Cut Make Music Madison loose

The event has its merits, but should not get $20,000 in city funding every year.

Photo by Lucas Boesche/Unsplash.

Photo by Lucas Boesche/Unsplash.

When we asked Madison's mayoral candidates about their positions on arts policies in February, I was surprised to see so little debate about Make Music Madison, slated to return this year on June 21. Mayor Paul Soglin championed the city's support for the event in the first place, so at the very least MMM struck me as an opportunity for his opponents to draw a contrast. As it is, Soglin's opponent in the general election, 8th District Alderperson Scott Resnick, also helped to organize the first MMM in 2013, so for the purposes of this election it's basically a non-issue. Bridget Maniaci, who went on to lose in the Feb. 17 primary, was the only candidate to come out strongly against city funding for the event, which received $25,000 in city money in 2013, $25,000 again in 2014, and $20,000 this year. That funding primarily goes to administrative and promotional costs.

I had mixed feelings about Maniaci, as I did about all the candidates, but I was glad to see at least one person question why the city is giving this large of a subsidy to a single event whose benefit to artists is highly questionable. This funding should not be directly awarded to MMM as part of the city's budget process. At the very least, the city should have a process in which MMM and other organizations meaningfully, transparently compete for such a grant, or for small portions of it.

I say this without any particular hostility toward MMM. Many people I like and respect have played in it and helped organize it. I think it's great that MMM makes a point of working with neighborhoods that tend to be underserved when it comes to arts and culture. And while the artists don't get paid, this event has basically an entirely different M.O., emulating a tradition in cities around the world where musicians flood public spaces to mark the summer solstice. The events that inspired MMM are not really meant to be economic development engines for working musicians, which is why Soglin should never have mentioned the two in the same breath in the first place. Hundreds of performances crowded into a small city over the course of one day doesn't really equal much opportunity for any of them, beyond the opportunity to have fun and enjoy their communities. And that's valuable, but if we're investing city money into the arts, we should look for ways to help artists build more lasting opportunities.

One thing that has consistently irritated me about MMM, however, is its clumsy approach to promotion. I know graphic design and social media are not everything, but when you're asking other people for their time and resources, your Twitter feed, for instance, should be better than a series of truncated Facebook posts and a blown-out cover photo [note: it's gotten a little better since this article was first published]. It's small but meaningful. When an organization doesn't do well with a promotional tool that's free and pretty easy to figure out, that undermines my confidence. A lot of people and small, scrappy organizations manage to do a decent job with social media and visual presentation, so why shouldn't we expect the same from an organization that receives a large public subsidy? Especially when we aspire to be a progressive, well-educated city that knows its way around technology?

(On that note, BandSwap, which received $5,000 in the city's operating budget this year and also seems questionable in terms of how much opportunity it can really provide to participating artists and how many people it can really help, boasts a logo that could charitably be described as “headshop mudflap." Should we as a city really be associating ourselves with something that comes off as, I dunno, tasteless and more than a bit sexist?)

Now, although MMM needs to do a lot better with certain things, I also would credit it with doing a lot of things right as an organization. The project has formed many partnerships with neighborhood organizations around the city and sought out funding from private institutions and individuals. MMM also helped develop signup software that similar events in other cities can use.

But after receiving a total of $70,000 from the city, MMM needs to wean itself off that chunk of funding and rely more completely on those community and private partnerships. If it's OK to ask musicians to play for free, MMM organizers should also feel OK asking companies and foundations to donate administrative support and promotional services.

The point is that when the city provides money for the arts in its operating budget, it shouldn't already be solidly committed to a specific event or program, especially not when that program is going to give most or all of that money to someone other than the artists. The city should allocate the money, and then let artists and groups around the city compete for it with ideas that spring from Madison's distinctive needs and opportunities—while MMM is a good idea that clearly a lot of Madisonians like, it's worth noting that it's an idea that comes fully formed from a well-established tradition of similar events elsewhere. I'd imagine that several people could use grants of way less than $20,000 in efficient, flexible projects that create more meaningful opportunities for themselves and others. For instance, the city-funded Blink project lets artists apply for small grants to create temporary public-art installations. The grants are mostly intended to cover the budgets of the installations themselves, but at least that lets artists run with their ideas and reshape the city, if in small, temporary ways. Obviously this approach doesn't translate directly to music, but it's a good example of really enabling artists to shape what a program is.

I do hope Make Music Madison keeps going, but it's not meant to be the flagship of the city's investment in music, and we no one should pretend that it is. If we can afford what the city has given MMM so far, then we can also afford to fund music in more flexible, empowering, and effective ways.