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Almost two and a half years ago, Madison Magazine looked at the local music scene and found the city poised to become a destination for live music — no longer skipped over by bands playing shows in Chicago or Milwaukee before heading to the Twin Cities.
Since then Frank Productions, the umbrella company that includes FPC Live, has changed the landscape by opening The Sylvee and taking over the ownership and booking of several other live music venues in town. Several smaller independent clubs — The Winnebago, Crucible and BarleyPop Live, for example — have opened, too, proving to be as supportive of the local music scene as the artists within it are of one another.
“What [the venue owners] are saying is, ‘Let’s work together to get the word out. Let’s think creatively. That way you can play the music you want to play and we can meet or goal of running an establishment,’ ” says Mike Koszewski, drummer for the genre-bending band Mr. Chair and a veteran Madison jazz musician.
And there seems to be a club for most genres of music. The High Noon Saloon is a favorite of musicians across the board. The Winnebago hosts a lot of indie folk. Jazz groups go to Café CODA or North Street Cabaret. The Harmony Bar & Grill is the go-to spot for blues. Bos Meadery isn’t afraid of punk and heavy metal; (“Anything with angry guitars,” says Ty Christian, who books the venue’s monthly Viking Church Night). Art In on East Washington Avenue and Communication on Milwaukee Street consistently book hip-hop and electronica.
Arts + Literature Laboratory and Robinia Courtyard are increasingly mentioned as being open to a wide range of acts. And BarleyPop Live, which replaced The Frequency on West Main Street — a venue closing in June 2018 that is still lamented — is finding its legs as a spot for live music, too.
“Seeing these small, do-it-yourself venues popping up around the city, it feels good,” Koszewski says.
He and other Madison musicians say the local scene advances by being uniquely collaborative rather than competitive.
“A lot of the bands in Madison don’t really see other bands as competition,” says Christian, lead singer for the heavy metal band Lords of the Trident, a Madison Area Music Association board member and a booker of bands. “I’ve only encountered that here in Madison, where everybody loves each other, and in Fort Collins, Colorado. [I’m told] Austin is a lot like that too.”
Hip-hop shows remain largely underground — so much so that the Madison Area Music Association has an outreach committee that started booking showcases to give local hip-hop artists more exposure on bigger stages. Anthony Arlotta, a local rapper who performs as Reconsiderate, is involved in that effort. He helped book the first two showcases at Yahara Bay Distillers and High Noon.
“We’re aiming for it to be a quarterly thing,” he says. “A lot of it is still undetermined, still under discussion.”
Arlotta concedes that while hip-hop is arguably the biggest genre of popular music nationwide, hip-hop shows in Madison don’t draw big crowds. But he thinks more people would support local hip-hop if venues booked it more often.
While his analysis is primarily focused on local hip-hop, Arlotta makes the case for Madison’s thirst for good live music across the board.
“The general public is open to a local sound,” he says. “People are open, they’re available, they’re ready. It’s just a matter of identifying it.”
In that effort, we’ll get things started. The five local acts and many venues featured below contribute to the varied and creative musical experiences that help Madison retain its unique sound.
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