How I Met Your MAMAs
Post by Bessie Cherry on 5/15/2007 8:35am
As a parent, the daughter of a musician, and a promoter/booker for a local venue, not to mention a voracious fan of music across all genres, I appreciate the value in an awards show that benefits youth musicianship along with showcasing a cornucopia of local talent. Executive Director and Madison Area Music Awards founder Rick Tvedt deserves nothing but praise for spearheading the concept of the MAMAs and tirelessly producing the show year after year. One would be hard pressed to name a more dedicated supporter of MadisonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s music scene. Although RickÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s CafÃƒÂ© is now defunct, I read it cover to cover each month and applaud RickÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s obvious dedication to publicizing local bands and supporting the venues, however small or large, through in-depth previews and reviews of national acts coming through town. The MAMAs Board Chair, Roy Elkins, is also a champion of independent music, both locally and nationally, through his interactive, web-based promotional company, Broadjam.
Other board members include the owners of Good nÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Loud -- whose retail business combined with their workshops and ever-growing educational programs hugely benefit Madison musicians even at the youth level-- along with representatives from UPN 14 and 105.5 Triple M, two media outlets that have consistently put local musicians on the air. Obviously all members of the board are personally invested in fostering a thriving home for music. That being said, I believe everyone involved could benefit from a bit of constructive criticism from someone (me) who has just come away from her first MAMAs feeling slightly bewildered by the whole process.
My bewilderment truly started about two months ago when my good friend Ron Walters reminded me to go to the MAMAs website and vote for his band, The New Kentucky Quarter, who were up for a handful of awards in a few different categories. I must admit, my response was Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a credit card.Ã¢â‚¬Â Yes, I am an avid music fan and, in fact, my job requires that I stay attuned to the Madison music scene, yet the simple fact that becoming a MAMAs member required a $5 transaction prevented me from voting. Because really, what would RonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s proper response be? Would it be ethical for him to say Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ok, I really want your vote, just give me $5 and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll put it on my credit card?Ã¢â‚¬Â I have a feeling that would be an uncomfortable and Republican-like conversation.
After investigating the MAMAs website I realized that although their charitable goal is to put instruments in kidsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ hands and thus encourage the scene well into the future, it seems a more immediate goal is to publicize Broadjam, which is referenced at least two dozen times throughout the MAMAs website FAQs. Although I hear that Broadjam has generously donated their technology and expertise to the MAMAs, the websiteÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s glowingly self-reverential tone was off-putting to meÃ¢â‚¬â€a prime example is that I was not led to the answer to my questions: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Which schools have benefited from the money raised at the MAMAs?Ã¢â‚¬Â or Ã¢â‚¬Å“How much money have the MAMAs raised for their impressive goal?Ã¢â‚¬Â but rather to the question: Ã¢â‚¬Å“What is BroadjamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s role in the MAMAs?Ã¢â‚¬Â My opinion was further soured by scouring the website to find further information about the actual numbers of people who have paid to become a MAMA member or any financial information whatsoever, such as what one has to invest to become a board member, but my search led nowhere. I did, however, learn that the Broadjam voting process is Ã¢â‚¬Å“a slick, online process that voters will love.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Part of this slick process is the nomination round (which, according to the FAQs, is Ã¢â‚¬Å“a tried-and-true method developed by BroadjamÃ¢â‚¬Â). The website explains that all members of the MAMAs can vote as many times as they like, hearing a wide sampling of local music to choose from. It also explains that nominees must pay $10 to be considered for any award. This is a fatal flaw in the system. It means that essentially, not only is the onus on the individual act or musician to nominate themselves, but they are paying for the honor of being recognized by their peers and/or fans (all of whom must pay a fee to do so). The process is innately warped because it focuses on the musicianÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s self-promotional skills and financial resources rather than their talent or fan appeal.
After hearing Elkins speak at a roundtable about music promotion via the web a few weeks back, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not really surprised. He emphasized that musicians need to become marketing strategists and tirelessly promote themselves. Professionally speaking, I find IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m far more likely to book a show for a musician whose website/EPK/demo speaks for itself, meaning that they have put in the majority of their time where they should beÃ¢â‚¬â€rehearsing, writing songs, in the studio, or playing shows. Personally speaking, I find I am far more likely to follow a bandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s career and attend their shows based on their live performances or on hearing and liking their music via the web or radio, not because I see their posters around town or because their own website proclaims their proficiency. Asking musicians who may be so focused on their musical careers that they are living solely off of the money they make from playing shows or selling CDs to then shell out their hard-earned money in order to be recognized by their community seems almost insulting. And even if they can afford to do so, they in turn are then forced to prod their fans, friends and family to pay and vote. Many people on both sides may be uncomfortable with this pay to play, resume-building aspect of the MAMAs.
