I hesitate to even apply the term "music scene" to Madison, because local music is so wonderfully and frustratingly scattershot.
There are days when Madison should change its city motto to "Gee, mister, thanks for noticing!"
No, it doesn't become a place where the beer signs urge us to "Drink Indigenous," but there's almost no form of out-of-town validation we'll pass up. That's especially true when it comes to arts and entertainment. When a local band gets a lukewarm Pitchfork review, when a movie has a gaffer who used to live here for a few months, or what have you, engaged locals and journalists respond with a curious mix of civic pride and codependency.
The process has played out again, thanks to Livability.com's recent ranking, Top 10 Cities With The Best Music Scenes Outside of Nashville, NYC and LA.
Madison ranks number eight, snugly between number-seven Tulsa, Oklahoma and number-nine Fort Worth, Texas. This immediately smacks of the arbitrariness of those "Best Places To Live" or "Gayest City" rankings that routinely pass for news these days. One difference is that Livability's M.O. is to focus on smaller and medium-sized cities, so, unlike Forbes, it produces rankings that usually are not a re-shuffling of the 20 biggest metro areas in the country. "The best places to live aren't always the biggest ones," reads the site's About page, and most of us here can happily attest to that.
The methodology of the survey isn't clear. Reached for comment, a VP at the site's parent company, Tennessee-based Journal Communications, referred me to a spokesperson, Teree Caruthers. "[We] looked at cities that had received past recognition for their music scenes from other prominent media outlets, such as Rolling Stone, Paste, Travel + Leisure, and Forbes, to name a few," Caruthers said. "Artists who hail from specific cities, outstanding venues and record stores were some of the criteria on these other lists. We also looked at reports based on data analysis of major concert bookings (Songkick) and also the Martin Prosperity Institute's recent data analysis determining music industry concentrations in U.S. and Canadian cities. In fact, those data-driven lists drew our attention to Madison in the early stages of determining the list."
Open up the ranking's short article on Madison and things begin to collapse. The article strikes the tone of a person frantically fooling himself. That is not because Madison lacks good music, mind you. But in the process of cobbling together its off-brand praise of Madison, the survey shorts us on the things that truly matter, the things we should take fierce pride in and throw our weight behind, whether or not anyone else gets it.
The article should irk local music folk for the same reason the city's cultural plan set off Marc Eisen: It is so obviously fluff from 30,000 feet up. Eisen complained that the cultural plan blathered too much about things like "proactive nexus." I hate to say it, but even some of the conversations I've had related to local music have similarly bellyflopped into this TED Talk-parody vocabulary.
Let's see what Livability has to say for itself. "Madison places second only to Austin, TX, by the rock-shows-to-residents ratio, and was also the fourth least expensive place for average ticket prices," it says. "For musicians here, there's a greater concentration of music labels, distributors, recording studios and music publishers than most other cities, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute."
At this point, any detail-oriented person needs a nice solid chunk of rubber to bite down on. Do "rock shows" include every single show put on in a given period, from major touring acts at the Alliant Energy Center to local musicians' residencies at cozy taverns? Do "music labels" include every single dude who's self-released a CD and made up a vanity label name? Do the "music industry concentrations" Caruthers mentions necessarily indicate a strong contingency of people who are actually able to make a living or gain recognition in the music industry?
Personally, I hesitate to even apply the term "music scene" to Madison, because local music is so wonderfully and frustratingly scattershot. Everyone involved, from musicians to journalists, seems to absorb a distinctly eclectic and odd cross-section of it. (Publish your top 10 local albums list any given year and watch the accolades roll in, including "you're out of touch," "why didn't you include [insert local artist who didn't even put anything out that year]?" and "wah wah you're a hipster.") There is some cohesion, but mostly a lot of incestuous pockets that don't always seem all that aware of what's going on in other pockets.
Still, no one can doubt that, for a city of its size, Madison has a lot of venues, lots of shows, lots of local folks playing music. In terms of pure cold numbers, you can see where Livability is coming from. But it suggests a statistical model that accounts simply for measures of ingredients, and not the ground-level problems that make music function well in a local setting -- building an audience, making people care, getting people to spend money, and, A-1 with a bullet, how to stop fussing over what you don't have and how we're not Austin, and make the most of all the great things you already do have.
How about tallying up the kind of people who play in a few bands, set up shows for local and out-of-town artists, help other musicians get their music out, pester the press, promote their activities, and just generally display a work ethic and resourcefulness that boosts everybody up? Because those, more than any number of venues or publicly funded grants or big ideas, are the people who are truly essential, and who should be celebrated and supported. This survey -- and, too often, Madison's own discussion of local music -- completely overlooks what it takes to truly take advantage of our resources.
Livability's write-up causes its stats-based groundwork to groan and shudder. It raises some tough questions, chiefly "has this writer ever been here?" and "Just who is Unity the Band?"
To answer the second question, Unity the Band is a reggae band from Appleton, whose bass player is the only musician quoted in the article. UTB gigs here frequently, as it turns out, but Livability should have backed up its claims by finding one of the musicians who supposedly thrive amid Madison proper's abundance of resources. Preferably, again, some local person who gets off his or her butt to make things happen, even when it's thankless and loses money.
Skip on down to the "Artists with Madison, WI, ties," category for a list of name-checks that hasn't been updated since at least the late 1990s: Butch Vig, Clyde Stubblefield, and, charging in for the belly laugh of the century, "Nick Hexum of 311." (Sure, I liked 311 when I was 12, but that's still comedy gold.) It was cool of them to notice Tar Babies, and in fact it should make any Madisonian proud that you can run into Robin Davies or Bucky Pope on the sidewalk here. Proud of Stubblefield, proud of Richard Davis, though both of them rarely play shows here anymore. Proud of Nevermind, though the studio where it was made has since basically gone out of business.
Couldn't Livability have at least done the courtesy of including the last wave of noted musicians to move out of Madison (Zola Jesus, Peaking Lights, etc.)? Or sent somebody living in Madison a measly inquiring email, or searched on Bandcamp.com for some names of currently Madison-based bands? After all, there's no "music scene" without youthful upstarts. Whoever's behind this should be forced to lug amps for the Dharma Dogs for a year.
Livability's list of "noted venues" includes large and mid-sized venues, not so much the smaller ones so crucial to any local community. Not that you'd fault an out-of-towner for not knowing about shows at Good Style Shop or Dragonfly Lounge, but the Frequency and the Project Lodge are pretty damn hard to overlook at this point. In a smaller city, those spots are just as important as a Majestic, Barrymore or even Overture. The list of "cool record stores" comes closer, but still misses Mad City Music Exchange, which is centrally located and has been putting a good chunk of money into re-modeling and re-vamping the past few years.
The saddest part about this? Being the courteous, deliberative people that we are, we Madison folks, including plenty of people who just know a whole lot better, are to discuss a ranking like this graciously, instead of ignoring it for the D+ sociology homework that it is. We won't pass up a chance to have someone else talk about us to the wider world. One reader comment on Livability's article about Madison even asks, with a straight face, why the story didn't mention Ben Weasel, whom Madison should really stop claiming in light of him punching that lady at SXSW. We're not only better than that, we're better than this whole silly-ass conversation.
Seriously, talk about anything other than this. Sue me to recoup the time it took you to read this article, if you want. Talk about the go-getters. Talk about people who keep at it even after a venue burns down. Even talk about the irascible gadfly types who keep on making music here while complaining that Madison sucks. Better still, just go see a damn show and spend a little money. A few sweaty bills in a "tip the band" pitcher will create more good than all the bloviating and number-crunching in the world.