Free Concerts Are Bad For Madison Music

Posted August 26, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Music, Tone

Tags: , , ,

Madison is a great town, but not always for artists. Most people seem to like their art free or cheap, if at all. That’s one reason we’re blessed and somewhat cursed by the cavalcade of free music each summer. Finding that dark cloud on a sunny day, I write in the online arts journal Tone:

[T]hese free shows… have a downside. A serious one, I would argue. They undercut the economic viability of the local music scene. When so much great free music is available from regional and even national groups, why should fans dig into their wallets to hear a local band at a corner pub? Usually they don’t, unless it’s a weekend. That’s why I sat on the deck of Mickey’s not long ago, listening to the fine gypsy swing/Hawaiian group Mal-O-Dua without paying a cover.

Yep, there was a tip jar, but that’s demeaning. Musicians shouldn’t be expected to work for charity, any more than plumbers or lawyers should. Here’s the problem. In Madison, music is often considered a free (or “nonexclusive,” as economists would say) public good. Like the Fourth of July fireworks, the parks, clean streets. We all get a free pass to share them.

Four years ago, I wrote at length for Isthmus on the failure of the local music  to take off. You’ll find that cover story here.

If you’re interested, you can search this archive to find my annual roundup of favorite concerts. This is the 2014  story.

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

Posted July 28, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Local Food, Organic Farming/Local Food, The Progressive

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The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.

UW Loses Key Leader

Posted June 29, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Education, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: , ,

I profiled David Krakauer, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, in January 2013 after periodically talking with him  and observing his campus talks in 2012. I wrote then in Isthmus:

Krakauer’s message “is a brash call for UW-Madison to reimagine its place in the world. Above all, it is to climb out of the silos of intellectual pursuit and embrace a more creative mash-up of disciplines — hard scientists working with poets working with social scientists working with entrepreneurs.

“’David’s task of bringing people together across disciplines is an assignment in cultural change,’ affirms Francois Ortalo-Magné, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.

“But given that great universities are almost medieval in their reverence for tradition, Krakauer faces a hellaciously complicated task. It’s ‘a bit of the immovable object against the unstoppable external forces,’ admits Mike Knetter, president of the UW Foundation.

“The fact that Krakauer is such an unbuttoned figure in the buttoned-down world of university administration may prove exactly the jolt that UW-Madison needs. Anyway, that’s the high-stakes bet UW execs made in selecting him to run a showcase experimental lab as part of the $210 million Discovery complex, which brings together researchers and entrepreneurs.

My followup story caught Krakauer as he was leaving UW-Madison to lead the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The story, which appeared in Isthmus, begins:

One of UW-Madison’s change agents, David Krakauer, is departing on June 30, proud of his work as head of the edgy and multi-disciplinary Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, but deeply frustrated by his dealings with the campus bureaucracy.

“They like to use the word ‘innovation’ a lot, but they don’t want to act on it,” he says. “I think this is a culture that is really intolerant of taking risks.”

He adds: “The UW is very large. Things move slowly. It’s very difficult to respond nimbly and build up roots quickly to address a particular problem.” Still, Krakauer is careful to note that the WID “had some dispensations. We had freedoms. We didn’t cleave exactly to the dominant culture. We did a lot of good stuff. It was very unorthodox.

To read more, please go here.

My take on Krakauer’s departure? It’s a huge loss for the university. Next to Jim Graaskamp, the late head of the UW-Madison real estate department, Krakauer is the most compelling and charismatic campus leader I’ve interviewed.

To be sure, there are lots of really bright people on campus, but often they can’t convey their work to an interested layperson in a convincing fashion. They lapse into impenetrable jargon, or they’re painfully shy, or they’re Midwest modest, or they can’t speak English well. Krakauer is very different. He has the rare public intellectual’s ability to explain  complex ideas. He can do a 360 review, describing all the facets to a lay audience and in the process convey their importance and his enthusiasm.

Madison will miss him. I describe Krakauer’s ideas for bringing UW-Madison into the new century in this online sidebar.

Advice For Democrats

Posted April 6, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Labor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Politics, Tech

David Haynes’ column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel got me thinking about the need for political realignment in Wisconsin. The paper’s editorial page editor recounted the dismal electoral standing of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and argued the faltering Dems need to rethink and rebuild their party.

