Kerry G. Hill
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Patrick Breiner, a young sax player who brightened the Madison music scene for three years, packed his bags in August and moved to Connecticut. This was Madison's loss.
Breiner came to town after six years in New York City, where he studied jazz at the New School. He gigged with a whole bunch of bands here, including the estimable New Breed, which features the city's best young jazz players.
But Breiner's biggest impact may have been as a promoter of avant-garde jazz. He helped book more than 40 shows in venues like the Project Lodge, Audio for the Arts and Restaurant Magnus. He and his fellow enthusiasts Brooke Jackson and Luke Polipnick, operating as the penny-poor Surrounded By Reality collective, somehow pulled in the best national and international free blowers to Madison by just offering them the door.
"We wanted to hear certain bands, so we brought them here," Breiner says, capturing the do-it-yourself spirit that underlies the collective.
How notable were their efforts? In June, the titanic saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who blew the doors off the Project Lodge in a memorable April 2010 concert, was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Vision Festival in New York. Four of the stars joining Brötzmann on stage, including Mars Williams and Joe McPhee, had swung through Madison in the past year courtesy of Surrounded By Reality.
Breiner, 27, was a classic scene-maker. He's a charismatic player who attracted other talented musicians. One night I saw him at the Brink Lounge playing the Cannonball Adderley role in singer Alison Margaret's salute to Nancy Wilson. Another night he was at Dobhan restaurant, sitting in with Polipnick's improvisational Madison-Minneapolis band Wailing Ships.
Breiner left Madison for reasons of love. But let's imagine another reality, a parallel universe where the Madison scene is so stimulating, so remunerative, so stone-cold happening that Breiner felt compelled to stay. Imagine if the same could be said for Carl Johns, Nate Palan, Joy Dragland, Leo Sidran, Nika Roza Danilova, Alicia Smith and a long line of other inspired performers who packed up and left?
And what about Butch Vig, for crying out loud?
That's the case I want to make here - that Madison can attract and hold the best artistic talent if it finally starts seeing music, and the arts in general, as an industry cluster that can bring wealth, jobs and renown to the city. Surprisingly similar, in other words, to the papermaking cluster in the Fox River Valley, the printing cluster in Milwaukee and the biotechnology cluster in Madison.
But here's the catch: To turn an "art" into an "industry," Madison needs a change in attitude and a change in strategy. I saw just this sort of thinking in Austin, Texas, almost a quarter-century ago.
In 1988 I worked for The Capital Times. The paper sent me down to Austin to figure out why another famous university town with a state capitol and a glorified tradition of progressivism and eccentricity had vaulted ahead of Madison in population growth and high-tech development.
I heard something in Austin that I never heard in Madison. City leaders and the go-getters in the chamber of commerce loved their music scene (outlaw country was still in full flower) and saw it in utterly pragmatic terms: It was a moneymaker and a draw for the creative class. The Austin chamber had a staff member dedicated to furthering the Austin music scene, doing everything from advocating for the city's entertainment district, to pulling together the legal, marketing, financial services and recording infrastructure for musicians.
"It's all part of our effort to diversify the economy," a chamber exec told me.
Turned out that both music and the tech industry had been pinpointed by a consultant, the Stanford Research Institute, as the target industries ripe for Austin's future growth. I tracked down Madison jazzman Ben Sidran, who was touring in Australia at the time, for a comment.
"Madison has always been a tough place to be a musician," he told me. "There's a lackadaisical attitude in Madison about this sort of thing."
His inclination, he admitted, was to be a booster for the Madison scene. "But things aren't going to change until there's a willingness to develop those resources."
That was in 1988. Nothing has changed. The Austin scene, in contrast, has leapfrogged to bigger and better things: The city's filmmaking industry has taken root, while the South By Southwest festival has blossomed into the biggest music industry conference in the land.
SXSW showcased just over 2,000 bands at more than 90 stages during its 10-day run this past March. Mindful of its industry focus, the conference also featured sessions on professional and creative development for musicians. The new media program stream, meanwhile, actually drew more registrants than the music program.
All this is big stuff. A detailed analysis, by Greyhill Advisors, of the SXSW operation and its 2010 conference measured a stunning $113 million impact on the Austin economy, including 39,000-plus room nights in local hotels and a total attendance of nearly 159,000.
Then again, the arts are a major player in Austin. A 2006 study by TXP Inc. detailed almost 44,000 arts-related jobs in Austin and more than $1 billion in arts economic activity, including $419 million in the music industry. Arts-related tourism pushed the grand total to $2.3 billion.
