Small Fixes 5: WUD and the city

August 18, 2014 @ 7:42 am
Event Photo


small fixes

Welcome back to Small Fixes, an occasional series that proposes small but meaningful things the City of Madison and other organizations can do to strengthen arts and music in Madison.

The Wisconsin Union Directorate has several assets that no other venue or organizer of arts events in Madison does: The Terrace, which is synonymous with summer in Madison; several spaces that host all-ages shows and serve beer; Union South's Marquee theater, which was recently upgraded with a current digital-projection system; a budget to put on free shows and pay performers decently; and the most wildly adored chair design this side of the mid-century-modern furniture market. The impact WUD and its student-run committees have on Madison's quality of life is tremendous, and I think there are opportunities to expand that impact by building stronger connections between WUD and the city's music and arts communities.

And I'm not exactly accusing WUD of slacking in this area. Music-wise, the Behind The Beat happy-hour series routinely brings in local jazz and blues acts, and Madison acts frequently headline and open WUD shows. Six or seven years ago when I worked at The Onion, WUD even collaborated with us to book a summer series of local bands and basically gave me a free hand in curating it. Over time, WUD has also worked with off-campus concert promoters and venues on a variety of shows, including working with Frank Productions on the Revelry Festival in spring and co-presenting the occasional show at the Majestic. And even building relationships in the byzantine on-campus world can pay off: WUD's film committee has partnered up with UW Cinematheque to put on several really fun series of screenings in the Marquee.

Even with all that, I get the sense that the relationship between WUD and local musicians/artists/performers isn't as strong or productive as it could be. Let me put it this way: There are always local acts sprinkled throughout WUD's music lineup, to the point that you could argue that locals get their fair cut of the action, but I don't always see local or Wisconsin music booked with the same curatorial zeal as national touring acts. Admittedly an idealistic and subjective goal, but why shouldn't we aim for it? After all, we're talking about UW-Madison, where spreading the benefits of the university around the community and the state is a deep-seated principle.

WUD needs to have a student volunteer (well, ideally a staff person but that's not necessarily a small fix) specifically dedicated to being the face of the organization at off-campus events, building connections with local musicians and arts organizations, championing weird local bands to the committee, digging up under-appreciated acts, and so forth. What you see at the Terrace or The Sett will still vary with the tastes and whims of the students on the committee each semester, of course, but I kind of like that. And either way, having a "Madison ambassador" role (I know that sounds hokey but whatever) would still consistently make things better.

Again, I realize that WUD isn't oblivious in this department. "There is not a formal person that does this—but informally there are definitely folks that try to develop that expertise," says Courtney Byelich, the staff advisor for the WUD Music Committee. "We always need openers, and folks who are interested in doing headlining shows, too. Those people who know about local bands become invaluable committee members."

That's definitely worth something, but I think making this a formal duty could make a big difference. If you want to book the local bands you've always booked and the local bands that everyone's talking about already and the local bands who are the most proactive about self-promotion, that's easy. If you want to surprise people and represent a diversity of genres and serve a varied audience, that's going to take digging up new stuff at little club and bar shows around town, challenging your own tastes and preconceptions, and chasing down acts who aren't actively seeking out a ton of attention. And in my experience learning about all the odd little pockets of local music is very much a face-to-face thing, where e-mails and social media will help but will only get you so far. And again, I'm not asserting that *nobody* from WUD does *any* of this, but that making it a specific responsibility, designating a point person who's known in the community as a contact, would be powerful in itself.

Occasionally there's a student on the WUD music committee who noticeably steps it up and shows a real passion for connecting to local bands—last year I wrote about Erica Motz, who eventually got fed up with booking shows at the Union but managed to mix up shows there with a lot of cool Wisconsin bands, including under-the-radar types who aren't always the best at promoting themselves. And I've known several other WUD students over the years who were really proactive about showing their faces beyond campus, booking interesting local stuff, and building new relationships. They make WUD's music lineup better, and they make local music feel more visible and exciting. Incidentally, they also prove that even a student juggling a lot of responsibilities can still find the time and energy to make an impact for WUD and the community.

But those students inevitably graduate or get busy with other stuff, and when that happens WUD should make sure to keep tabs on the connections they've built. Pass that torch along and make it a specific individual's responsibility.

The Wisconsin Union is a deservedly well-loved institution, and these efforts would only make it more so. And, ideally, provide local bands more chances to play all-ages shows, for a decent guarantee. And help the Union reach into more of the varied fragments that form our local music audience. Seeking out and nurturing local connections in music and the arts should be a concrete part of WUD's mission.

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last updated: August 18, 2014 @ 7:42 am

Scott Gordon

Scott Gordon

Scott is the editor and co-founder of Tone Madison. He has covered music and lots of other things for outlets including The A.V. Club, Wisconsin Public Radio, and WORT-FM.

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