As outdoor music season approaches, what's the payoff for Madison bands?

We asked event organizers how they approach compensation for local performers.

  Illustration by  Rachal Duggan .

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Editor's note: We'll be following up this story with more reporting on festivals and compensation from performers' perspectives. If you'd like to share your thoughts and experiences, please email the author or join the discussion in our Tone Madison's Surly Notebook Facebook group.

Thousands of Madisonians will head outdoors this summer, barring any further freak blizzards, and they're going to be seeing a lot of music—at neighborhood festivals, larger events like World's Largest Brat Fest and Make Music Madison, at lakeside institutions like the Memorial Union Terrace and the Edgewater. There will be some touring headliners in the mix, but a lot of the heavy lifting will be done by musicians based right here in the Madison area. They'll be playing some of the area's most popular annual events and series. A June 2017 study by Americans for the Arts estimates that the arts have a more than $200 million annual economic impact in Dane County, and festival season is a part of that, drawing out thousands of locals and tourists and their wallets. So how well does this shake out for performers?

Tone Madison reached out to the organizers of several of the area's biggest outdoor-music events and festivals, asking how much they generally pay local bands to perform—or, if they don't pay at all, why that's the case. People generally were not forthcoming with numbers. But the responses show a range of attitudes and approaches to the question of how to get local performers paid during Madison's array of well-attended outdoor festivals. I should note that I have a conflict of interest here, as I help book music for the Willy Street Fair and Marquette Waterfront Festival, and will touch upon that later in this piece.

Most of these events are free and/or benefit charitable causes, and some receive public funding from the City of Madison or Dane County; just about all get support from business and other private sponsors, who can put up a few grand for naming rights to a stage or what have you. There are differing ideas about how to balance free admission and fundraising with compensation for performers. Sometimes if you read between the lines, the attitude seems to be "it's free and/or for charity, so stop asking." Generally these events do pay people, but without having specific numbers, it can be difficult to have a broader conversation about how the music economy in Madison functions, and how to make it better.

Let's start with World's Largest Brat Fest, which more or less breaks the seal on outdoor-music season in the area with more than 100 bands spread across Memorial Day weekend. Admission is free and sales of brats and beer benefit a few dozen non-profits. In response to an email, entertainment coordinator Michael Alexander said that "All local bands and artists at Brat Fest 2018 are paid to perform, plus they enjoy a bunch of other free perks," and emphasized repeatedly, in caps, that the event is FREE. Alexander did not reply to follow-up queries seeking specifics about the pay.

What about Brat Fest's counter-programming, partly motivated by outrage at the Republican political connections of the event's main sausage provider, Johnsonville? Wurst Times, taking place at the High Noon Saloon and Brass Ring on May 26, brings together just shy of 30 bands, almost all of them based in Madison. Attendees are asked to make a $10 suggested donation, and that along with food and beverage sales benefits the Madison Area Music Association (which raises money to support childhood music education), Guitars For Vets, and the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. Wurst Times organizers did not respond to queries for this story. However, an email they circulated among local bands in February said the following: "Each band will be offered a $50 stipend for a 45-minute performance, solo performers will be offered $25 for a half hour set. We realize this isn’t a lot of money, however, some other local festivals don’t offer local bands any compensation. You can choose to keep the stipend or donate it back to the WTF and its charities. Each performer will also be given a couple food and beverage tickets and is encouraged to spend the day of the festival with us enjoying the music of other Madison based musicians."

As the email mentions, there are indeed some festivals that don't pay local bands. Make Music Madison, which receives city funding, is run on an entirely volunteer model where performers are concerned. The annual Art Fair on the Square event, organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, states plainly in its online materials that it doesn't pay bands and sees this as a tradeoff—the event is free and the money it raises helps MMOCA offer free museum admission. "By performing pro-bono at Art Fair on the Square, you’re helping MMoCA offer free admission to nearly 200,000 visitors annually and to provide ongoing art education programs for the community," read a now-closed application form for bands.

MMOCA spokesperson Erika Monroe-Kane says that the museum does pay bands that play at its other events, like art openings, and hosts the annual New Music Festival without charging organizers. She said that a band that declined to play for free at Art Fair on the Square could still get booked for a paid gig at a different MMOCA event. "I understand the concern and I completely respect the issue that musicians are facing in terms of being able to support themselves through their work," Monroe-Kane says.

