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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Fair
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Make Music Madison festival launches matchmaking system for performers and venues
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The summer solstice festival Make Music Madison took its first steps toward fruition this week.

Organizers have launched an online "matchmaking" system to connect performers with venues all over the city. Performances will take place all day on June 21, in the Madison edition of an event that takes place around the world. The city of Madison has provided a $25,000 grant to support the venture.

People who want to perform and those offering performance spaces, which can range from public parks to the front porches of their homes, create "venues" or "artists" in the system. Performers can then assign themselves to venues and vice versa. In theory, the venues and artists will find good fits on their own, without help from the organizers. When a venue and artist decide they're a good fit, a "performance" is born. Venues and artists have until May 15 to find each other.

Hoos.in, the Madison company that helped create the matchmaking software, is offering space in front of its train-car office on West Washington Avenue. I've registered my apartment on the east side as a venue, just to see what happens. Nobody's contacted me about playing on my porch yet, but so far the system seems very easy to navigate. So far, no performances have been booked.

The system's message is pretty clear: If you're a musician or a potential host, it's now on you to decide how Make Music Madison shapes up.

That's how it's supposed to come off, according to Michael Rothschild, the retired business school professor who's leading Make Music Madison. He wants the vast majority of the day's performances to arise through this mix of online networking and volunteer action.

The software has a logistical focus. For example, it asks venues whether they can provide electricity, and whether they can host a performance indoors if it rains. Rothschild says that if there are any unmatched venues or artists by May 15, coordinators will step in to make sure that everyone who wants to participate gets a chance to do so.

Rothschild says there will be a few more centrally orchestrated events as well.

"Nobody has yet signed up to put a bunch of rowboats in the Tenney Park lagoon and give a concert to people who are picnicking on the beach," he says, but he hopes to see that happen.

The most difficult match to make will be with people in the music community who aren't yet sure how Make Music Madison fits in. Local musicians often feel undervalued. Sometimes the entire town seems to function as a peanut gallery. This means Make Music Madison's organizers have some winning over to do.

Acts that have signed up to play the event so far include Five Points Jazz Collective, the Getaway Drivers and Pushmi-Pullyu. Mark Whitcomb of DNA Studios on Winnebago Street says he plans to offer the studio's driveway as a venue and play in Make Music Madison both as a solo artist and with his band Lorenzo's Music.

Several local musicians, while not hostile to the idea, are skeptical. Singer-songwriter Evan Murdock is willing to look at the event both ways.

"Basically, a bunch of non-paying, un-juried performances isn't likely to showcase the depth of talent in this town, and I'd bet that most people won't even realize that it's going on," Murdock says. On the other hand, he says it'll be fun and thinks it "could play a role within a larger arts-development context -- a context that, unfortunately, I have yet to see clearly articulated."

Nick Moran, a music teacher and a bassist in several local groups, is one of many musicians who've complained that Make Music Madison acts will be playing for free.

"It seems like it's a great idea for amateur musicians and a bit of an insult to working musicians," Moran says. "It's frustrating to see how easily this idea gets funded by the city, and it's a perform-for-free situation."

Still, he sees possible benefits, such as possibly creating new spaces for music in the city. If he participates, he says, he might perform as a duo with his wife, Megan, who sings and plays a Fender Rhodes keyboard.

To get some perspective from musicians who normally play in more public settings, I asked Jordan Cohen of the New Orleans-style jazz outfit Mama Digdown's Brass Band what he thought.

"It seems geared toward musicians who might not have the opportunity to perform regularly," Cohen says. "I value the time I get to spend playing music, and these days I'm pickier about doing it in situations that I find fulfilling, not just performing for its own sake."

Erin Fuller, a musician who works at design firm Planet Propaganda, critiqued Make Music Madison's "lackluster" logo but offered some detailed thoughts on the event itself.

Fuller says she wishes Make Music Madison would encourage businesses to offer indoor spaces, as well as outdoor ones, for performers.

"We have a huge room right off the sidewalk where we could host a full band and a couple other musicians," she says of Planet Propaganda's office on Williamson Street, located next to Sardine restaurant. "It could help business owners start to see the potential in their space as a non-traditional venue for hosting music beyond this festival."

As I mentioned previously, I have to credit Rothschild with staying cheerful and reasonable in the face of criticism. So far, he's saying he doesn't feel a lot of resistance, and he doesn't seem to be getting defensive about the criticism he does hear.

"There's going to be some who say, 'This is just another opportunity for someone to rip us off and we don't want to be part of that,'" Rothschild says. "That's life."

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