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Monday, July 14, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Make Music Madison to target Dane County Farmers' Market in 2014


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The inaugural Make Music Madison, a citywide festival of song on the summer solstice, drew many locals out of their homes and offices with the promise of melodies and memories.

The biggest obstacle to participation was probably the weather, which included a few downpours and a lot of gloomy clouds. The other was something that can be improved upon: explaining what this event is, and why locals should give it a try. This communication challenge was just one of the topics raised at two public meetings the festival's organizers held at the Goodman Community Center on Nov. 20 and 21.

About 30 people brainstormed ideas for the second annual festival, from places to hold concerts to ways to attract more performers. The first meeting focused on feedback related to venues, and the second solicited local musicians' ideas.

"Our goal was to say, 'What can we improve from this year, and what kinds of new and crazy ideas can we work into [Make Music Madison] 2014?'" says Michael Rothschild, the festival's director.

"It's a work in progress right now," he cautions. "These meetings weren't planning so much as brainstorming. There were a lot of unbaked and half-baked ideas, and a little disagreement, which is good."

So what were some of the ideas that bubbled to the surface? Rothschild says a goal for 2014 is to transform more observers into participants.

"One of the things we've gotten comments on was the mass participation events, like parades and sing-alongs," he says. "We had an event where we gave out 100 harmonicas and an hour of lessons last year, so this year we might have someone lead a mass choral group or have a big karaoke screen and have people sing '60s rock together.”

Since the summer solstice falls on a Saturday in 2014, Make Music Madison could bring lots of live music to the Dane County Farmers' Market on Capitol Square. And there are many opportunities to get market-goers to make some of the music.

"With 25,000 people hanging around the Capitol, we need to figure out how to capitalize on that," Rothschild stresses. "And we want to expand the festival into more neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods, like Vilas, had 300 people show up for a single event. One of those really successful neighborhoods has offered to do [learning] sessions for neighborhoods new to the fest."

In other words, the fest seems much more focused than it was a year ago.

"It is so much better than last year, when we were a bunch of weird doofuses with strange ideas trying to explain ourselves," Rothschild says with a laugh, recalling a public information session that happened at the Bartell Theatre.

But mounting the first fest was exciting, too. Rothschild says it was a year of invention. It was also a year of learning how to talk about the event and its place in the local music community.

"We're in the infrastructure business. We're building something for the city, and everyone can fit into it," he says. "One of the lines we use a lot is Dave Brubeck's definition of jazz: freedom within structure. We're not micromanaging hundreds of concerts, but we're laying a foundation. We're figuring out how to bring events to the neighborhoods that don't have as many concerts and fun times, and we're trying to get lots of different people to interact with each other."

Make Music Madison's most vocal critics complained that the fest wasn't paying professional musicians for their work. Rothschild contends that it's "not that kind of festival," emphasizing that it's largely a volunteer-run event. In fact, he wants volunteers to start signing up now since there are so many tasks to accomplish and ideas to sort through.

"We're totally sympathetic to the idea that professional musicians should be able to make a living, but this event is more about amateurs coming out and having fun with music," he says. "Of course we want the professionals to be part of it, too. But these musicians need to decide for themselves if it makes sense to participate. Lots of them did last year, and some even said they shouldn't be paid because it was a celebration, not a concert in a [club]."

Rothschild notes that some enterprising performers turned the event into a moneymaking opportunity by requesting that their concert venues pay them for their time. A few even found themselves with steady gigs for the whole summer when they impressed the owners and patrons of local restaurants. Perhaps the fest will be framed as an entrepreneurial opportunity for musicians this year.

No matter which direction Make Music Madison 2014 heads, Rothschild says he's proud of his team's first-year accomplishments, which include lining up 280 concerts by 210 acts at a total of 110 locations. (View photos from the festival here and here.)

"Last year at this time, we thought we'd be happy with 50 concerts, so we really exceeded our expectations," he says. "And we had one of the highest levels of participation in the country, more than Chicago or Miami or L.A."

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