Madison needs to smarten up and get in the game.
I've been around Madison since the 1970s and hear a lot of live music, easily 50 shows a year. No doubt we're a great town to hear touring bands, one of the best in the country, according to promoters. But the local scene is another story. Time and again, I've seen it rise and fall, rise and fall, with the emergence and departure of standout young artists and scene-makers.
The unvarnished truth is that the baseline never seems to get higher. The gains are never sustained and built upon. Things always slide back until the next new kid causes a stir, and the cycle repeats itself.
A decade ago, Carl Johns' creative arc mirrored Breiner's. Johns was another scene-maker, only bigger - a Madison indie pop hero who played in a cavalcade of bands (notably Charlemagne, NoahJohn, the Super Eights), issued recordings, toured, drew admiring zine coverage and booked hip popsters into the Corral Room beneath the Tornado Room. (Owner Henry Doane let him use the space for free.)
And then in 2006, Carl Johns was gone, pursuing his muse in Philadelphia, New York and now Berlin, where I Skyped with him this summer. Now 37, Johns works in the art world and still pursues music projects. He recalls Madison fondly, praises the scene, but admits that even with a day job, money was an issue. "I did music seriously for eight years, but didn't freely support myself by it. I made money, but I was never thrifty."
Garbage's huge breakout (their first album sold 2.4 million copies) and Smart Studio's glorious moment in the sun (Nevermind!) are heartbreaking examples of an unsustained Madison peak from the 1990s. Today, the old East Wash studio is shuttered, and only one Garbage band member calls Madison home. What if Madison had thought like Austin? What if city hall and the chamber of commerce had seized the opportunity, recognizing that the Garbage/Smart Studios phenomenon could unlock a lucrative national market for a Madison product?
Ben Sidran is the once-in-a-blue-moon exception, sticking in town and still succeeding. Sidran tours the globe and has a national rep. He was part of arguably the greatest peak in the seesaw Madison musical cycle: the legendary era of Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs and Tracy Nelson playing the frat circuit before they embarked for San Francisco and fame.
"It's a curious fact, but back in the '60s you'd play a gig in Madison, make $50 and go home. And today you play a gig in Madison, make $50 and go home," Sidran says.
Nothing changes. Madison is still a town, as the old joke goes, where a 16-inch pizza can feed a family of four, but a working musician can't. (Some of the industrious few who can are chronicled in the Isthmus article "Yes, They Play Weddings," 10/13/2006.) This failure to hit critical mass is bedeviling, because so many good things happen by dint of the DIY ethic.
Let's tally up the good news. The DIY movement is always bubbling up in Madison. On the classical front, John and Rose Mary Harbison organized the marvelous Token Creek Festival. Stephanie Jutt and her colleagues run the always fun and challenging Bach Dynamite and Dancing Society. Kiki Schueler's House of Righteous Music hosts nonpareil house concerts featuring local and national talent. (Austin legend Jon Dee Graham has played five times!)
The New Breed's jam has survived, moving from the Concourse Hotel to Café Montmartre to the Cardinal Bar. Rick Flowers leads a blues jam at R Place. Jazz at Five brings outstanding bills to State Street during the summer. Chanteuse Gerri DiMaggio periodically organizes shows, including a marvelous Cole Porter salute at the Inn on the Park. Surrounded By Reality remains a creative force. Mickey's hosts a Tuesday night songwriters' showcase.
There's a lot happening even with the periodic casualties. (RIP: Hanah Jon Taylor's Madison Center for Creative and Cultural Arts, the Forward Festival and music shows at Luther's, Montmartre, Magnus and other venues.) The real problem is the failure of Madison's imagination, particularly in civic and arts leadership.
Madison can be a self-satisfied little burg, insular if not downright smug. Often, because of its liberal sensibility, our town is suspicious if somebody tries too hard to make a buck. This spills over into how the arts are treated - typically as a charity case, but also as a "public good" (in economist speak) that people expect to be offered up free like the schools, the parks, the Rhythm & Booms fireworks display and the music stages at summer festivals. Make money at music? That's suspect.
For all its progressive patina, Madison in many ways is a conservative town. Change comes hard. Governmental process is elaborate and seldom flexible. Ambition and pushing the envelope aren't necessarily welcomed.
Consider the fate of the Forward Festival. It ran for two years, tying together downtown venues, a ton of local players and headliners like Andrew Bird and Neko Case. It was fueled by the brio of its young organizers and perhaps was the seed of Madison's own SXSW. But sponsors were few and far between, mistakes were made, and in the end those kids were left with $20,000 in debts.
