I read with some interest the recent article in the Badger Herald that pondered whether the Madison music scene was dying or not. I've been in one Madison band or another since 2001. I'm currently in three, but that's a whole other story. What I'm saying, though, is that I feel like I have a decent perspective on this whole thing, and I'm not entirely sure I agree with the article's overall slant toward suggesting that things are getting worse for the local scene.
The author does come around in the end to give voice to those who suggest that the scene goes through cyclical changes, that things are just shifting and not dying, which is the theory I personally subscribe to. Things change. Madison, because of its many schools, is a town of coming and going, so the fan base and the musicians are transitory. Changes in scene are natural, and I doubt very much that we'll ever see a complete (or even near complete) "death." To even suggest such a thing in the title is a bit dubious, if you ask me.
The author cites the recent closings of a number of smaller venues: the Slipper Club, Bru's Anchor Inn, and the Corral Room to name a few. But the location where the Slipper Club was seems to change hands every other year, the Anchor Inn had been having troubles for a long while (and frankly, wasn't that great of a venue--the site lines and nearly non-existent dance floor sucked), and the Corral Room...well, don't get me started on that place.
We do suffer from a dearth of smaller venues, especially all-ages venues. But for every place that closes down, we do seem to get new ones springing up in their wake. We have another very decent mid-sized venue (all-ages, no less) in the Majestic. Places like the Mercury Lounge, Cafe Montmartre, Mr. Roberts, the Annex, Harmony Bar, Crystal Corner, the King Club, The Journey, The Klinic, Brink Lounge, Escape Java Joint, the Dry Bean Saloon, and various coffee shops around town all cater to smaller acts. The problem isn't so much a lack of places to play so much as a band's lack of willingness to put themselves out there and get the gigs.
Of course, the article gets one issue right: lack of attendance at shows. It takes a lot of variables to draw in a large crowd: quality and popularity of a band, competition on any given night, and the high turnover rate of show goers (as in, when students are your primary fan base, good luck filling a show during the summer months). I suspect that a large part of the problem comes from just how many good bands there are in Madison, and how many are playing on any given night. Happily, we've got a lot of options here, but that does make it difficult for any one act to pull in a full house.
I'm glad the article at least gave a small tip of the hat to the ever-growing hip-hop scene in Madison. It's taken some serious hits in the last few years, with artists leaving town and moving on, but there always seem to be some fresh voices coming along to fill in. Add in the First Wave program at the UW, the National Poetry Slam competition coming here next year, and a whole slew of hip-hop centered events to the mix, and you've got a surprisingly vibrant scene for what is, at its core, a small city/big town in the Midwest.
There's still plenty of work to be done to keep the local arts scene alive and well. It seems like there's always something to fight against, to overcome, but the great thing about Madison is that no matter how many clubs close, how many arts publications shut down, there will always be people here interested in making, promoting and listening to music, regardless of how many people turn up for their shows. Just don't say they're dying. It's just change, and if we put forth just a little bit of effort to see it through, it's usually for the better.
(photo credit: yours truly, of God-des & She)