Mixtape Made With Love: Behind Tone Madison’s local music compilation campaign

Tone Madison publisher Scott Gordon talks about the relevance of arts & music coverage in the context of their end-of-year benefit compilation.
Keyboard under pink light. Reads "Behind the Story: Tone Madison."
Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash.

Last Friday, Dec. 2, Tone Madison released a Madison music compilation as part of its year-end fundraising campaign. The comp, a varied panorama of the local music scene, was made available to purchase on Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to Tone Madison. Within 24 hours, the comp made $600 in revenue for Tone Madison — and a great deal of new listeners for local artists.

While an incredibly creative fundraising exercise, the “To Grow A Garden” compilation is much more than a strategy for Tone Madison’s end-of-year campaign: it is an exercise in community building that stems from the outlet’s unwavering coverage of the local arts & music scene. As Music Editor Steven Spoerl put it, “At a time when depleted local news outlets around the country devote only scant resources to covering arts and music, Tone Madison has stubbornly kept its focus on the unusual and underappreciated work people are creating right here, right under our noses.” 

We spoke to Tone Madison publisher Scott Gordon to find out more about this unique fundraising idea, and how it relates to the outlet’s mission and values.

Where did this idea come from? 

Gordon: Benefit compilations have been around for a long time, of course, but have really exploded on Bandcamp, including a lot of recent ones in support of abortion access. The Bandcamp Fridays initiative kind of adds to the community-spiritedness of supporting causes and supporting artists.

Our Music Editor, Steven Spoerl, put out a massive two-part benefit comp in 2016 via his long-running blog Heartbreaking Bravery. Back in spring 2021, Steven organized a compilation called Contributors, which consisted of music actually made by people who’ve done writing, illustration, and even tech-support work for us. A lot of people involved with Tone play in bands and/or have solo music projects, so it was fun to get to showcase that. And it helped us raise some money for the fundraising campaign we were running at that time.

We’d talked about doing more things like this, and a couple musicians I know had even reached out to say they’d be up for contributing a track if we ever did another benefit compilation. We wanted to do some fun extras during our year-end fundraising campaign, so we decided to cast a wider net for this compilation and see if we could collect some tracks from local musicians (and some folks elsewhere in Wisconsin) we’ve covered and admired over the years.

How did you select the music?

Gordon: Steven and I just made a big list of local artists to ask, basically just trying to include, well, everyone we could think of in Madison who’s making good music. We split the list up and started reaching out to people. The response was really gratifying. Most of the people we asked got back to us fast and said yes. Pretty soon we realized we’d have more than enough to make a really good compilation, and we have barely put a dent in the list. So, we can maybe do this again but with an entirely different slate of artists. We kept the criteria open-ended: people could send us previously released tracks, demos, live tracks, something new, really whatever they cared to share. We wanted to make sure to have a lot of variety in terms of genres and so forth, because that’s what it’s like here—there isn’t really one big cohesive music scene but a whole bunch of niches, and there’s no one genre or sound that really defines the music community.

How does this unique fundraising idea support Tone Madison’s mission and values?

Gordon: Our music coverage tries to prioritize local artists, especially out-of-the-way stuff that’s a little weird or just underappreciated. If we do our jobs right, that can help people learn about more of the music that’s happening right here in town, and hopefully connect with it in a meaningful, thoughtful way. I think the questions behind local music coverage should be things like: “Is this music compelling to listen to? Does this artist have an interesting way of looking at the world? Why does a local audience care?” As opposed to “What’s popular? Is this aimed at a demographic we’re trying to market to? Is this the next big trend?” 

A bit like our coverage, the comp is very deliberately a grab bag. People might buy it because they already know and like a few of the artists on here, which is great, but it’s even better if they start listening and end up finding something that surprises them.

I don’t want to work at a publication where the mentality is, “Well, we have to cover big touring shows and the most broadly palatable local stuff because that’s what we think is safest for a general audience, and by the way, these venues and promoters are our advertisers who we need to keep happy, and then we’ll maybe cover more local or weird stuff if there’s time left over.” What’s the point? I want the exact opposite of that! I also don’t think arts coverage should be broken down to just promotional fluff. Readers, and the artists we’re covering, actually appreciate it when journalists pay attention to the work and treat it as worthy of consideration and care.

