Things that are confusing about Between The Waves

The city-funded music conference looks unsure about what it wants to be.

The inaugural Between The Waves event, running June 15 through 18, realizes a long-in-the-works plan for Madison to host an annual music conference and festival. The City of Madison is even partially funding the conference with public money ($25,000 in the most recent city budget), along with additional funding from Dane County, in hopes that this and other events will make Madison a destination for music fans and an easier place for musicians to earn a living. It was announced last fall under the name “Madison Songwriter Conference and Festival." The Between The Waves name and logo came some months later. The conference's main organizer is Roy Elkins, CEO of Broadjam, a Madison-based website where artists seek music-licensing opportunities.

Tickets to the conference, at the Gordon Dining and Event Center on campus, cost $69 for those without discounts (high-school and college students can get free registration); this includes admission to the festival, which takes place at venues including the High Noon Saloon, the Majestic, and the Brink Lounge. People who just want to attend the festival part but not the conference can buy tickets separately. The conference offers an assortment of music-industry speakers, some local (DJ Pain 1, Frank Productions CFO Marla Frank) and some from out of town (former Public Image Limited/Ministry/Killing Joke/Pigface drummer Martin Atkins and a gentleman named Fett). The festival lineup is almost entirely local bands, though organizers have talked about bringing in national acts in the future.

Over the course of trying to cover this thing and watching its rollout, I've wondered what exactly the conference wants to be, and who its intended audience is. There's value, of course, in helping musicians understand things like promotion, studio techniques, and music licensing. The bigger questions are how to do all that in a way that makes sense for Madison, and whether it's the best use of city arts funding.

Here are a few things that have proven confusing, and, in a spirit of good-faith tire-kicking, a few suggestions as to how BTW might tweak its approach in the years ahead.

Who's the audience?

When you're talking to musicians about business matters, there's always a risk of coming off as condescending. There's a stereotype out there that musicians are just head-in-the-clouds creative types who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into any kind of practical consideration. Sure, plenty of musicians are flakey or clumsy with promotion and business stuff, but in my experience the stereotype is a disservice. (It also isn't simply musicians' fault; the history of popular music is littered with grifter music-biz types taking advantage of naive young artists.) One presentation is titled "Yes, Your Band Is A Business" when it could be titled something that doesn't imply that bands are oblivious to that fact, like "Tips For Band Business Basics." Don't sugarcoat it, but give your audience some credit. BTW has made one good first step in this regard by treating "the independent musician" as its main customer; a greater focus on the variety of experiences and skills musicians bring to the table would only bolster that. Chances are most of the organizers and speakers at BTW know that musicians are smart, and they should go out of their way, right from the start, to emphasize that they know it.

A stunningly credulous Isthmus story about BTW quotes Elkins as saying: "Just about every musician I know would rather sit in a studio and write music. But the hard work begins after the music is done." I can attest that many of the local musicians I interact with as a journalist are aware of the important work that happens outside of writing and playing, and are already responding to those challenges with creativity and a dash of entrepreneurship, whether it's unconventional packaging for their releases or cleverly themed events. Not all of them are out to have a music career in a conventional sense—which doesn't make someone any more or less of an artist—but they're a lot more savvy on this front than one might assume.  

The Isthmus story also tells us that "The music industry today is DIY" now. Then why is the speaker lineup overwhelmingly dominated by old-line music-biz types, experienced or insightful as they might be?

In the future, BTW would do well to get out into the community and ask more young or scrappy musicians to share their experiences, from the community-builders behind Half-Stack Sessions to the local jazz musicians who leverage support from foundations and local businesses to create grants and paying gigs for other artists through the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium. I should note that one Half-Stack founder, Maggie Denman, who also is a talent buyer at the High Noon Saloon for Frank Productions and plays in local bands Miyha and Once A Month, will be co-presenting with Frank Productions CFO Marla Frank, but information about Denman wasn't indicated anywhere on the BTW website as of Tuesday afternoon. A few BTW speakers are active locally based musicians, but not enough, in my opinion. Perhaps young musicians coming up could learn a thing or two from more seasoned musicians and industry types, but that conversation needs to go both ways.

The stock photos, the hashtags, the humanity

How you present yourself matters, as a few of the speakers at BTW will no doubt point out, and that includes the imagery you use for your band or project or event. Things like photos and logos can send a message and, in the case of a locally focused event, create a sense of place. However, Between The Waves' Facebook and Instagram ads over the past month or so have been splashed with photos that leave you wondering: Wait, who and where are these people? A dude in a leather jacket headbangs while strumming an SG in a white void. A different guy in a hat jumps while playing a Stratocaster in a room somewhere. A couple dudes take a selfie with a DAW running on a computer screen behind them, no doubt located at some point within our universe. A woman strums an acoustic guitar and sings in a sound-treated room at Anystudio USA.

A quick reverse image search reveals that they're just stock photos. Why go this route? There are dozens of local musicians playing or speaking at the conference, and many of them have decent publicity photos to share. Some of them are on BTW's printed posters, so it's not like organizers didn't have them handy. Additionally, more of these images should reflect music that's not rock, folk, or, well, guitar-centered. If people see performers and locations they recognize, these ads might interest them a bit more. They might get the idea that something cool is happening in Madison. With these images, the message is: People are making music, in places.

