If you care about music, Madison’s budget process needs you

Madison's city government is still finding its way on music funding. It’s time for more involvement.
 

Over the next few weeks, the City of Madison will ramp up toward passing its budget for 2017. Funding for arts and music will likely not be a huge part of the conversation—for instance, the city’s 2016 operating budget totaled $290.1 million, and I wrote a piece that found about $2 million in budget items with some direct bearing on arts funding, though that doesn’t include the Madison Public Library’s $16.3 million budget. Point is, it’s not that much in the context of an entire city budget, but it isn’t small change either.

The more important question is whether we’re spending this money in a way that reflects the diverse needs of the city and the messy dynamism of our musicians and artists. Granted, “messy dynamism” is maybe too much to ask from municipal goverment, but bear with me here.

Naturally arts funding takes a backseat to issues like homelessness, police stations and bus rapid transit. But it can still have a real impact on the local economy and the health of our communities, and it’s more of an afterthought than it should be. Plus, it gets overshadowed not just by other issues of substance but by the increasing political acrimony among Madison’s elected officials. It also might not be a very exciting year for arts funding. Karin Wolf, the city’s arts administrator, says that with this year’s tight budget, she’s not making any new budget requests, but that the situation shouldn’t impact music-related items the city has funded in recent years.

Back in 2012, Mayor Paul Soglin briefly treated music as a centerpiece of his administration, and talked about making Madison an easier place for artists to make a living. But that emphasis has faded, in terms of Soglin’s public statements, and we’re still waiting to see results.

The funding allocations I’ve detailed in recent years include:

  • The annual Make Music Madison event, which has received a total of $95,000 from the city so far.
  • An in-the-works event called the Madison Songwriter’s Conference, for which the city has set aside a total of $25,000 so far.
  • Support for the Wisconsin Union’s spring Revelry Festival.
  • Support for the annual Dane Dances series at Monona Terrace.
  • Funding for a program called BandSwap.
  • Subsidies for the Overture Center.

I’ll be doing more reporting and commentary on this as the budget process goes on. That isn’t what this post is about. Right now, if you’re a person in Madison who plays music or cares about it, I want to urge you to ask yourself these questions: Am I well-served by these programs? If so, how can they be improved, and what do I know that might make them more effective? If not, what other efforts could the city support that would speak to me and the parts of the music community here that I care about?

The point is, whatever you think of the city’s current efforts to boost music, they could probably benefit from your involvement. A lot of musicians in Madison, and the people who surround them, are resourceful, entrepreneurial folks who could, well, bring a bit more of that messy dynamism to the picture.

Not everyone is going to feel excited or engaged by the process of local government. It’s safe to say that people who are deeply involved in local government skew older and more affluent than the average local musician. There’s an intimidation factor there, a sense that this isn’t really for you. There’s also a sense that getting involved in things like the city budget takes time that could be better spent on DIY efforts, and I can’t really argue with that, given what many musicians have accomplished here without much pre-existing infrastructure.

But for now we know the city is going to spend at least some of our money on music- and arts-related programs. Our elected officials and city staff might as well be getting input on that from as diverse a group of people as possible. If they only hear from the usual suspects—a few non-profits, a few promoters and venue owners, a relatively narrow cross-section of musicians—then guess who the results will serve?

A lot of things are probably all but decided for this year, but it’s still a good chance to get the lay of the land and work toward exerting more of an influence in the future. Where to start?

  • The city is posting information on this year’s budget here. Not all of the details or requests are in yet; look for more in early October. If you’re like me and you enjoy sifting through boring government PDFs, focus especially on the Planning Division budget (the Madison Arts Commission is technically part of that department), and the Special Funds Statements (this includes details on how the city spends money from things like the room-tax fund, which is the source of several music funding items).
  • Plus, you should know who your alder is and let them know what you think about arts funding—listening to your concerns and ideas is part of their job.
  • Same with the members of the Madison Arts Commission.

Again, Madison’s leaders have said they want to create a better environment for music here. Hold them to it, and help them find their way.

Correction: This story initially misstated the amount of funding the City of Madison has set aside for the Madison Songwriter Conference. It is currently $25,000; another $25,000 was budgeted in the 2015 city budget, but was returned to the general fund.