Why was it important for Tone Madison to cover the local arts & music scene?

Gordon: Arts coverage is a big casualty of the broader decimation of local media around the country. And even in the startup/nonprofit news world, addressing that hasn’t really been a huge priority, and there is kind of a holdover attitude from legacy media that arts coverage is inherently less serious or important than “hard news.” I understand that investigative and local government coverage are crucial, but I also think it’s a disservice for news organizations to not invest meaningfully in arts coverage.

Every so often I’ll be doing research for an article and will end up looking through local newspapers online from the ’80s and ’90s, and I’ll be just shocked by the amount of music and arts stories I run across. There are people doing valuable arts coverage in other local outlets here, including Lindsay Christians and Rob Thomas at The Capital Times, but everyone agrees there’s a void to be filled.

Part of it is simply that there are people here doing interesting work that’s worth talking about and worth spending time with. That’s what has kept me at it—I don’t really know if I’d still be trying to work in media at all if I didn’t have this really specific local context for it. There are Madison bands that enjoy some breakout success and get more national attention (Disq is a great recent example), but many more that fly under the radar. And there are so many little niches and pockets that it’s surprisingly easy *not* to know what is happening in your own backyard. I guess it’s kind of like working any other beat, in that you have to dig around and invest the time to get to know it.

Another part of it is that arts/culture/music intersects with all sorts of local political, economic, and social issues, so cordoning off “serious” news in one corner and arts in a fluffy “features” corner doesn’t really make sense. The lack of racial equity in our music community ties into all kinds of policy issues, from housing to transit to policing. A local subsidiary of Live Nation controls an oversized share of the venues and bookings in town, and understanding the implications of that is really complicated. When live shows started back up, there were all sorts of COVID safety things to consider, and some serious reporting to be done on how COVID relief funds were distributed among small venues and larger players. Gentrification, rising rents, and the lack of good financial support for musicians all combine to drive people away. We’ve only been able to do a fraction of the coverage that we’d like to of these issues, but what we have done is still valuable.

How has your arts & music coverage impacted the relationship with your audience? What response have you seen so far?

Gordon: People do often hear about artists and events from us that they might not otherwise have. Our readers appreciate that we take the time to dig into things and that we’re not trying to just pelt them with more marketing material. We’re willing to be critical and call bullshit on things, and that creates trust with our audience. There’s a sense between us and our readers that we all care about the community in the same way.

What do you see for the future of Tone Madison’s arts & culture coverage? What impact are you hoping to have?

Gordon: We always want to do way more than we’re able to do. The disruptions of COVID made it harder in all kinds of ways to cover local music and arts—that period without live shows was really disorienting, and even though we’re back to having shows it feels like the pieces haven’t really settled back into place yet. We kept covering local music in all sorts of ways during the worst of the pandemic, but it still feels like we’re rebuilding and figuring out how to do some of this stuff again. It would be nice to have the resources to create more full- or part-time staff writer and editor positions, because I think we really need that commitment if we’re ever going to get this anywhere near to what we want. We work with a lot of great freelancers, but it’s also not always fair or sustainable to ask freelancers to develop incredibly specific, labor-intensive local beats over the course of years and years. Plus, music and culture here are always changing, so we’re always nervous about keeping up.

Steven is working on some in-depth features and also planning some more photo essays and the occasional video piece digging into local music. We want to keep focusing on the music itself but also expand on the reported work—there are all sorts of things that need more attention, from the economics of music to issues of harassment and abuse.

What lessons could other journalist-entrepreneurs gain from this experience?

Gordon: I don’t feel qualified to offer advice, especially because everything in local news is so specific to a given place, audience, and outlet. (As this great Defector piece put it, “anyone who has worked in local news knows it’s as complex as a Rube Goldberg machine, and every community is its own community-specific Rube Goldberg machine.”) I do think our experience with the comp and with local music coverage demonstrates the value of focusing really hard on a specific coverage area where we know we can bring something special and substantial to the table, rather than trying to be comprehensive or middle-of-the-road. Even then, it takes a massive amount of work and time to attract an audience and bring in anywhere near enough money, but there’s no getting around it. And I think the comp worked out as well as it did because it compliments our journalism in a very clear way, and grows out of that same process of digging into things and building a beat over time.

Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.

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