I offer my two cents in a guest column in the Journal Sentinel:

First, dial back the vitriol. The hatred and contempt [the Democrats] show for Gov. Scott Walker has been repudiated by the voters. Instead, they should stick to the issues. Look to the future. Embrace the millennials. Champion the tech sector. Celebrate start-ups and entrepreneurs. Support the Ubers of the sharing economy. Get real about unions. Give tough love (and financial support) to public education. Welcome immigrants. Offer a helping hand to the poor.

Most of all, accept the necessity of change. Wisconsin hasn’t. Too often, our political and economic leaders act as if they’re historical re-enactors at Old World Wisconsin. They refight the old battles when the world — and the economy — has moved on.

I made many of these points in a story (see below) that appeared earlier in Isthmus. To read more of my Journal Sentinel piece, please go here.

Old School Politics And The New Economy

Posted March 19, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The disconnection between Wisconsin’s growing tech sector and the state’s governing political dynamic has never been greater. This Isthmus story discusses how the Legislature’s decision to enact union-breaking “right to work” legislation left Madison area tech leaders puzzled and dismayed.

“As an employer, I can tell you this has zero bearing on my decision to stay in Wisconsin or to hire more people,” Dan Wilson, a founder of Moxe Health, told me. Other leaders had similar comments.

I write:.

It’s tempting to dismiss the comments of the techie execs as inconsequential because they represent startups and boutique businesses with small workforces. They are midgets compared to the titans of Wisconsin industry who have promoted right-to-work through their powerful lobbying arm, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

But ignoring the new kids is a big mistake.

“In every single state, in every single metro area, young firms create the most jobs. That’s true everywhere,” says Dane Stangler, vice president of research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which advocates for startup businesses.

The tech component has certainly paid off in Dane County.

It’s fueled, of course, by homegrown Epic and its rise as the dominant electronic health records vendor in the country. The workforce tops 8,000. Revenue in 2014 reportedly hit $1.8 billion. And because founder Judith Faulkner insists on running the entire operation through its fairyland campus in Verona, the region has boomed economically. Epic alone accounted for 27% of all the new jobs created here from 2001 to 2012, according to Kennelly.

The city staffer’s presentation on the Madison area’s economic dynamics makes a persuasive case that the Dane County metro area is impressively outperforming the rest of the state. With 10% of the state’s population, Dane County accounts for 12% of the state’s jobs, 15% of its economic output and 16% of the businesses created since 2000 and 73% of the net new jobs created in Wisconsin between 2004 and 2014.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentineldiced the numbers in a different fashion and came to the same conclusion: Dane County led the state in job creation between 2003 and 2013, with nearly 20,000 new jobs. That’s three times as many as second-place Waukesha County. Milwaukee County lost 19,000 jobs in the same period.

For anyone who still sees Madison as a cossetted government town — well, they need to think again. Kennelly’s report shows that the private sector is driving job and wealth creation in Dane County. “Our government workforce is effectively flat,” he says.

Even better, the growing industries here support good-paying jobs, namely in the biomedical/biotechnical and information technology business clusters.

“The Madison area is really an economic engine for Wisconsin,” Kennelly says. “State policymakers sometimes like to pick on Madison. A more constructive approach would be to say: ‘What are they doing right, and how can we replicate it in other parts of the state?'”

To read more, please go here.

Good News For Health IT?

Posted March 19, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: , ,

If Madison and Dane County ever rise to a top ten metro area for technology, the driver will almost certainly be the growth of health-related technology companies led by former employees of  Epic Systems, the  Verona-headquartered leader in electronic health records.

It’s a good bet that Madison-area software writers, many of them bright Epic expats, jumped up pumping their fists when they read that Epic would shortly launch the “App Exchange” and “open the floodgates” to developers, as pioneer Madison tech entrepreneur Mark Bakken told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Bakken compared the App Exchange to Apple’s wildly successful App Store.

This was huge news. For all the good Epic has done for the Dane County community, it has shown steely indifference to the local health IT industry. The company’s intense focus on serving its worldwide 315 customers has never included playing Big Sister to expats dreaming of devising health software to piggyback onto the company’s proprietary system.

Bakken begged off from further commenting on the App Exchange, emailing, “My hands are tied on anything related to this and Epic in general right now.” Epic spokesman Shawn Kiesau also declined to comment.

But Bakken may have been overly exuberant in his prediction. A local tech leader, who asked for anonymity for business reasons, says Epic insiders say it’s a misnomer to compare Epic’s soon-to-launch App Exchange with Apple’s App Store.

To read more,  please go here.

