From its hippie and punk roots, the Langdon Street house is growing new traditions in Madison’s music scene.
Founded in 1971, Nottingham Co-Op is a house collectively owned by around 20 residents who all share cooking, cleaning, and gardening duties. Once a month, however, the co-op’s residents open the house’s main floor to guests for concerts. After a long coronavirus-induced break from shows, Nottingham’s live music is back and open to the public, with monthly concerts showcasing everybody from international touring acts to some of the Madison music scene’s newest musicians.
At Nottingham, concerts are held in the ballroom, a spacious room with tiled floors and several chandeliers and a large fuzzy model of a spider hanging from the ceiling. (During a recent Nottingham show, local comedian Matthew Mandli referred to it as “Luigi’s Mansion Co-Op.”) Occasionally, a cat will wander upstairs as a band plays. In warmer months, concertgoers often congregate in Nottingham’s backyard between sets, sitting in hammocks or chatting on the building’s balcony as the sun sets over the lake. Everything feels like it’s in the right place.
The return of shows at Nottingham, however, wouldn’t feel quite as significant without knowledge of the co-op’s impressive history, which began in the ‘70s. After housing a dorm, multiple fraternities, and eventually a squat for nearly 50 years, in 1971, Nottingham became a cooperative house. Nottingham departed the Madison Community Cooperative (a non-profit umbrella organization of housing co-ops) in the 1980s to become independent and began opening its doors to the public to host shows. A lot of the acts were explicitly political, aligning with the co-op’s history of activism,including Bikini Kill, Hüsker Dü, and Killdozer, who all performed at Nottingham in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Current Nottingham resident Benjamin Pierce, who lived there from 1996 to 2009 and moved back in in 2015, notes that the residents “oscillated between hippie periods and punk periods,” which greatly influenced the shows that they booked.
“By the time I moved in, I watched the last strong hippie phase fade away into some other manner of community and aesthetic. And there were some years when our mission was to support touring bands, [by] being a meaningful link between a stop in Milwaukee and the Twin Cities,” Pierce says. “These bands tended to be melodic. Did much more original material than covers. Some being by-and-large acoustic, and some relying on a lot of electronica and effects, but with a tendency, I think, away from noise and grunge.”
From the 2000s and 2020s, Nottingham continued to host a variety of local and touring acts that Madison’s more conventional venues couldn’t or wouldn’t. The against-the-grain spirit was consistent, while the sounds ranged widely. The droney avant-garde folk and noise acts that germinated on Madison’s fringes (including Spires That In The Sunset Rise and Second Family Band) played Nottingham shows, as did blistering free-jazz and math-rock outfits. Visitors to the co-op might have caught a 2012 visit from Speedy Ortiz, or a 2016 bill of left-field Madison electronic artists. According to Krista Ritger—who lived at Nottingham from 2016 to 2021 and often ran sound at shows—during this period, Nottingham often became a backup plan for touring artists whose shows throughout the Midwest fell through.
But when the pandemic began, Nottingham was forced to close its doors to the public and put shows on hold. Pierce recalls that even the community within Nottingham was hurt at the start of the pandemic—group meals and in-person house meetings were sometimes moved to Zoom or canceled entirely. Ritger says residents eventually began putting on their own events while doors were closed to bond as a house. Even with these internal events happening, though, she felt that COVID-19 reminded Nottingham’s residents that the co-op is about inviting the outside community in, too.
“I think it reminded us all that it was a community space, that it wasn’t just for us,” Ritger says. “That’s what I always thought it was when it started back in the ‘70s, that it was more of a communal house, [with] people coming in and out.”
At the end of 2022, shows at Nottingham resumed, albeit with a new core team and a slightly altered philosophy. At Nottingham’s first show since the pandemic’s start—which featured the Madison-based roots-rock act Hogback—resident Hernán Ballard began running sound and recording sets, learning technical skills as the show went on. Fellow resident Kyle Cushman also contributed facilitation by setting up equipment, mixing, and, eventually, booking. And after hearing about Nottingham’s return from Ballard, local DIY booker Arthur Machado became involved for the next few months, promoting and booking monthly shows.