Out of the 500+ musicians and bands (and counting) in Madison, 70 were nominees across 44 categories. Some of these categories included 2 nominees (Best DJ, World Music Song of the Year, Classical Song of the Year), while the various Artist of the Year categories had anywhere from 2 (Electronic) to 10 (Rock) or any number in between. Most acts were nominated more than once, sometimes even more than once in the same category. It seems a more evenhanded representation of MadisonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s music scene could be achieved by enlisting a nomination committee (apparently in years past they had utilized a selection committee for Best Artist awards, and did away with this system because of the volume of submissions). Potential members that immediately come to mind are the owners of B-Side or MadCity Music Exchange, Cathy Dethmers (owner of the High Noon Saloon), Tag Evers (promoter for Last Coast/True Endeavors), Wyndham Manning (WUD Music Director), Stephanie Rearick (owner of Mother FoolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s), Tom Laskin (Isthmus), and Scott Gordon (Onion AV Club Editor). All of these people have a hand in nurturing local musicians and have their finger on the local pulse. They also represent varied demographics and interests.
The WAMIs have a diverse advisory committee that includes musicians, producers, marketers, and distributors, among others. If such a committee were put in place, although perhaps the MAMAs would lose the financial aspect of getting musicians to pay for their nominations, they could gain the fan bases of a broader range of Madison talent to pay to become a part of the MAMAs or attend the awards ceremony. Such a system would also give the awards more credibility within both the music scene and the community at large. Having an exclusive, members-only voting system as well as an exclusive, members-only nomination system seems a rather elitist means to a charitable end.
For my part, even though I book music locally, I had only heard of about half of the nominees. Where were the Kissers, who pack clubs on a regular basis and have gained considerable national prominence? How about Blueheels, a relatively recent addition to the Madison music scene who are already drawing 200+ fans to their local shows and being asked to open for national acts at the High Noon Saloon? Was Smart Studios (Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, etc.) not quite on par with Paradyme or RandyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Recording Studio, the only two nominees for Best Studio? I was most disappointed in the gaping void of representation from my demographic. Bands like Dumate, Sleeping in the Aviary (originally slated to appear at the Barrymore afterparty), Pale Young Gentlemen, The Box Social, Brown Derby, Nama Rupa, The Buffali, Droids Attack, ScreaminÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Cyn Cyn and the Pons (and many other Crustacean Records artists), Young Blood Brass Band, Cougar, The BraceletsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ all seemed conspicuously missing, especially as I had been in the crowd for their well attended local shows and read the press as some of them gain recognition in other major markets. How could a city with so many DJs spinning have only 2 nominees in the DJ category? Nick Nice, Vilas Park Sniper, Jeremy Thomas, and Mike Carlson are surely worthy of a nod. Solo artists Jentri Collello, Nick Venturella, Gabriel Reed, Ariel McClain, Tamara Backus, Josh Harty, and Blake Thomas were also nowhere to be found, although finding them holding court all over town in packed bars is easy on any given night.
Despite my misgivings, I attended the MAMAs with an open mind and in good spirits. In this day and age where funding for the arts in public schools is consistently endangered, ultimately my $20 ticket was going to a good cause. I liked seeing a local event in the Barrymore TheaterÃ¢â‚¬â€usually its size lends itself best to national touring acts. In the lobby others commented on how nice it was to be able to purchase refreshments (or maybe they really said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Thank God we can drink in here!Ã¢â‚¬Â) Watching the Ã¢â‚¬Å“red carpetÃ¢â‚¬Â simulcast from within the theater was pretty entertaining, mostly because MC Beverly continually asked people, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Who are you wearing?Ã¢â‚¬Â and was continually answered with Ã¢â‚¬Å“Uh, what?Ã¢â‚¬Â John Urban was the perfect host, and the Gomers, with their fun loving versatility and deadpan song selections, were an excellent choice for accompanying music.
The event itself was pretty much what I expected Ã¢â‚¬â€ essentially, musicians who could convince their fans and friends to pay $5 and vote for them won many awards, while other valiant nominees came away with nothing. This is evidenced by the fact that about half of the award winners (which represented about a third of the nominees) won not just once, but twice or three times. The awards seemed heavily skewed towards an over-35 crowd with a few notable exceptions: Jesse Banks, who was the only nominee and thus the winner in, fittingly, the Young Vocalist of the Year category; Felicia Alima, who picked up two R + B awards and delivered a phenomenal live performance complete with excellent dancers and a surprise cameo from birthday boy Rob Dz; Lucas Cates, the local college radio sweetheart who swept the Pop category, winning Pop Album, Artist and Song of the Year; and the Sharp and Harkins Band, who won Folk/Americana Artist of the Year and tied for Unique Song of the Year, despite the fact that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been together for under two years, making them the newest addition to the Madison scene in either category. Speaking of new additions, another young standout was the band Polydream, who won a MAMA for Best New Artist. I was definitely impressed upon visiting PolydreamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Myspace page, but a bit dismayed upon further investigation, as the band seems to have been around the Madison area since around 2003 Ã¢â‚¬â€ not new by any definition.
