The digital revolution has made it easier than ever to record songs at home and share them on the web. But if you're looking to build a music career, it still helps to have the backing of the music industry, whether it's through a well-known label or a national booking agency. Unfortunately, making connections with the industry's key players is tough when your band isn't situated in a big city. That's why several groups have organized events for Madison musicians to rub elbows with industry professionals.
Last week, MAMA-winning rockers Sexy Ester headed to Fort Collins, Colo., as part of BandSwap, a collaboration among eight cities that promotes each of their music scenes. More than a dozen local bands applied to represent Madison in other markets, and the Madison Arts Commission chose Sexy Ester.
BandSwap is run by SpokesBuzz, a music-promotion nonprofit based in Fort Collins, a college town with about 100,000 fewer residents than Madison. This year, BandSwap events included a Sept. 22 meet-up called Illegal Pete's Starving Artist Networking Party, which brought Madison musicians to the downtown Great Dane Pub to fill their address books with new contacts. Sexy Ester and Common Anomaly, the band Fort Collins sent to Madison, wrapped up the day with a concert at the High Noon Saloon.
"We see BandSwap as a huge opportunity," says Lyndsay Evans, Sexy Ester's lead singer. "We've never toured out of the Midwest, and BandSwap is allowing us to do this for the first time."
Networking events are becoming more vital for local musicians since the web is saturated with artists trying to build a fan base.
Karin Wolf, the city's arts administrator, says these events can accelerate the learning process for artists unfamiliar with the industry's expectations.
"You can meet a lot of people and learn a lot in a short period of time.... You begin to establish a support network that will help you get through the mire," she says.
The casual nature of these events is also a boon.
"It's a social situation more than a formal one. People tend to be more accessible," she says.
The Illegal Pete's party isn't the only event of its kind, of course. On Saturday, Oct. 12, local hip-hop artists will network at Level Up!, a free music industry conference at Madison Media Institute. Presented by the Urban Community Arts Network, the event will feature workshops on social media marketing, music licensing and other music-biz topics.
Karen Reece, president of the Urban Community Arts Network, says the conference was created to teach independent artists how they can take their craft to the next level.
"Everyone is limited by time, money and effort. Meeting other like-minded individuals allows artists to pool resources and do more with what they have," she says.
Reece argues that events like Level Up! are particularly important for Madison's hip-hop artists since several local venues won't book acts from this musical genre.
"It is nearly impossible for local [hip-hop] artists to perform at bars and clubs around town, largely due to city politics," she notes. "Because of that, there is almost no common gathering place for artists across the genre."
Level Up! organizer DJ Pain 1 says the event's networking element is especially important for Wisconsin. He says the state lacks professional development opportunities for urban performers, who "need each other's support more than ever to create opportunity and sustainability."
Pain 1 says hip-hop artists also need support since the genre is so difficult to break into.
"Hip-hop music is saturated with artists. That impedes commercial viability of the music as a product and creates heavy competition," he says.
Reece says Madison's lack of performance opportunities keeps local hip-hop artists from breaking through on a regional or national level.
"This not only prevents the artist from earning any money but also limits their visibility," she says. "Industry professionals often look to an artist's local fan base...as a measure of the quality and popularity of their music."