During Machado’s run of shows, he focused on using Nottingham as a platform to show off the diverse sounds and identities throughout the Madison music scene and beyond. (Machado has since departed his role as Nottingham’s booker and promoter.) At almost every Nottingham show since their return, there has been something for everyone. January’s lineup featured local emo bands like the Oshkosh-based Tiny Voices, and Madison’s Excuse Me, Who Are You? playing alongside local DJs. In March, a member of British duo Crywank stopped at Nottingham for a solo set, playing after Milwaukee bedroom pop act Bug Moment, Madison folk-punk artist Weird Place, and Madison hyperpop producer Sound Bandit.
“I really value having diverse lineups and purposefully [booking] artists that I know are queer, that I know are women, that I know are artists of color. [That way] every show doesn’t look like four bands with four white men singing about the Midwest,” Machado says.
Aside from Machado’s renewed focus on booking diverse lineups, residents agree that the music that Nottingham features has largely remained stagnant through Nottingham’s voting process. The co-op operates by consensus, meaning every resident must approve each show and enough residents must volunteer to help run shows before they are booked. Because of this commitment to unanimous approval, some proposed shows fall through.
“In a way, I think shows at Nottingham have changed rather little,” Pierce says. “That is because we do not represent the fads of the top 40, nor are we allied in any way to the ever more fractured world of the latest 20 sub-microgenres. If a band shows the understanding that they are in our living room, and if it seems that someone will come to see them, and if at least three residents have an interest in taking responsibility for seeing that all goes well, that show can happen at Nottingham.”
Nottingham’s core philosophy has also remained the same: all proceeds go to the bands (unless it’s a charity show). While Machado has since stopped booking at Nottingham, it’s clear that this priority, along with Nottingham’s focus on inclusivity and safety, will carry into its next era. According to Ballard, though, Nottingham is likely steering itself back in a more political direction, mirroring the shows it hosted in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nottingham’s most recent show raised money for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, and Ballard hopes that the co-op will continue with activism in its future shows.
“It would be cool to see very overt political stuff that really aligns with our co-op,” Ballard says. “Because, at the end of the day, music is great, but there are priorities that supersede that, like making more co-ops, or co-op-ifying work, or finding more ethical ways to organize your society.”
In a way, Nottingham’s history and current existence is political in itself—the co-op, which began as a squat house, resides in an area of Langdon Street that houses the majority of UW-Madison’s Greek life. Its location provides a respite for students looking for a more welcoming alternative to fraternity parties (as does nearby Lothlorien Co-op, which also has its own history of hosting shows). In Madison’s culture of impermanent venues, Nottingham stands out by providing a reliable space for smaller bands to play and be paid fairly. While other venues in Madison’s DIY scene are tethered to year-long student leases and often dissolve after frustratingly truncated runs of shows, Nottingham is collectively owned by its residents and has been for over 50 years.
Through its unique variety of spaces, and thanks to residents’ generosity to welcome strangers into their home for shows, Nottingham has been able to form a coherent community and bond with outsiders in a way that is genuinely singular.
“The community is amazing,” says Sean Horvath, who has frequented Nottingham as both an audience member and performer. “Every time you go to a Nottingham show, you know that everyone there is looking out for each other and wants to make sure everyone has the best experience possible. It’s an environment of community and inclusion that really isn’t seen in any other big established venues around town.”
To many residents, the community that Nottingham’s shows have cultivated doubles as a way to show people the benefits of co-op living. While the building’s upper floors are partitioned off for non-residents during shows, the building’s basement is open, allowing people to get a sense of co-op life. Those wanderers are welcome to sit at the space’s large table, play a board game, or strike up conversation. Nottingham residents also frequently create zines regarding everything from veganism to surveillance, and they’re all made available at the co-op’s entrance during shows, making them accessible to people who might not otherwise read them.
“We want this to be a place of gathering and community and solidarity building,” Cushman says.
While Nottingham is dealing with some growing pains as it figures out a schedule and consistent team, its run of shows over the past few months has made it clear that Nottingham, first and foremost, is about its community. And this community has given back just as much, creating a sense that Nottingham’s shows are not DIY—they’re DIT. In January, hundreds of people got together to raise around $1,100 for new lighting and a new PA system for Nottingham. Before a show in March, concertgoers lended instruments and gave rides to band members. And, after one show during an unfortunately timed winter storm, strangers teamed up to push bands’ cars up a hill through several inches of snow, high-fiving each other on the way back inside.
“After so many decades of hosting legendary acts, the framework is there,” Horvath says. “Now it’s up to music fans to come on out and help make Nottingham as amazing as it can be.”