This Friday's inaugural Union South music show featuring Of Montreal comes at a price: $10 for students and $20 for non-students.
That's not business as usual for Wisconsin Union Directorate music programming, which has long been defined by free shows at the Rathskeller, the Terrace and the now-defunct Club 770 (the tacky old Union South cafeteria that doubled as a club). But according to students and staff with WUD, the UW-Madison student organization that books campus concerts, ticketed shows will be more common.
Brooke Jackson, WUD staff adviser, explains: "We'll be doing paid-admission shows so we can bring in some bigger names that we couldn't afford otherwise."
Brigid Hogan, WUD music director, says selling tickets is an effort to book bands in their heyday. "There are a lot of artists we were able to bring in early in their careers that we haven't been able to bring back," she notes. "Andrew Bird is an example. We'd love to be able to continue to show support for those artists, but we can't afford to at that point, so they go to other places in town."
The plan has some Madison business owners concerned. "It doesn't seem fair for a public institution to generate funds from ticket sales in an effort to out-compete established local businesses," says Cathy Dethmers, owner of the High Noon Saloon. "If they are ticketing events, they will simply have that much more money to play with in budgeting for live shows, and will probably be able to outbid local promoters like me every time."
WUD subsidizes its shows with funds from other Union revenue sources, such as the Lakefront on Langdon and the Capital Café. That means WUD music can afford to operate on limited losses.
"If they are going to start doing paid programs to potentially compete with other venues in town, then the place needs to be run like a for-profit business," says Majestic Theatre co-owner Scott Leslie. "If I lose shows to campus and they are offering [band payment] guarantees at subsidized ticket prices, then I will be upset about a public institution acting like they are playing with Monopoly money."
Still, Dethmers says the UW's purchasing power is no guarantee that the new Union South will detract from Madison clubs. "One unknown is whether or not music fans in Madison will be willing to regularly pay to see bands at Union South," she says. "That would depend on how well the venue itself is received, how well it is run, how accessible it is, how ticket prices are structured and who they book."
Union South's dedicated new space for live music is the Sett, a 550-capacity room warmed by dark, rustic wood tones. The venue features a DJ nest and a wide, visible stage. Varsity Hall, the building's stunning 11,000-square-foot ballroom, has a capacity of 1,500 and can accommodate occasional shows that draw crowds too big for the Sett.
Ticketed music shows on campus already have a home at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Most of those shows, however, don't feature rock and pop artists. Tag Evers, owner of the Madison-based music promotion company True Endeavors, says he's not concerned about Union South's impact on his business. He intends to work with WUD to co-sponsor shows. "We plan on doing ticketed events in the Sett and the Varsity," he says. "I'm not threatened by it. There has always been competition with WUD."
"Ticketed shows in the Sett will definitely be the exception rather than the rule," adds Jackson.
Cover charges aren't the only way the new Union South could change the Madison music scene. Jackson says the Sett will trump the Rathskeller as the primary venue for campus rock shows during the academic year. "The proposal going into next year is for the Rathskeller to host more traditional folk music that brings out the historic nature of that space," she says.
Sett programming will include the return of DMF, the weekly Union South dance series that was popular in the 1990s. DMF will run from midnight to 2 on Saturday mornings.
Jackson says there's one thing the new Union South will not change about campus music. In summertime, the Memorial Union Terrace will remain UW's leading venue. "We're going to keep the big programming over there and not do much at Union South in the summer," she says. "It's the first place everybody stops when they come to Madison. The Terrace is always going to be the Terrace."