Even more telling were the problems encountered by the Madison Blues Festival. Held at Olin Park with the stage perched on the Lake Monona waterfront overlooking the downtown and the Capitol, this was a world-class site for outdoor music. Organized by storied promoter Ken Adamany, the festival mixed stars like Al Green and Ray Charles at night with local and regional acts during the day. The red tape was insufferable.
It was "very, very difficult" to work with city hall, Adamany says of the two-day festival, which ran from 1998 to 2003. "You get 'committeed' to death, and each year we had to start over from scratch."
One episode, as he tells it, had the park's neighbors pushing him to put tuna cans filled with water in the park trees for the poor squirrels, whom they presumed to be too frightened by the large crowds to drink at the lake. Another year he had to beat back a court order that would have shut down the festival over the price of bottled water.
This is the stuff of satire. One doesn't know whether to laugh out loud or pretend it's serious. In March, I covered a well-attended meeting at Overture Center to unveil recommendations for a Madison cultural plan. There was much vague (and I think unhelpful) talk about "community identity," "connectivity," "voice," "place" and "sustainability," but almost nothing about a nuts-and-bolts strategy to help artists make money to pay the rent.
With a straight face, the usually commonsensical arts consultant Mary Berryman Agard told the several hundred attendees that the deliberations had also produced a recommendation to protect "the urban forest" - as if this had something to do with art and artists. At that moment I stopped tapping notes in my netbook and thought: WTF? What is Mary talking about? Had some fired-up environmentalists confused a cultural plan meeting for a parks commission session and somehow won over the cultural mavens with their leafy green vision?
This was just plain goofy. And it had nothing to do with the compelling reality of an artist's life in Madison. Federal data for the "arts, entertainment and recreation" sector show average wages of around $66,000 in Nashville, $35,000 in the Twin Cities, $23,000 in Austin and all of $15,000 in Madison. The arts, in other words, pay only slightly higher than a food-service gig at a State Street restaurant.
Silicon Valley is the site of the most famous industry cluster in the county. The technology companies that grew out of Stanford University in the 1950s set the stage for the high-tech revolution. Entrepreneurs, financiers, engineers, researchers and a host of other really bright people flocked to Santa Clara County. They schemed, they collaborated, they competed, they inspired one another, they got rich, they partied. They did great things.
Not too dissimilar, I would argue, from the dynamics of a healthy music scene where artists compete, collaborate and draw even more talent to town. I saw this dynamic in action on July 30 when singer-songwriter Josh Harty released his fine new CD at the High Noon Saloon.
Harty usually works as a solo act, but he was joined on stage by Blake Thomas and Jeremiah Nelson, two fellow singer-songwriters Harty competes with for gigs and renown. But on this night they were collaborators as well as competitors. Indeed, Nelson cowrote the album's cover tune with Harty, while Thomas helped with the production. The band was rounded out by Madison stalwarts Mary Gaines, Chris Wagoner, Louka Patenaude and Chris Sasman. Several hundred people paid $10 apiece to celebrate Harty's latest accomplishment.
This was a good night in Madison music, but it's not enough. I bumped into Harty recently as he jogged along Lake Monona on a beautiful summer morning. We got to talking. "There needs to be more than just the allure of Madison to keep musicians in town," he told me. "This is a great place to live and make music, but all my musician friends have part-time jobs to pay their way."
As for Harty, you can find him bartending at the Weary Traveler.
Austin certainly has its own problems. (Among other complaints, SXSW has gotten too big, say critics.) But Austin also offers a business-minded approach to art that Madison could emulate. Consider:
- The chamber of commerce has a creative-media business development team that works with music-industry companies looking to expand or locate in Austin.
- The city's economic growth and redevelopment office has a separate music division. (On Sept. 7, it sponsored a talk by David Kusek, author of The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution, in the city council chambers.)
- The Austin Music Foundation offers career-development and music-business programs.
- The Austin Visitors and Convention Bureau runs the Austin Music Office, which helps groups book local bands for conventions and receptions.
- The Austin airport operates a live music stage for ticketed passengers. (It's located right next to an airport "roadhouse" owned by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.) Travelers can also buy Austin-made music at a specialty CD shop at the airport.
"There's a huge amount of people in Austin who recognize that the culture industry is good business for the city," says Brent Grulke, SXSW's creative director.
When Grulke said that, I immediately flashed to something Ben Sidran had told me a few weeks earlier about Madison: "You can't subsidize art forever. You have to make it part of the commercial foundation of the community."