It’s happy hour in the basement at the Brink Lounge. Eight or nine people are taking notes and drinking Heinekens while a panel of four professionals talks 1099s and incorporations, licensing and laws. Occasionally, someone raises a hand to ask about filing taxes or the pros and cons of designating partnerships.
These aren’t up-and-coming MBAs; they’re musicians who have come to a networking party, called Madison BandSwap, intended to help emerging artists navigate the business side of the music industry.
“Artists don’t want to be called a business. They think it interferes with their ability to be creative,” says Rick Tvedt, who was one of the panel members. Tvedt, a guitar player, journalist and founder of the Madison Area Music Association (MAMA), is also an accountant. He and the other panelists want musicians to understand what it takes to adapt to a changing world.
With the advent of new technology, file sharing and the ability of professionals and amateurs to create and record music at home, the music industry continues to evolve. Playing live is the most immediate way for a musician to make money, but not necessarily the most lucrative. In Madison, it’s difficult to get audiences to pay to attend local shows. Meghan Rose, who currently plays in three local bands and has won a slew of MAMAs, says it’s a tough market. “People in Madison won’t pay $20 to see a local [performer]. It’s just not a thing that’s done,” says Rose, who is planning to move to New York City in the spring to seek better opportunities.
Sometimes any kind of cover charge stops people from coming through the door. “I still hear stories about people walking away from a $5 cover,” Tvedt says. “In a lot of cases, the money for the room or the sound person comes off the door. It’s really tough.”
So how do musicians make it work? There’s all the traditional ways you might imagine: corporate day jobs, service industry work, teaching music, and playing weddings and parties. Many musicians play in several bands at once, taking gigs when and where they can get them, generally without a revenue guarantee. In short, it takes a lot of hustle. Often for not much return.
Karin Wolf, arts program administrator for the city of Madison, recently attended the Future of Music policy summit, sponsored by the Future of Music Coalition. She brought home a national survey of 4,500 experienced musicians and composers conducted by Artist Revenue Streams. Among the findings: The respondents’ median yearly income was just north of $35,000. (Tvedt says most local musicians are making far less.) Wolf believes the city needs to seriously consider ways to help musicians make a living. “[Music and musicians] bring a lot of ancillary benefits to Madison. It makes sense to have a plan in place because [music] draws tourists and furthers economic development,” she says.
Wolf is brainstorming a variety of plans, some of which address related issues like parking for entertainment venues and affordable housing. She is also looking at developing a fair trade music plan similar to Seattle’s, where on designated days, club owners agree to provide musicians a living wage.
Other ideas are already in the works. A national music conference on songwriting and music-making, like CD Baby’s recent DIY event in Chicago, will most likely happen in Madison next summer or the year after. The city has already set aside $25,000 in room tax revenues to help fund the conference, says Wolf.
One small but direct line of revenue is the Yahara Music Library, a project launched by the Madison Public Library; it pays select local musicians $200 for a five-year licensing agreement that allows library cardholders to stream their music.
But some people feel more radical restructuring is required if Madison wants to retain talent. Stephanie Rearick is both a venue owner — she co-owns Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse — and a musician who has been performing since 1993. During that time, she has toured extensively, including internationally, and been featured on 27 albums. She sees both sides of the dilemma. “As an owner, you’re in this situation where you’re sacrificing money to put on the art that you like,” Rearick says. But she also remembers the sting of playing to a packed house only to walk away with an envelope containing three one-dollar bills. “It’s a rigged game. Our culture just isn’t valuing arts and music.”
Rearick’s solution is to create additional opportunities outside our cash-based economy. As with her earlier venture, the Dane County TimeBank, Rearick’s Mutual Aid Network helps match people who can trade time and services doing things they love in exchange for help on projects of their own.
“It’s important for people to get paid to make music and make a living doing what they want,” says Rearick. But using the network, you have other resources you can use so you don’t have to tap into your money for things like promotion or travel.”
Dave Adler is one local musician who is living his dream. But he would tell you it’s been in part because he has been able to adapt and diversify.
Adler says most of his income used to come from composing, but it now comes from playing live shows; he has played with the Gomers since 1986, among many other bands. Gigging that frequently is more of an option for Adler, a seasoned, in-demand player, than it is for many local musicians. Adler calls himself “lucky” to make a living doing what he loves. “I’m very grateful for every gig I have. I don’t take anything for granted,” he says. Adler also takes additional work, such as conducting Dracula for the Madison Ballet, and looks beyond the city, booking shows around the state.
Tvedt says despite the challenges, local artists still feel driven to perform. “I think a lot of musicians would say, ‘I don’t care how much money I make. I do it because it’s important to me.’” Adler agrees. “I’m in a feast-or-famine business,” he says. “I think if you’re young and you dig music, you should rock your ass off. I would never try to talk anyone out of it. I love my life. If anyone can get that together for themselves that’s great. If you feel called, answer that call.”