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The Daily
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Madison musicians seek the big time in New York
Kari Bethke and Dan Venne look to make it big in the Big Apple.
Kari Bethke and Dan Venne look to make it big in the Big Apple.

There comes a time when young musicians consider making the leap to a larger venue. For some, it may be from Cafe Montmartre to the Majestic. For others, however, the destination is much larger: New York City and its promise of opportunity.

I made the leap myself in late 2004, in part to go to graduate school and in part to see what the creatively thriving borough of Brooklyn held for a writer and musician like me. What struck me was the diversity of people's town-to-city experiences. The very thing that makes the transition work for some sends others fleeing.

Sometimes this thing is loneliness, which drives some to the edge of despair, others to emotional depths that, successfully mined, just might yield an album. Or the thing is school or a job. Many times, an institution like a university provides much-needed social support in a city of strangers. In other cases it's such a time commitment that it detracts from producing creative work.

So, how do Madisonians who make the eastward leap fare? I tracked down New York musicians with Madison roots, and they spoke about the thrills and challenges of making music in the big city.

Leo Sidran (The Motorcycle Diaries, Joy and the Boy, Fall on Your Sword)

Whether it's his work with dad and mentor Ben Sidran, Clyde Stubblefield or collaborator Joy Dragland, Leo Sidran's name is inextricably linked with the Madison music scene. Sidran moved to Brooklyn in 2005 after the soundtrack for the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which he produced, won an Oscar.

"I moved in my late 20s, a little later than some people, so I was concerned that I'd be really far behind because I'd have to pay my dues in New York," he says. "It turns out I had paid my dues in Madison and had enough of a résumé to get my career going here in about six months."

The career boost didn't come from resting on his laurels, though. Sidran spent a tremendous amount of time meeting other artists for coffee, making connections and calling the presidents of record companies.

"I made the most ambitious calls I could think to make," he says.

Sidran ultimately landed a job making music for television, which has allowed him enough time and resources to have a studio, write music and play with others.

"Everything felt much more fragmented in New York than Madison," he says. "I couldn't tell what my scene was at first, whether it was jazz, pop, commercial music or something else. The job helped me find some direction this way."

Waylan Daniel (Electric Automatic, Hometown Sweethearts, the God Damns, the Kissers) and Kari Bethke (the Kissers)

Madison knew him as "Waylan" Nate Palan. Now he's Waylan Daniel, Brooklyn's newest multi-instrumental wunderkind. Daniel moved to New York in August, a month after his wife, Kissers violinist Kari Bethke, went there to scout apartments, jobs and musical opportunities.

"We've both lived in Wisconsin our entire lives, and we just want to experience all the things life has to offer. Big-city life is one of those things," he says.

Musically speaking, the first item on the couple's agenda is networking, the ultimate big-city activity. Like many before them, Bethke and Daniel have been using live shows as a way to connect with other musicians. They've also been asking audience members at their own shows - such as Bethke's new gig with Joy Dragland, another ex-Madisonian - where to find potential bandmates.

Daniel, who's focusing his efforts on original solo material at this point, says playing open mikes has provided a great opportunity for introducing himself to the music community and getting others' suggestions about where to begin.

Bethke says Craigslist has also been helpful for finding other musicians, as well as apartments and job leads. However, as many New Yorkers will attest, the benefits of the massive free listing service have a not-so-glamorous flipside.

"Craigslist is nice at first," she says, "but nothing competes with getting out there and networking. I think you can get lucky with jobs and apartments and even musicians, but you have to weed out a ton of undesirable things, which can be a huge time-waster."

Dan Venne (Cougar, Hans Blix)

Dan Venne, guitarist in the once-local band Cougar, moved to Brooklyn in August 2004 to study jazz guitar performance at New York University. While NYU provided him with lots of bandmates, it didn't solve the problem of how to make a living.

"I realized that it's much harder to make money doing gigs here," he says. "At one point I said screw it, and gave myself license to do whatever I wanted creatively, which was liberating."

For now, this means working a day job as coordinating producer and composer for a company that does music for television and "sonic branding" for companies, then touring with his bands on the side.

"I enjoy the craftsmanship of TV music and branding music, but I need to have these other outlets as well - which right now are bands but in the future could be a solo project, duets, etc.," he says. "I would love to see a career build out of those."

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