A simple but largely untapped opportunity to grow the local music audience.
In recent years, efforts to give Madison-based musicians a boost have ranged from the practical (providing access to gear, software, and instruction at the Madison Public Library’s free media lab) to the silly (a proposed “‘Hard Rock Cafe’ local style” restaurant commemorating local music).
But just about all of these ideas and programs have skipped over some essential questions about the audience: Who’s going out of the way to see Madison musicians’ shows or listen to their recordings, and why? How do we convince more Madisonians that paying attention to local music is worthwhile as both a leisure activity and a community cause? How do we bridge the gap between die-hard local music fans and everybody else?
Madison will have to tackle these questions from a variety of angles, and there will be no one quick fix. We’ll need commitment, and we’ll need to appreciate how hairy the problem actually is. Not all the solutions need to be expensive or complicated — sometimes it’s about meeting people where they are at. One way to start sorting all of this out is for performers and venues to start putting on more early shows. This is not a novel idea, but good lord does Madison need to take it seriously.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ferreting out local music in Madison, it’s that it often takes a willingness to stay out late, often at sparsely attended weeknight shows. It’s been worth it, and more people should make the effort to explore the inconvenient armpits of the live-music calendar. Then there are packed and very fun weekend shows at places like Mickey’s Tavern that can sometimes stretch a little past bar time. But let’s not romanticize it, either. There are better, or at least different, ways to put on shows and for music to compete or coexist with all the other pleasures that Madisonians go out on the town for. Not to mention the things people don’t go out for: Madison jams a lot of big-city advantages into a small town’s body, but even city people get to be homebodies sometimes. And even the most dogged music fans can be introverted or lethargic or just not up for an epic drunken slog, or might want to have the time or energy or money to fit other things into their evening. (All these factors intensify as you get on into your 30s.)
It’s not that hard to catch local bands or DJs during happy hour or before 9 or 10 p.m., but these shows are rarely presented as strong attractions in and of themselves. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth seeing: Residencies like Mal-O-Dua’s recurring happy-hour gig at Mickey’s are treasures. Still, audiences, venues, and bookers largely treat these shows as a background to drinking, eating, and socializing, and the music occasionally cuts through the noise of a busy bar or even thrives among it, or even earns itself a following. These gigs have their place and if anything I’d urge people not to take them for granted, but are a symptom of live music’s excessive financial dependence on the alcohol industry. If more of these early shows were promoted for their intrinsic value as music events, that might shake up the formula a bit.
As for what constitutes an early show, the start time it maybe less important than when it ends. Start it at 5:30 p.m. or 7 or 8, but make the damn thing finite. Try having a couple of bands instead of three or four. Set a definite start time and meet it as closely as possible (as a weird anal punctual person who goes to a lot of shows, I know this is a big ask, but just try). Ask performers to keep their set times within a reasonable window, and if they overshoot that, shun them and cast shame upon their families for seven years. And if you’re running the space or venue where the show is happening, communicate to people that you’re proud and excited to have these musicians playing.
Early shows will not single-handedly save the music community, but I’m surprised and delighted when one goes off well, and a few recent efforts in town are proving that it’s possible and that local audiences will respond. The newly renovated Ohio Tavern’s music calendar leans early, and a few weeks ago I saw a show there by Heather The Jerk and Exploration Team. Sure, it was crowded and the music had to compete with a lot of conversations, and perhaps some patrons saw it as a distraction or an annoyance, but a respectable number of people actually came out for the music, and the bands made good time. Williamson Magnetic Recording Company gets its shows started around 8, and even though I drink, the venue’s no-drinking policy is a welcome change. Again, let’s untether music and booze when we can.
Si Café near the Square is taking the early-show notion even further with a series of Saturday morning shows. (I’ve only been to one of these, but can attest that people came out.) Two of Madison’s best DJs, Vilas Park Sniperand Nate Zukas, have experimented with a weekend “Disco Brunch” at Natt Spil. After I finish writing this, I’m going to a 4:30 p.m. music showcase at the Line Breaks festival downtown. I’ll get to see a bunch of locally based hip-hop artists, and I’ll still have time to do all my shut-in introvert things.
Madison should and will continue to serve its night owls, and provide young bands with the opportunity to play demoralizing shows at garbage o’clock on a Wednesday. By experimenting more with early shows, the music community can open itself up to new audiences, and offer some refreshing experiences for those of us who already love it.