Shows at the Memorial Union Terrace, Madison's most iconic outdoor hang, are booked by the student-run Wisconsin Union Directorate Music Committee. There are about 40 students on that committee at any given time, and on top of that they have to weigh a variety of factors (including an artist's expected draw and technical needs) when sorting out what to pay, explains music committee staff advisor Courtney Byelich. The committee agrees upon a guarantee and cuts a check for that amount after the performance regardless of attendance at the Terrace's free shows, which is one of the reasons bands see college shows as good money. "We are certainly committed to paying all musicians who perform—and yes, via flat guarantee," Byelich says.

On Madison's opposite shore, the East Side Club hosted four seasons of its Sunset Music Series, which usually paired a touring headliner with one or two local openers at each show. The club decided to axe that series this year in favor of different music programming at its "tiki bar" on Lake Monona. Sunset tended to favor folk and indie-pop aimed at a somewhat younger audience, whereas this year's music selection looks more oriented toward country and rock likely to draw a more middle-aged crowd. Sunset organizer Anna White says the series would generally pay either a pre-arranged guarantee or a percentage of the door, whichever was greater.

Of course, not all outdoor music festivals or events have the same M.O. For instance, the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival, which takes place in August and is run by the non-profit Four Lakes Traditional Music Collective, and features musician workshops in addition to its slate of performances for a general audience. "Local musicians have been tapped across all these offerings, including to lead the Suzuki to roots fiddle class and the beginners jam tent, as our daily children’s entertainer and to perform on the main stage," says Four Lakes president Bob Batyko. "The pay for the locals has ranged from free admission to the festival to nearly $1,000. All fees are set before the festival and are guaranteed. No 'standard' formula is used since each performer plays a different role."

The east side's annual neighborhood festivals—Waterfront, La Fete De Marquette, AtwoodFest, Orton Park Fest, and the Willy Street Fair—are each organized a little differently, but all coordinated through the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. As noted above, I've worked on the music booking for Waterfront and Willy Street. These festivals are free and  raise money for Wil-Mar and other nonprofits through beer sales and vendor fees, and get sponsorships from local businesses to help pay the performers. Last year was my first booking a stage at Willy Street, and all the acts on that stage were local; guarantees were paid immediately after each performance and ranged from $200 to $600, depending on factors including the size of each act and how much of a draw we expected each to be.

Each festival has its own budget and its own mix of partners, so it's hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison between what each one pays a particular band, says Wil-Mar Center development and program director Beatrice Hadidian. "We can't always pay somebody at Fete what we can pay them at Willy, or vice versa, but that's not because we're trying to short-change them," Hadidian says.

The east-side fest I personally feel furthest away from in terms of personal involvement is Orton Park, so I reached out to one of its music bookers, Maggie Weiser. A longtime local musician, Weiser has also booked music at the annual WORT Block Party and works with the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, in addition to playing festivals herself. Having seen local festivals from both sides, she thinks local bands should be more deliberate about negotiating.

"Often I make an offer, and a group accepts. Other times they ask for more. I am rarely in a position where I am unable to honor a reasonable counter-offer," Weiser says. "Some bands maybe don’t realize they are in a position to negotiate. Some are. I am puzzled by this. I recommend groups have a 'festival rate' they settle on that works for them and ask for that. It doesn’t hurt to ask. If a fest says no you are usually in a position to accept the original offer if that is what you want to do."

Most of the touring bands that play festivals like Orton and Fete de Marquette have booking agents who negotiate for them and have specific rates in mind (or at least ballpark figures) for festival performances. Most of the local bands involved don't have that, but can put themselves in a better position if they think of a few things ahead of time, Weiser says.

"Local artists aren’t used to this, but if they are reputable enough to appear at a fest like this they should be able to advocate for their needs," Weiser says. "Backline is a great example. Also, decide on a festival rate that is fair. Like maybe based on the number of members and what you are used to getting paid. Consider things like will there be a place to sell merch? Will we be fed? Will we have a good time? Does this seem like a well-run festival with easy communication? Is there a contract? Do we get paid if it rains?"