While we're focused on the minutiae of online promotion: hashtags! The conference's two chosen hashtags are #ThisIsMadison and #TheWorldNeedsToKnow. A few folks on Twitter seem to be using both as intended, but these are both frustratingly generic; #TheWorldNeedsToKnow could apply to any number of things people feel like sharing on the internet. Hashtags are always a tricky proposition, as they rely so much on participation. A clever or playful one might serve the conference better in the future. Even a more straightforward conference-type hashtag like #BTWMadison17 would be worth trying, as a way to let attendees connect leading up to and during the event.

These two things seem may small, but they reflect the fact that Between The Waves is trying to send two distinct messages at once: Madison's music community deserves greater notice, and here's how musicians can make a living. Those are both big points to tackle on their own. Should one event be biting off both of them? How does one keep both of those messages in balance throughout the event and in the leadup to it? The hashtags focuses on one of those messages, whereas the stock photos don't really reinforce either.

The music lineup

Imagine you put on a local beer festival and most of the beers on offer were things like Fantasy Factory and Hopalicious. I like Fantasy Factory and Hopalicious, but I can have them any time at a reasonable price. Why would I buy a festival pass to experience them? Oh also, one of the better parts of the festival is free anyway.

This is basically the muddled value proposition of BTW's festival portion. There are some clear standouts, like the Clyde Stubblefield All Stars. They're a blast to see but one hardly needs to attend BTW to catch them—the band holds down a monthly residency at the High Noon Saloon and has played several other shows recently to celebrate the life of its legendary namesake, who died in February. The June 17 BTW hip-hop showcase at the Majestic features the well-loved Rob Dz and the up-and-coming Charles Grant, among others—but it's free. Not exactly complaining about the free part, but it doesn't make buying a ticket more enticing. The rest of the festival lineup features a great many capable musicians, sure, but very few of the acts who really make music in Madison interesting and distinctive. Nothing wrong with some competent funk or decent folk or respectable rock here and there, but that shouldn't be the backbone of such an event.

Additionally, the whole idea of BTW is supposed to be about helping musicians find success and make a living. You might expect, then, to see a lot of local acts who've attracted national press or joined noteworthy labels—and there's a good variety of them, from metal band Bereft (which released a new album this year on national metal label Prosthetic) to singer Monica Martin (whose post-Phox career is off to a good start) to MC/singer Trapo. No one like that is in the Between The Waves festival lineup. This isn't a "my favorite band wasn't included" gripe. It's about entire swaths of noteworthy local music—and several recent success stories—not being reflected.

The speakers

The speakers at the conference do include some Madison-affiliated musicians who've had actual music careers. Platinum-selling hip-hop producer DJ Pain 1 will likely have the most to say about the music business as it exists now, but you can also get plenty of his insights about all that in his Tweets or Facebook videos. Producer and Garbage drummer Butch Vig and jazz musician Ben Sidran came up in earlier eras of the music business and that might give them some valuable perspective, but Madison goes back to both of those wells so often. "Keynote" speaker Martin Atkins has played in several noteworthy post-punk and industrial outfits (as noted above) and sure, his rant-y advice to fellow musicians is diverting, but how good of a selling point is all this for a $69 ticket?

Speaking of selling points, organizers have made a big deal of Vig's BTW appearance since their announcement last fall and mentioned him in their pitch to private sponsors. But until this June 1 Capital Times article came out, I wasn't aware that he'd be appearing via Skype, not in person. This isn't currently mentioned on the BTW site (except for a repost there of the Cap Times story) or in its printed promotional materials. An online ad that ran after the Cap Times piece did parenthetically note the "via Skype" part, as did a June 3 email newsletter, which noted that "rockstar duty is keeping him on the move that weekend." A talk given remotely can still be valuable, of course, but if a conference guest is one of your big selling points for a $69 festival ticket, you should be up-front about that. If it's a late-breaking development, just also be up-front and maybe a bit apologetic. As a recent Isthmus cartoon memorably pointed out, it also sends a dissonant message when your hometown-guy-made-good isn't actually...in his hometown. 

The timing

BTW organizers probably couldn't have foreseen that their event would fall on the same weekend as the third annual Eaux Claires festival. (The first two EC's were in July and August.) Or that a bunch of noteworthy Madison bands would be headed out of town to play the much more niche but still impressive Bluelight fest in Highland, about 40 miles west of here. Together, these two events will draw a lot of local musicians and music fans away for the weekend. Again, not the organizers' fault, but it does dilute the audience for BTW. It may be worth experimenting with a spring or even fall date in the future. There are always other events to compete with, but in the summer they're more likely to be multi-day out-of-town ones.

If the organizers of BTW are serious about serving Madison's music community and being responsible stewards of a public investment, I'd urge them to go back to the drawing board.

Editor's note: This story incorrectly referred to 2017's Eaux Claires festival as the second; it is in fact the third. The reference has been corrected.