Madison Area Music Association Breakthrough Artist 2016

Madison Area Music Association Breakthrough Artist 2016
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On Saturday, March 19th, I was a judge for the Madison Area Music Association Breakthrough Artist of the Year competition. It was a great event and a great experience. I’d like to give a brief overview of the event and then offer a few takeaway impressions and bits of advice.

Madison Area Music Association Competition

The event was held at Full Compass Systems, in their large and very well equipped performance hall. It bears mentioning that the space was designed and built by Full Compass specifically to provide a free venue for local non-profit groups like MAMA, which in turn uses all proceeds to provide music education and instruments to local schoolchildren. It’s a good cause. And it was fun to browse around Full Compass’s retail store before the show – Jonathan Lipp has a very cool collection of microphones and vintage gear on display. It also warmed my heart a bit to see a pristine Studer A800 tape machine in one of the studio rooms – a legendary piece of recording equipment, to be sure.

Eight bands competed: The Apollo Affair, Thirsty Jones, Johnny Likes Noize, Trap Saturn, Gods In The Chrysalis, The Anderson Brothers, Nate Meng Makes Music and Devil to Drag.  All have been formed within the last two years. Each artist performed three songs, and the changeover time was just ten minutes, so the show moved along quickly. The evening’s winner, Trap Saturn, put in a very strong performance, with great vocals from their two lead singers, solid musical chops from all band members, good songs and a rich, textured sound. It was interesting to hear so many bands play back to back. It really highlights the differences in skill and approach. It also turned out to be surprisingly challenging to judge – it’s not easy to compare a seven-piece soul ensemble like Trap Saturn with a folk duo like Nate Meng, or with the intense punk rock of Devil to Drag. But judge we must, and judge we did.Meghan Rose Meghan Rose & the Bones[/caption] Two past Breakthrough Artist winners, Meghan Rose & the Bones and Mascot Theory, performed as well, and it served as a useful point of comparison for judging the competitors. There’s no doubt that the extra time performing and honing their craft has paid off. Both past winners seemed more comfortable on stage and had better developed material than all but this year’s winner, Trap Saturn, who I would say held their own. So, without further ado, I’d like to share a few impressions I took away from the show.

  • Songs, Songs, Songs

I know it’s a cliché, but if you don’t have great songs, and by that I mean memorable, well-structured, meaningful songs - the rest is moot.

  • Do you have something unique to offer?

So many bands today follow a well-worn path. It’s understandable – you want to tap into something familiar that won’t take years for people to understand. But the downside of working in a familiar genre is that you risk sounding generic. Your friends may tell you you’re amazing because you sound just like band X, but the wide world has seen and heard band X a million times now. If you want to stay in familiar territory, try and come up with something that will set you apart and make you special, both in terms of your music and in terms of your stage show.

  • Rehearse, Record, Refine, Repeat

There were a couple of instances during the evening where I think a few cycles of the above advice would have been pretty helpful. It’s amazing how much you can learn by recording your rehearsals. Bands often practice at high volume, which, aside from being very hard on the only two ears you’ll ever have, can obscure all sorts of performance flaws. Put up a few mics and hit record. When you play it back at low volume, you’ll hear very clearly if the vocals aren’t quite on key, or if the bass isn’t locked with the kick, or if the guitarist is using so much distortion that his parts are sinking in a sea of fuzz.

  • Dynamics!

Dynamics is an aspect of music that I think is often overlooked, or at least misunderstood. The best performers of the evening were able to bring it down without losing momentum. On this count, I’d give the prize to past winner Meghan Rose, whose very dynamic performance complimented her strong songwriting very well, and serves as a great example of the primacy of a good song. The clarity of the emotion expressed in a well-written song provides a justification for the emotional contours of its performance – whether the band plays quietly or at a full, screaming tilt, you understand why. The key elements of writing, the dynamics of musical tension and release, and a captivating performance all have to work together. It can be incredibly powerful when they all come together. There is plenty more that could be said, but I think this is a good place to leave it. Congratulations to Trap Saturn and a big thumbs up to all the other bands that competed. Stick to it and best of luck in the future! To learn more about the Recording & Live Sound Program at MMI, visit