Can Madison fill its DIY void in 2017?
Despite progress, the city needs more all-ages, community-driven space.
Name this place.
It's a smallish venue, all-ages, has a decent if not lavish sound system, hosts music events more than once a week, doesn't depend financially on alcohol sales, focuses its programming on the needs of local artists and the community rather than being driven by any of Madison's larger show promoters or wealthy patrons. Oh, and it operates on an open, public, above-board fashion—i.e. Its address is not "ask a punk"—and it's able to put being a music venue first. It's a known community hub for DIY music and culture.
You might be drawing a blank, because no one place in Madison definitively meets this bill. From about 2008 to 2012, your answer might have been the Project Lodge on East Johnson. Efforts to revive that venue in a new space fell apart.
Over the past couple of years, a few venues have managed to fill the void in a piecemeal but significant way. Arts + Literature Laboratory on Winnebago Street has landed some exciting musical coups, especially adventurous jazz shows from artists including Roscoe Mitchell and Ken Vandermark, amid its schedule of art shows and writer's workshops. Williamson Magnetic Recording Company on Willy Street has doubled as a cozy venue with a strong, sober-space identity of its own. Art In, on East Washington Avenue, hosts the occasional show and is even able to sell beer and wine. (Full disclosure: We've arranged Tone Madison-curated shows at all three of these spaces.)
But for all that each of these venues has contributed—and it's been a lot, especially in the last year—there are catches. ALL doesn't have an in-house PA (I know because they borrow mine sometimes), and balances music with a mix of other programming. WillyMag has to balance shows with the business of being a recording studio. Art In is a bit untapped, if only because not a lot of people think to set up events there, though this may change as the venue continues its renovations. Bright Red Studios on Ingersoll Street also has helped, but generally costs money to rent, and its primary role is as a workspace for artists. Some of the housing co-ops on campus host shows, but those are pretty sporadic—these are people's homes, after all.
In between, sometimes, are the kind of basement and warehouse spaces that tend to keep journalists, cops, and the general public at arm's length. And I can understand why: Media outlets, city governments, and polite society talk about these spaces as if they're frightful, criminal concerns where people are taking their lives in their own hands, not necessary and vital retreats from a culturally impoverished mainstream that neglects myriad communities. On top of that, right-wing Internet trolls have recently begun attempting vigilante intimidation against DIY spaces. As a journalist, I've lost count of the times I've been sore because I could not in good conscience cover a really cool show without fear that it would do the needless harm of getting a place shut down.
Madison has historically treated such off-the-map, ask-a-punk DIY venues with a crackdown mentality. Back in spring 2006, a few months before I moved here, police shut down a warehouse venue on South Park Street after Isthmus published a story about it. A few not-really-venue venues have been able to operate in plain sight, most notably Kiki's House of Righteous Music on the east side. Host Kiki Schueler is picky about who she books, and has a dedicated core group of fans who tend to snap up spots ahead of time. She was able to work with neighbors and city officials to put an "egress window" in her basement that so far has been good enough to keep the city off her back. Kiki's a friend and I've enjoyed my share of shows in her basement, but KHORM still isn't (and does not claim to be) the kind of place that I described in the beginning of this article. I mean, it's someone's house, after all.
So can Madison ever have a space that fits the bill? The activity at Art In, ALL, and WillyMag over the past year prove that there's a demand, and that a lot of people from across the community will get involved in programming when there are good places to put on shows. And it's possible that we don't necessarily need a new space to solve all these problems, but could just make better and more deliberate use of the ones we already have.
The experience of the Project Lodge's co-founders—long story short, they tried to find a new spot, only to run up against unsupportive neighbors and fickle landlords—after leaving the East Johnson Street space illustrates some of the difficulties. First, it's hard to find a space in Madison that is decently centrally located but doesn't have residential neighbors who are going to complain about the noise. (The Project Lodge space had an apartment above it; relations with residents were up and down.) In a city that apparently can't roll over fast enough for new developers, it's tough to find a landlord with decent commercial space who isn't planning to sell it soon. In a city where music is so economically intertwined with booze, it's tough to even think about setting up a venue that doesn't serve alcohol. In a city where liquor licenses can be used for arbitrary political leverage, it's also tough to think about setting up a place that does.
Finding the right space, paying the rent on it (without losing your ass, mind you), and keeping the neighbors at bay will require a great deal of expense and persistence, but I do believe a good number of people in the music community can pull that off. But how or where or when? There's no easy answer.
On the upside, there's a community here that hosts a lot of musicians and other creative folks who actually do compelling things. And they need and want more places to do what they do. If Madison really wants to be a progressive community, it could even put up some city funding to help DIY venues meet building codes and pay for things like decent PAs and a bit of sound treatment—it'd be a refreshing shift from the city's staid, establishment-centric, and unimaginative approach to funding music programs.
But in any case the need is obvious. What makes Madison interesting is not just the fact that we can often draw in touring artists that usually skip over cities our size—which is certainly nice—but that we have locally based people making things worth hearing. So can we finally have a space that fits the bill in 2017? That is among Madison's greatest cultural challenges in the year ahead.