News Column

The MAMAs: Madison's 'Grammys' celebrate 10 years

June 18, 2013


June 18--It's a big show with big names and a big heart.

And for the creators of the Madison Area Music Awards, it's a big deal that the MAMAs are still thriving after 10 years, raising thousands of dollars for music education in the process.

The 10th annual Madison Area Music Awards -- known to many as Madison's Grammys -- take place Sunday at the Overture Center's Capitol Theater. That decade milestone "is a small miracle," said singer-songwriter Beth Kille, a 15-time MAMA winner and music director for this year's show.

"It's such a feat to put together and it's an entirely volunteer-run organization," Kille said. "I think the fact that it brings the music community together is appealing to a lot of musicians. It's nice to get together and celebrate."

The 2013 show will include 10 live performances, dozens of awards and presentation of a lifetime achievement award to UW-Madison Bands Director Michael Leckrone.

Award winners get red-carpet treatment. And audience members get to see a cross-section of Madison talent in genres ranging from power-pop and hip hop to classical music and contemporary ballet.

Being a class act is important to the MAMAs, which started in 2004 with a glitzy, made-for-TV production at the Orpheum Theater. Rick Tvedt, then publisher of Rick's Cafe, a magazine dedicated to Madison's music scene, launched the effort with friends.

"We had 10 cameras on platforms in the theater," recalls Tvedt, who's now led the MAMAs for 10 years.

"We had to build up the stage, because of the way the Orpheum was constructed." Lights played off an elaborate fabric backdrop. Though it never hit TV prime time, "It may have been the best staging we've ever had," he said.

The Wisconsin State Journal's Tom Alesia called that first MAMA Ceremony "a first-class affair with a smoothness and multimedia pizzazz befitting an event well beyond its debut."

But it also cost a fortune, and landed the MAMAs $12,000 in debt.

When year two rolled around, "Everybody bailed, except Crazy Guy," said Tvedt, pointing at himself.

"I really felt like we could turn it around. And we did turn it around. By the end of the second year we were pretty much break-even, and every year since then it's made money."

The show's proceeds plus donations have funded an estimated $50,000 for student instruments and musical equipment.

"The music community does rally around this event, but even more importantly they rally around the cause," said Roy Elkins, president of the MAMAs board of directors for the last eight years.

"There's so much data out there now about kids who play (an instrument) when they're younger. They do better in school, they're more disciplined -- especially kids who stick with it."

Elkins, founder of the worldwide musicians' website Broadjam, which works with 150,000 musicians from 190 countries, said he's not aware of any other regional awards show like the MAMAs that also raises funds to help the next generation of musicians.

Yet he's witnessed the impact of what a MAMA win can do for a performer's career.

"We have close to 300 unique individuals vying for 40 or so artistic awards every year," Elkins said.

"The cool thing is that we have around 30,000 votes cast for those awards. So when you win a MAMA, it's pretty significant. You've had a bunch of people who've stepped up and said, 'We want you to win.' Your fans have mobilized and your peers have voted."

When honorees do an interview or promote a show, they proudly display the label "MAMA winner," Elkins noted.

"And we're very proud of that -- that they feel that's important."

Along with running the MAMAs for nine years as a volunteer (he recently started receiving a small stipend to cover expenses), Tvedt is a CPA who freelances for nonprofits, works for a nonprofit microfinance lender working in Latin America, publishes the online magazine Local Sounds and blogs on music for Madison Magazine. Each year he tracks the recordings being made in Madison.

"It's been over 100 for several years," he said. "That's pretty amazing for a city our size. The music business has its own set of problems -- it's hard to sell product and nobody knows how it's going to shake out -- but there's no shortage of talent."

Still, the city has lent little official support to its music scene, Tvedt said. Attendance at the MAMAs is generally between 650 and 700 people.

"It's been remarkably flat, which has been somewhat frustrating because I feel the show should be a sell-out" in the 1,100-seat Capitol Theater, he said.

"We cover all genres. We've had the Pro Arte String Quartet and we've had the (former punk band) New Recruits and everything in between."

"I'd really like the city to get more involved in this. I'd really like this to be a city event, a premier musical event for the city."

Holding the MAMAs this year on a Sunday was designed to allow more musicians to attend. Previous shows on Saturday nights often conflicted with artists' work schedules.

Being at the MAMAs -- and winning a coveted spot on stage -- "is a great way for Madison to find out about your music," said Sam Lyons, who first performed at the gala while a high school freshman and has won five youth MAMAs. He's nominated in four adult categories this year, and will head off to the Berklee College of Music this fall.

The annual MAMAs show itself "is a great showcase of the talent in Madison," agreed singer-songwriter Mark Croft. "You get a nice variety of different acts, different genres.

"For musicians, it's a chance to do some networking and meet other musicians and people who are involved in the music business here in town."

Over the years, Croft has won so many MAMAs -- about a dozen -- that he's lost exact count, he said. He won his first, for Best New Artist, in 2006.

"For me, that was a feeling that I'd arrived on the Madison music scene," he said. "I had been playing in town for two or three years before that, and winning that award certainly gave me a lot of confidence, especially knowing that there were people out there listening and willing to vote for me."

For Tvedt, the amazing part of the past decade is seeing how Madison's talent has grown. Every year the MAMAs puts the spotlight on youth performers as well as seasoned pros.

"There will be no problem going another 10 years in terms of artists to participate in the MAMAs," Tvedt said."And I think the sector that's really expanded has been the kids. They are just so phenomenal. They just keep showing up out of the woodwork."

"That's what we're trying to do with the awards show," he said. "It's a charity, but we're also trying to draw attention to the fact that all this music is being done here. That all this talent is here is extraordinary -- and people should see it and support it."


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