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Playing songs in dark hole-in-the-wall bars for smatterings of drunks who'd just as soon listen to the second hand on their watches ticking.... Spending your days laboring over writing songs only to have bar proprietors tell you that you can't play originals.... Watching bar patrons search for the table furthest from the stage and speakers.... Glumly strumming Jimmy Buffett songs for tourists bent on getting their Floridian culture fix.... As romantic as the starving artist notion is, the reality of being a professional musician locally is a grim one, and making a living off of music is a trick that few musicians can (or want to) pull off.
Fort Lauderdale songwriter-performer Dean Madonia knows this dichotomy well. He spends five nights a week in Broward County bars, playing cover songs from his library of nearly 200 tracks, sneaking in the occasional original whenever possible. In the daytime Madonia works at home, composing and arranging the tracks that he records and plays with his band, the Dean Madonia Band. As an original artist, Madonia performs folky, narrative-style, adult-contemporary tunes that appeal to the middle-aged James Taylor/Sting crowd. But when he punches the clock, Madonia becomes Underdog, the alter ego who plays everything from Dave Matthews and Tonic covers to Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens songs. Madonia smartly makes no pretensions about the artistic validity of the latter performances. "I don't consider the cover gigs a part of the music business -- that's the bar business," he says. "You're there to move booze."
Unfortunately in South Florida artists as a rule can't make a living by playing originals. Playing other bands' songs is a necessary evil if one is serious about quitting his or her day job. "I try to pay the bills that way," Madonia says with a grin, drinking iced tea at a downtown Fort Lauderdale bar on a recent Saturday afternoon. "It's really frustrating because a lot of people can't tell the difference between karaoke and a real band." Despite the dismal realities, Madonia retains his commitment to succeeding as an original artist, and spends up to ten hours a day working on his own songs. Last year brought a small but satisfying milestone to Madonia: the release of the first Dean Madonia CD, Deep Sky, on his self-started Soft Monkey Music label.
Madonia is currently working on an ambitious project -- a show this Friday at Miami's Bayside Hard Rock Cafe, with beer-equipped coach buses chartered to take fans from Shenanigans Sports Pub in Hollywood to the show in Miami. The event is somewhat of a Catch-22: Madonia is losing "a ton of money" on the project, but it will offer his fans, the majority of whom live in Broward County, a chance to see a first-rate showcase of the songs from the Deep Sky CD, complete with string section and previews of songs from the album Madonia is preparing to record. The Dean Madonia Band has played only one show with the viola and cello players who appear on Deep Sky, so the added texture and dimension will be a well-appreciated treat for fans.
Madonia's placid, introspective music doesn't exactly conjure images of beer-swilling, bus-partying revelers, a notion he acknowledges with a smile. "I know the record-buying public is, what, 13- to 20-year-olds? I don't really appeal to them," he says. "We're not for the 'everybody-get-fucked-up' crowd either. I think we appeal to a well-read, intelligent crowd that can recognize quality music and understand the occasional literary reference."
The bus gimmick is simply an attempt to get his audience to the show. Because Madonia's audience is based in Broward, they're not likely to drive a long distance for a show they could catch near home. "If you don't invite people, they won't come," Madonia says. "You can't make it difficult for them."
Madonia's learned those lessons through experience, having played in several bands spanning several musical genres over the last decade. He tells a horror story of being invited to play a charity event at a Bloomingdales in West Palm Beach. The organizers told Madonia and his band that the event attracted an audience of 10,000 the previous year, but Madonia and crew took the stage to a sparse and unappreciative crowd of shoppers and Bloomingdales employees. "It was all old people," he laughs. "It was like Dawn of the Dead. All these old folks and employees were complaining about the volume, and we were playing really quietly and laughing about it while we played. There were absolutely no fans there."
So Madonia takes the bull by the horns these days, inviting fans to his gigs via the band's mailing list and Website, which is http://www.gate.net/~madonia/deep.htm. He and the band are preparing to hit the studio again in the coming months, and Madonia continues filling his hours working on demos for the new record, when he's not playing cover gigs, that is. As Underdog (his solo cover act) and with the Underdog Show (backed by his cover band) Madonia will continue to fill his evenings playing to slumped-over drunks and culture-seeking tourists. Just don't ask to hear Jimmy Buffett -- unless you meet the requirements.
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