Madison Local Music Guide
With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. Here, Andrew Brandt gives a rundown on the sights and sounds of Madison, WI.
Arguably the most important judge of any local music scene is by its live shows.
A healthy live scene offers artists a spectrum of spaces to be heard — regardless of whether they have any recorded music — while fostering a community of listeners and peers to grow with.
Here in Madison, we pride ourselves on our ability to stage live shows every night of the week, whether a national touring act is rolling through town or a local dive is hosting an open mic.
Of course, scenes don’t grow through live performances alone, and we also offer a hefty amount of support for our emerging artists and sounds through both our local radio stations and record stores, as wells as a free-flowing creative commerce with our surroundings.
Whether you live here or you’re just visiting, here’s a guide for musically navigating Madison, WI.
Though punk and folk music dominated the Madison soundscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the city’s current scene also bustles with electronic, hip-hop and pop-influenced sounds.
Demonstrated most explicitly by experimental artists like Burial Hex and Trin Tran, Madison is morphing into a city that seems ready to embrace a synthesizer-based sound. And though the two aforementioned acts may sound too far removed from traditional structures for some listeners, ear-candy bands like Mr. Jackson, Golden Donna and Oh My Love occupy the same electronic state of mind in a more candy-coated form.
Then there’s Double Ewes, a band that blends folk narratives with electronica backdrops for a sound that truly feels like the Madison area’s future and past colliding. Other acts like Building on Buildings and Jeremiah Nelson additionally make music that functions as a hinge between the stereotypical Midwestern feel and an expanding sonic palate.
Historically, hip-hop has been a largely dormant sector of the Madison music scene. But largely thanks to local label CATCH WRECK (more on that below), and local MCs like CRASHprez and Lord of the Fly, rap is slowly making its way out of house shows and into Madison’s more traditional music venues, where city favorite rock acts like Cribshitter, El Valiente and Sinking Suns play regularly.
Speaking of local venues, Madison’s east side, downtown and campus area are all brimming with places for bands to play.
On the east side of town, Willy Street and Atwood Avenue are your best bets for catching a local show on any given night. Atwood’s marquee venue is the big ol’ Barrymore Theatre, while neighboring Willy Street is arguably the city’s busiest music district, thanks to local joints like Mickey’s Tavern, Crystal Corner Bar and The Wisco.
Halfway between the east side and Madison’s capitol square area is High Noon Saloon, a terrific venue for catching the city’s most prominent folk and rock acts, as well as fantastic touring shows. Similarly, the just-off-the-square Majestic Theatre is another medium-sized venue that excels at pairing fantastic touring acts with local openers. And just a few blocks from the Majestic is the Frequency, a small and damn-lovable venue ideal for loud and intimate shows.
On campus, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers numerous great places to catch live music. The school’s recently renovated Union South has the large-staged The Sett, and the Memorial Union hosts both the Play Circle Theater and Der Rathskeller.
When Madison’s seemingly endless winters somehow conclude, the Memorial Union also puts on fantastic weekly performances at The Terrace, complete with lake views. Other outdoor Madison concert experiences include the Majestic Theatre-supported Live on King Street summer series and Make Music Madison, a citywide celebration of the summer solstice wherein every Madison block and park becomes a place to play and enjoy music.
Though Madison has a bustling live music scene, it also has a number of highly dedicated individuals and businesses invested in the recorded music experience.
Mine All Mine Records, headed by John Praw, began releasing tapes and CDs by local and regional acts in late 2007. Like another local label ran by youngsters, CATCH WRECK, Mine All Mine doesn’t limit its releases by genre, but rather quality; both collectives have put out a number of exciting new releases in the last two years.
Two additional Madison labels—Science of Sound and Crustacean Records—have always emphasized rock ‘n’ roll releases, putting out local classics by bands like Control, Drunk Drivers and Icarus Himself in the process.
After local records are released, radio stations like the non-commercial and listener-sponsored WORT 89.9 FM and UW-Madison’s student-run WSUM 91.7 FM do their best to bring the city’s attention to them.
Additionally, local music is sold at MadCity Music Exchange and Strictly Discs—two of Madison’s best record stores that just so happen to bookend the downtown area on the east and west sides respectively. While Strictly Discs opened as Madison’s first all-CD store in 1988 and has since become a mecca for those seeking deep jazz and rock classics, MadCity Music Exchange specializes in selling everything from 45s to coffee.
Though Madison’s music scene is a cohesive one, it is by no means an island. Both our neighbor to the south, Milwaukee, and our neighbor to the north, Eau Claire, WI, play an important role in keeping our scene in tip-top shape.
Just over an hour away from Madison, Milwaukee spills over a healthy foam of acts that regularly play shows in Madison and intermix with our hometown artists. Whether it be the city’s up-and-comers like GGOOLLDD and Vic and Gab, Milwaukee mainstays like The Fatty Acids and Klassik or national favorites like Field Report and Volcano Choir, Brew City’s bands do a fantastic job interacting with our scene here.
Northwest of Madison sits Eau Claire, WI, a modestly-sized town that’s been pivotal in shaping the last half decade of independent rock: Members of Bon Iver, Field Report, Megafaun and Aero Flynn have all called EC home at one point.
Along with the National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon founded and curated this year’s inaugural Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, a new, two-day music festival taking place July 17-18. The city continues to be too musically talented for its size to this day, thanks to acts like Arms Aloft, The Heart Pills, Meridene, Sayth, S. Carey and sloslylove.
Andrew Brandt is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
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