Madison Music Foundry still hitting the right notes

Any teacher wants to see his or her students go on to do bigger and better things. Sometimes it works out (think Socrates’ mentorship of Plato) and sometimes it doesn’t (think Obi-Wan and Darth Vader).

For Michael Olson, owner of Madison Music Foundry and Blast House Studios, molding the talents of young — or old — musicians is not just his business, it’s a passion that has allowed both him and his clients to fulfill some special dreams.

That was perhaps never more evident than two years ago this month, when the Taalbi Brothers’ song “Freestyle” provided the coda for Breaking Bad’s gripping season four finale.

 “So basically just fielding calls and seeing resources that weren’t available in the Madison area, that kind of got my idea for piecing together the Music Foundry.” — Michael Olson

“It was awesome; it was a really cool song,” said Olson, whose business recently won a Dane County Small Business Award for its contributions to the local community and economy. “And it wasn’t like they played two seconds of it. It was the whole dramatic ending of the season. Their song plays through the whole crazy end part, so that’s pretty neat to see.”

Even more awesome, the Taalbi Brothers — Bronson and Preston — are Madison natives who honed their craft on State Street and took lessons at Madison Music Foundry before contributing to cable TV’s edgiest and arguably most celebrated series.

“That’s the new way [for musicians] to make money these days,” said Olson. “Movie soundtracks and commercial stuff, and then the exposure of being on something like Breaking Bad is pretty much the biggest thing you can imagine.”

Of course, even if you don’t break onto the national stage, there’s money to be made in the music industry if you’re persistent and appropriately focused on clients’ needs. Olson himself is testament to that.

In the ’90s, Olson cut his teeth in the punk rock scene, touring the U.S. and playing shows in warehouses and basements.

“That kind of is what sealed my desire to go full time in this direction,” said Olson. “It really made a positive impact on my life, and I was, like, ‘This is something I would like to pursue.’ I just never knew how to do it in a way that would actually be financially stable.”

Indeed, making a living as a punk rocker seemed like a tall order, so Olson took a detour from a full-time music career, eventually accepting a job as a packaging engineer for Middleton’s Springs Window Fashions but still keeping an eye on the music scene.

“That’s just part of the puzzle that brought me to Madison,” said Olson. “And then I looked for a rehearsal spot, and then one thing led to the next. It’s interesting that without packaging engineering and getting that job at Springs, there would be no Music Foundry.”

School of rock

While Olson and the Music Foundry are deeply involved in music education these days, it didn’t start that way. Olson’s first foray involved providing part-time studio space for bands — his own and others’ — while he worked his day job. However, he soon discovered that there was an unmet demand for music education and other services.

“I kept getting calls from people who were looking for resources that I didn’t provide, because it was just monthly band studios,” said Olson. “People were looking for places to teach, looking for hourly studios for band rehearsals, recording, all that stuff. So basically just fielding calls and seeing resources that weren’t available in the Madison area, that kind of got my idea for piecing together the Music Foundry.”

Today, says Olson, about 80% of his business is education-based. Madison Music Foundry does an average of 500 private lessons per week, and the business also offers classes and workshops, including a rock workshop. The latter provides up-and-coming musicians with hands-on experience they could normally only get through a working band.

“I thought, what are all the elements that I went through from first being in a band?” said Olson. “You know, the rehearsals, songwriting, setting up equipment, what it’s like to go to the recording studio the first time you’re on stage. So really what I wanted it to be was not like we’re creating bands, but we’re creating all of the experiences of being in a band, so then they take that into their career of music already having broken the ice on that stuff.”

The rock workshop — which is available to both kids and adults — culminates in a show at Madison’s High Noon Saloon, and since it started in 2008, more than 150 students in 40 or so bands have recorded 100 songs and played 10 live shows.

Though it’s not necessarily the goal, some of those bands stay together, and one of them made a splash of its own recently — though on a local as opposed to a national stage.

“This summer, we had one of our last rock workshop bands, a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old kids got to play at a Mallards game in front of 6,000 people and had the stadium out of their seats with their original songs,” said Olson. “So that’s kind of beyond our expectations, but that’s always within the realm of what can happen with it.”

In addition to its regular teaching, rehearsal, and recording functions, Madison Music Foundry supports music education by donating resources to Launchpad Wisconsin, a statewide, alternative music competition for high school students. It also makes scholarships available for its own programs and helps promote the Madison Area Music Awards.

But while the business has done much to help others gain a foothold in a difficult industry, it may not have made it had it not been for the help of some key business boosters.

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In 2011, the bank that held Madison Music Foundry’s loan was in the process of getting acquired by a larger bank and asked for early payment.

“They were looking to liquidate their small business loans, and they just told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to call your loan early, two years early, so it was just, that means I’m out of business. I can’t just fork over the last two years of my loan.”

Luckily, with the help of the Small Business Administration, WHEDA, and another local bank, Olson was able to get the business back on solid footing.

“I wasn’t just a number on a piece of paper,” said Olson. “The McFarland State Bank saw the business and the value of it to the community, and they said, ‘We believe in this, we’ll help you.’”

Of course, Olson’s own tenacity didn’t hurt.

“I refused to back down,” said Olson, “and it was just, I have made this commitment, and I’ve been doing it for five years, and this challenge [wasn’t going to stop me].”

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