Just as I was getting a little antsy in my seat late in the show, Sybil from WORT deviated from script to dis the war in Iraq and encourage all to go out to shows in support of local music. I found her impassioned speech, not to mention her shiny silver gloves, inspiring and refreshing. I was also impressed by Jonathan Little, who accepted his well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award with a humble and moving reflection, recognizing his wife and daughter in the audience and no doubt reminding everyone in the Barrymore of the importance of grassroots radio. It was lovely to see that talented presenter Michael Massey brought his children to the ceremony. The energetic and radio-ready performance by Alakrity also added some young energy to the evening, and the inclusion of them and other bands who won the Launchpad competition for high school musicians was a good attempt at tying in the overarching theme of preserving music education for generations to come (even though it appears they are from Beloit, not Madison, an incongruity as striking as the fact that Miss Madison, a presenter, admitted she actually hails from Kenosha). The Dorothy Heralds performed at the afterparty, but it would have been nice to see them during the show; as much as I enjoyed seeing Clear Blue Betty, Yid Vicious, The Midwesterners, and all of the others who contributed a live song to the ceremony, they only furthered my suspicion that the night was geared toward an older crowd. Plus, why not throw in a performance by a local elementary or high school band? Youth in music, after all, is supposedly what the MAMAs are all about.
As for my friend Ron, although he did pay $50 to nominate The New Kentucky Quarter for 5 different awards, they came away with only one: Best Rock Song of the Year, for Ã¢â‚¬Å“Carry it Around.Ã¢â‚¬Â He had an acceptance speech typed and at the ready, but none of the Song of the Year winners got to actually go up on stage, which is a shame as it would have broken up the monotony of seeing the same people hit the stage for win after win. Instead, a clip of each song was ceremoniously broadcasted to a smattering of applause. (Note to MAMAs tech committee: I could barely hear the prerecorded names of the nominees in any category. Not helpful, as I hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t heard of most of them in the first place. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll leave out any other tech-related comments, as the obvious technical difficulties throughout the show donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have much to do with my core critique). Ron said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know. Maybe I just didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mobilize our Myspace fans enough,Ã¢â‚¬Â obviously disappointed at the loss, being that The New Kentucky Quarter is soon to disband. He also noted their handful of wins in 2005, which had been instrumental in launching the bandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s success, and speculated that the difference this year was a lack of selection committee.
Tens of thousands of votes were cast by 657 voters to choose the MAMAs winners in 2007 (Tvedt told The Daily Page that "over 7,000 votes were cast in the song category alone."). I do feel guilty that I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t one of them. Maybe next year, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll borrow someoneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s credit card. However, more importantly, I wonder what message the MAMAs are sending the young people it is trying to support. I disagree with naysayers who have asserted that Madison canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t support a local awards show. There is a thriving local scene here, steeped in a longstanding tradition that was started even before Jefferson Airplane and Cheap Trick played at the Nitty Gritty or the Steve Miller Band was formed. This is the scene that was instrumental in launching Garbage; this is the scene we are reminded of weekly when musical legends like Clyde Stubblefield and Ben Sidran still play in local bars. This is the scene that gives music lovers free jazz on the Capitol lawn, an indie-rock CD release party in the basement of a steakhouse, a punk showcase at a saloon, a Celtic rock band in a dive bar, and an orchestral pop extravaganza at a wine bar, all local, and all in the same night.
It seems illogical to put a free instrument in a childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hands, provide them with free musical education, and then turn around years later when that child has turned into a young adult making a name for themselves in a local band, and tell them that musicianship has more to do with self-promotion and marketing than practice and talent. Instead, why not focus on inspiring them? Rally around a broader spectrum of what Madison has to offer. Show them that whether they choose to play bass guitar in a hardcore band or trumpet in a brass band there will be a place for them here. Show them that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s possible to put together a nationally recognized EP before theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re even out of college. Show them that they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have to follow the lead of others who have left Madison for Ã¢â‚¬Å“greener pasturesÃ¢â‚¬Â but that they can stay in Madison, be successful, and be in good company amongst well-known mainstays of the scene and young upstarts alike. Fancy technology, red carpets, corporate sponsors, and VIP seating indubitably confuse a child. But my five-year-old can sing every word of Ã¢â‚¬Å“What a Wonderful World,Ã¢â‚¬Â and thanks to her amazing music teacher, she knows Louis Armstrong sang it first. Which proves that in the end, with the right tools and proper education, it really is all about the music.