This longer related story appeared in the same issue of Isthmus.

Favorite Concerts of 2014…And Related Matters

Posted January 2, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Music, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I see a lot of live music. This is the ninth year I’ve summed up my reactions to my favorite concerts for Isthmus’ website.  Here’s the longish introduction:

Maybe it was happenstance. Maybe it was the surge line of a big trend. Either way, 2014 was the Year of the Woman for the more than 60 concerts I saw.

That was no surprise with solo singers — a traditional strong suit for women. I saw great ones: Cassandra Wilson at the Dakota in Minneapolis (May 19), Roseanne Cash at the Stoughton Opera House (Nov. 21), Mavis Staples at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18), Ruthie Foster at the Dakota (Oct. 21), Alexandra LoBianco in Madison Opera’s Fidelio at Overture Hall (Nov. 23), and two more who are aspiring to greatness: Gretchen Parlato and Lizz Wright at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8).

But it was the chicks in the band who stood out. Historically, women sidemen (yup, that’s the word) were treated as novelties, save for the classical world. Today, they can be the brains and the brawn in the band.

Drummer Lisa Pankratz powered the reunion of roots rockers Dave and Phil Alvin at the High Noon Saloon (July 25). The brilliant Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen led the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars at the Capitol Theatre (Mar. 28). Esperanza Spalding looked ecstatic playing bass with jazz giants Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (Feb. 15). Hill Country bluesman Luther Dickinson was backed by drummer Sharde Thomas and bassist Amy LaVere at the High Noon (Oct. 20). The oh-so-subtle Samantha Banks drummed for Ruthie Foster. Lap steel wizard Cindy Cashdollar backed up slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth at the Stoughton Opera House (Dec. 5). And the women-led Mosaic Project at Shannon Hall (Nov. 8) featured the formidable drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the rising alto sax player Tia Fuller, who may tour with Beyoncé but plays like Charlie Parker is whispering in her ear.

The boys in the band are increasingly girls. That’s good news. I have to think it’s changing band dynamics to the better in the same way that women managers in the workplace change the valence of team chemistry.

America’s unhealed racial wounds were also on display in 2014. I felt such despair over the Ferguson debacle that I avoided most discussions of it. It all seems so hopeless. Musically, it was another story.

Some of the best music I heard on stage in 2014 was the product of artists burrowing deep into the American cultural core to reinterpret our common history. More often than not, they find white and black sounds coupled together to create a shared national music.

Jazz violinist Regina Carter explored the Library of Congress folklore collection to find the music that her Mississippi grandfather listened to, performing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (April 18). Roseanne Cash’s extraordinary recent work has highlighted the music of her dad Johnny’s youth. Cassandra Wilson, whose parents were Mississippi educators, has made her own deep dives into regional culture. Luther Dickinson, co-founder of the North Mississippi Allstars, keeps digging deeper and deeper into the racially intertwined world of Hill Country Blues. Alt favorite Ruthie Foster’s connection to the great gospel tradition is self-evident. Country artist Marty Stuart’s loving ties to the Staples Singers is character-defining; when Pops, the family patriarch, died, daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave Stuart his guitar to keep and to play, as he did at the Stoughton Opera House (Feb. 1).

“It was like being handed an instrument of light,” Stuart told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

My touchstone for this comingling is one of the most fascinating records in American history: Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9,” recorded in 1930 by the father of country music. But this isn’t just country music, folks. This is standout classic blues, also known as “Standing On The Corner,” and features a bouncy New Orleans trumpet solo by Louie Armstrong and a two-fisted piano accompaniment by Louie’s wife, Lil Hardin.

This song is mind-blowing — and not just for Rodgers’ yodeling solo. A few years earlier he had played and sang in the foundational recordings of country music (the Bristol sessions), just as and Armstrong and Hardin played on the foundational recordings of jazz (the Hot Fives). Yet here they are — white and black musicians — recording together at a time of punitive Jim Crow laws and a music industry that followed a strict apartheid approach to marketing records (“hillbilly” was sold to poor whites and “race” music sold to blacks).

What did they talk about in the studio? How did they navigate the racial and gender chasms? Those answers are lost to history.

What we do know is that is the in the intimacy of the studio, in the moment of creation, the music was all freakin’ one. This was the real America. We find the promise of social unity in our art even when our racialized politics exacerbates social disunity.

To read about my favorite 15 concerts,  please go here.

One more thing…here are my previous roundups: 20132012201120102009200820072006.


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