A look at arts funding in Madison's 2018 city budget, part I

A few bright spots and a lot of usual suspects in the city's music initiatives.

  Madison duo Mal-O-Dua, playing at last year's Waterfront Festival. The proposed 2018 city of Madison budget would make additional grant funding available for festivals and similar events.

Madison duo Mal-O-Dua, playing at last year's Waterfront Festival. The proposed 2018 city of Madison budget would make additional grant funding available for festivals and similar events.

Madison's Common Council is working on the city's 2018 budget, which is expected to pass sometime in November. Funding for the arts is rarely a huge part of any local, state, or federal government budget, and the same holds true in Madison. The city does, however, have a full-time arts administrator, Karin Wolf, and an arts commission, and city officials including Mayor Paul Soglin who have touted our arts and culture offerings as a good reason to visit, move to, or start a business in Madison. One might understandably assume Madison places more emphasis on public arts funding than it actually does.

How the city spends money on the arts, even if it's not a huge amount in the scope of the whole city budget, says a lot about what kind of leadership we're getting when it comes to making Madison a better place for creative people to live and work and connecting Madisonians with the cultural offerings around them. We've spent the past couple of weeks digging through this year's budget documents, checking in with city officials, and sharing some of our work in a new Facebook group (we'd love for you to join us there if you haven't already). This is the first of two pieces Tone Madison is running this week focusing on arts funding in this year's city budget. Here, we'll focus specifically on music; in the subsequent piece we'll focus on city arts funding more broadly.

The usual music stuff

For the past five or so years, the city budget has included a section called "Madison Music City," which provided funding to programs like Make Music Madison and Dane Dances with money generated from taxes on hotel rooms. But that phrase doesn't appear in Soglin's proposed Room Tax Fund budget for 2018, even though it has appeared there in past years.

This might reflect some recent disagreements over how the city should use that money. In short, Wolf has argued that promoting the city's music offerings is an appropriate use of room-tax dollars, which are supposed to be used to promote tourism; even if a given music event doesn't bring in out-of-town attendees who stay in hotels and generate more room taxes, it still contributes to an overall character that makes people want to come here. The members of Madison's Room Tax Commission aren't convinced.

Wolf hopes she can settle this in the long run by gathering data on music programs' impact on tourism. However, the city hasn't done a lot of empirical research into that. One problem is that there's funding for the programs, but not funding to do the work of evaluating them. In the future, Wolf says she hopes "that we can start finding ways to quantify and improve the effect that these arts and culture initiatives have in generating [visits] to our city, and that we will further secure funding from the room tax fund."

For all that debate, the funding items this year aren't that dramatically different. The idea behind giving money to programs like Make Music Madison is that they'll eventually leverage the public funding to bring in private funding and become self-sustaining—but Make Music Madison stands to get city funding for the sixth year in a row, in the amount of $25,000. As we've discussed before, Make Music Madison is fun but doesn't generate income for working musicians. Between The Waves, a music conference and festival that debuted in June of this year with $25,000 in city support, also is slated to receive $25,000 in 2018 (it's noted in that budget doc as "Songwriter Conference").

Finally, some transparency on Between The Waves

Speaking of Between The Waves, we began covering the lead-up to that event a little over a year ago, interested in how this new event would turn out and how the city's investment in it might prove valuable.

In fact, we first asked organizers last fall how they planned to spend their city funding—a reasonable question that should have been pretty easy to answer—but never got a clear response. However, reports that organizers file with the city are public records, so we took a look. One report submitted after this year's event said the $25,000 in city funding was spent this way: $8,950 on speaker, performer, and other personnel costs; $6,000 on "Supplies and Materials"; $2,950 on equipment and venue rentals; $4,500 on promotion and advertising; and $2,600 on lodging.

These expenses aren't broken down in any greater detail than that, but it seems pretty straightforward, which just makes it more confusing that event organizers were so evasive. "We're spending it on paying speakers and performers, promotion, and some of our logistical needs" would have been an acceptable answer.

In total, this document says that BTW spent $17,450 to pay speakers, performers, and other employees. Sounds like a lot of money, but it's still not clear how good of a payday this was for the local bands who played the festival—a relevant question to ask, as BTW's slogan is "make a living making music," and one of its goals is to draw attention to Madison's music community. We did ask organizers how much bands would get paid and again, this question was evaded. (Also, when organizers were looking for someone to play a BTW launch event last fall, we caught them claiming they had a "limited budget" and touting the "exposure.") Musicians wouldn't go on the record about how much they were getting paid at the conference, so all we heard were conflicting rumors that we weren’t comfortable reporting.

BTW reported that 175 people ended up attending the conference itself. Last fall, organizers said they expected between 300 and 500. By June, that had been revised down to "200 or so," according to an Isthmus story. BTW's report does acknowledge that there's room for improvement, but doesn't go into much detail. Still, it at least sounds like conference organizers are interested in listening to community feedback and tweaking their approach. And in all fairness, getting an event like that off the ground can take a few years.

Another interesting note here: Music website Broadjam, whose CEO Roy Elkins heads up BTW, claimed that it made a $10,000 in-kind contribution in the form of "technology and staff."

New funding for festivals

One big change in the music and arts portion of the 2018 budget is a $15,000 item for "Fairs/Festivals/Summer Concerts," again built into the room tax budget. Wolf says this money will be added to the Madison Arts Commission's grant fund. People who apply for grants will be able to check a box to seek a piece of this $15,000 funding if they think their project will bring visitors to Madison. This could benefit music events—Wolf mentions the Central Park Sessions as an example—but also non-music events like the Wisconsin Book Festival. For now, this funding item seems mostly focused on providing a boost to existing events, rather than seeding new ones, but we won't really know more until people begin applying for and receiving the next round of MAC grants.

"At some point we'll have to look at how many people are they bringing in and how much room tax are they generating," Wolf says.

A possible boost for the Yahara Music Library

The Yahara Music Library, a digital collection of local music releases—free to stream or download for anyone with a Madison Public Library card—got off to a promising start in 2014 but has languished a bit, having run out of funding to add new items to the collection. YML pays the artists included in the collection a modest up-front licensing fee, which makes it one of very few publicly funded programs in town that actually directly put money toward paying local musicians.

The program almost gained $5,000 in additional city funding earlier this year when money allocated to the now-defunct Revelry festival was freed up, but that funding idea was struck down in the room-tax funding debate mentioned above.

The proposed 2018 operating budget for MPL includes $125,000 for the library's multi-faceted Bubbler arts program. The Yahara Music Library project is kind of under the Bubbler umbrella. MPL reference librarian Guy Hankel, who heads up the Yahara Music Library project, tells me he's not sure yet exactly how much the project will benefit from this year's city budget, but he anticipates a bit of extra support and says he continues to work on finding other sources of funding for it. Hopefully this means the collection can start adding more items soon, in addition to making other improvements.