Not so long ago, Madison's blogosphere buzzed with opinions about the pay-to-submit-nominate-and-vote system by which the annual Madison Area Music Awards selects its winners.
Critics contended that, under the system, bands and their friends could buy their way to victory. But year after year, MAMA organizers Rick Tvedt and Roy Elkins have politely defended pay-to-vote. They say it's the cornerstone of fulfilling the MAMAs' charitable mission, supporting music education by putting instruments in the hands of kids.
The controversy lingers, but six years after the event debuted, most locals, me included, have come to accept the MAMAs for what it is: a great variety show and an inspiring charity - and a hollow outlet for recognizing the best Madison music from the past year.
Last weekend's MAMAs at the Barrymore Theatre was no exception.
The big winner was the Lucas Cates Band. Cates won in six categories, including the pinnacle achievement of the evening, Artist of the Year. I like Cates' music and have nothing but respect for the passion he brings to his art. He's an awesome addition to the Madison music scene - even if Artist of the Year is a shoe that doesn't quite fit.
Pale Young Gentlemen notched a slot on metacritic.com last year because a wide variety of influential national music media outlets hailed their album, Black Forest (tra la la). The Blueheels were recognized in No Depression and The Village Voice.
The whole stable of Science of Sound bands, including Sleeping in the Aviary and WhatFor, made Madison's most original local indie rock last year. But neither band was part of the program Saturday at the Barrymore, presumably because they did not self-nominate.
To be fair, the Blueheels won a lesser recognition at the MAMAs, in the rock category. So did other artists who made great albums in 2008, including Harmonious Wail and Sensuous Enemy.
When I've reviewed the MAMAs in past years, I've suggested alternatives to pay-to-vote. Here's my suggestion this time around: If pay-to-vote is here to stay, why not carve out a new category called "Critics' Choice"?
Why not enlist a group of local record-store owners, writers and influential local music bloggers (like Ryan Matteson at Muzzle of Bees) to weigh in? Why not let a cadre of critics suggest additional nominations after self-nominations close? And why not let those critics account for 25% to 50% of the overall vote while still allowing the fundraising votes to be cast?
Regardless, there's a reason I haven't moved on from the MAMAs: The show is too good not to care about. I left the Barrymore Saturday entertained and inspired. The MAMAs is a one-of-a-kind chance to see a wide variety of local music talent share a single stage. The performances by Rising Gael, Jentri Colello, Clyde Stubblefield, Natty Nation, Blueheels, Lucha Libre and Whore du Jour revealed the depth and breadth of local music's vast talent.
The MAMAs is also an important nonprofit. The organization champions music education, an increasingly neglected field in the budget-challenged world of public education.
Saturday night, lifetime achievement award winner Marvin J. Rabin, retired UW-Madison music professor and founding conductor of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, sat onstage next to a young boy with a green-tinted Mohawk who played violin. Rabin is 93; the boy was maybe 7. At the MAMAs, both were swept up in the kind of childlike wonder that only music can bring.
Free the MAMAs! It's still an idea local music fans should champion.