-mortar venues. The Four Lakes Traditional Music Collective, which hosts the annual Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival and other concerts throughout the year, received $4,825.82. Live sound and lighting company Intellasound Productions, a near-ubiquitous presence at Madison’s outdoor music events, received $303,935.02. SRO Artists Inc., a Middleton-based booking agency whose clients range from minimalist composer Terry Riley to singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III to a variety of tribute bands, received $33,553.06. T Presents, Bur Oak booker Toffer Christensen’s production company, received $34,308.09.

This second batch of grants awards came after several independent venues and promoters advocated for more relief from the state, some of them working under the heading of the National Independent Venue Association. Christensen has been organizing some of that effort on the local level, and had initially complained that the grant program left out the most vulnerable venues and “in general gave preference to larger companies.” 

But for all that agitation on behalf of smaller venues, bigger players get a generous top-off here as well. The new round of grant funding includes $295,568.18 for Big Top Events, which operates the City of Madison-owned Breese Stevens Field, home of the Forward Madison FC soccer team and, in a normal year, host to many outdoor concerts and festivals. Beloved Madison rock club the High Noon Saloon is slated to receive a grant of $151,117.06—even though it’s owned and operated by Madison’s Live Nation subsidiary and near-monopoly, FPC Live, which already received $395,308 in the first round of grants. (On paper, there is a separate LLC for the High Noon.) FPC Live also books all the major concerts at Breese Stevens Field. 

As explained in our earlier story about the program, the state calculated the amount of the initial grant awards based on the amount of ticket sales (and other revenue directly tied to events) applicants were making in the first place. That basic math is how you get the imbalance we see here, where Madison’s largest concert promoter scores more than half a million, and five independent venues (the Barrymore Theatre, Bur Oak, The Shitty Barn, Café Coda, and Communication) collectively get about $279,000. Because the grant program was initially targeted at venues that make at least 30 percent of their revenue through ticket sales or other directly event-related charges, it excluded the sorts of small bars and other spaces that host a lot of local music but don’t necessarily depend on tickets or cover charges for their bread and butter. 

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