Free Concerts Are Bad For Madison Music

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.

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