Milwaukee music decade in review
How good were the '00s for the local scene? Two music writers weigh in
The end of 2009 inspires reflection not just on the year, but on the whole first decade of the 21st century. To get a handle on the changes in Milwaukee music that occurred during the '00s, A.V. Club Milwaukee editor Steven Hyden chatted with his pal Evan Rytlewski of The Shepherd-Express.
Steven: Surveying the changes in the Milwaukee music scene during the ’00s, you and I come from different perspectives. You’ve lived here the entire decade, while I moved here in 2006. But over the past three years the major trends in local music seem pretty clear. No. 1, the leading venues for touring acts are now located downtown within a one-mile radius: the Pabst, the Riverside, Turner Hall, and (for arena acts) the Bradley Center. The Pabst and the Riverside, in particular, have put Milwaukee on the live music map in a way that seemed inconceivable just a few short years ago. Can you imagine hippest of the hip acts like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear stopping in Milwaukee at arguably the peak of their careers (as they did in 2009) three years ago? Not only are those venues of a high enough quality to draw the most vital acts of today—as opposed to 30 years ago—but they’re run by people with the imagination and wherewithal to pursue them. Has there been a better time to be a live music fan in Milwaukee? As far as those venues are concerned, it’s hard to argue against the present.
On the other hand, local music clubs have struggled at times. This year saw a resurgence of sorts, with Cactus Club and Mad Planet getting back to booking bands more consistently and newer venues like Club Garibaldi picking up the leftover slack. But based on what I hear from native Milwaukeeans, things ain’t quite what they used to be on the club level. The East Side, in particular, seems like a shell of its old self, with most of the action now moved to Riverwest and Bay View. You were around in the Globe East days. What impact did that club’s closing in 2003 have on the East Side music scene? And what are the other big movements in Milwaukee music this decade?
Evan: The Globe's closing was symptomatic of the larger change that drove away the music scene from Milwaukee's East Side: the growth and expansion of UW-Milwaukee, which squeezed out much of the color from the neighborhood. The North Avenue area used to be filled with quirky, small businesses, record stores and the endearingly bizarre Prospect Mall, where Thai Joe's also drew big crowds for live music. By mid-decade, most of that was gone, replaced by college bars and chain restaurants. I can’t say the city is much worse for the transition, though. Milwaukee's once-underserved college students needed a district to call their own, and the live music scene is thriving in its new home in Bay View, which continues to find room for new venues in some unlikely places. Club Garibaldi and Frank's Power Plant really stepped up as destination live venues when Cactus Club was briefly closed for remodeling; you can also see shows at the new Bay View Brew Haus, Lulu, and Sugar Maple.
Other local trends are encouraging. While the Pabst Theater Foundation has famously made Milwaukee a destination for relevant, major touring acts, a crop of less visible young promoters have done the same thing on a smaller scale, booking outstanding punk and hardcore shows at all-ages venues much more stable and better organized than most of their ’90s counterparts. They’ve gone along way toward filling the gap left behind by the Globe, one of the few clubs that held all-ages shows.
But hands down the most encouraging trend has been the newfound support system for local music. There’s a widespread interest in local music that just simply didn’t exist at the beginning of the decade, in large part because there are so many more papers, blogs, Web sites and radio stations spotlighting the local scene now. With more opportunities for press coverage and even radio exposure, it’s easier than ever for bands to grow a local following, and as a result morale in the Milwaukee music scene is probably higher than it’s been since the Promise Ring/Citizen King days.
Steven: That’s a very rosy prognosis, Evan, and I agree with large chunks of it. It really is impressive how accessible Milwaukee-made music has become. This past summer, it seems like there was a free street festival somewhere in town where local bands were drawing large crowds. And I love how when Radio Milwaukee decided to start a local awards show, the station’s choices generated passionate debate among fans. Not only are people starting to pay attention—they actually care enough to have an opinion. That’s huge.
Still, I am worried about how fragile this whole thing is. I can probably count the people who really make stuff happen in this town on a club level on one hand. If concert promoters like Kevin Meyer or Ryan Matteson suddenly decided to stop booking shows, most of the quality club dates in this town would vanish. Maybe someone would step up to take their place, maybe not. While I expect the Pabst Foundation folks to be stable moving forward, the Milwaukee music club ecosystem is so delicate that the smallest change can throw it completely out of whack.
Here’s an old complaint but a valid one: I wish there were more local bands that had the drive and ambition to reach for a larger audience. I’m not necessarily talking about a national audience—though that would be great, too—but just reaching more people here in Milwaukee, where too much of the time you see bands playing for the same loose circle of friends (who are probably also in bands). I know that music scenes everywhere tend to be closed-off circles—and that music scenes are really just patchworks of sub-scenes that are often closed-off from each other—but sometimes I feel like potentially great Milwaukee bands are stifled in their development because they get caught in this local scene circle-jerk where nothing is at stake.
Milwaukeeans (who aren’t known for taking chances on music they don’t already know) should shoulder some of the blame here, too. But at least there are positive signs that Milwaukee music might be ready for primetime. The city didn’t really have a breakout music star this decade—unless we’re counting marginally successful acts like Coo Coo Cal and Chester French—but that could change soon. Kings Go Forth drops its debut album next year, and the band’s stunningly rapid ascension in town could translate beyond our borders. Collections Of Colonies Of Bees famously collaborated with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver this year in Volcano Choir, and the exposure should give them a bigger audience for whatever they do next. And Milwaukee rapper Prophetic is the city’s best hope yet for a lasting hip-hop star. So, to quote a line coined by a Milwaukee musician, is the future is so bright that we gotta wear shades?
Evan: Sadly, this is where my rosy outlook ends. It’s true that Milwaukee now has more bands primed for national prestige than it has in over a decade. Almost every month brings rumors or another Milwaukee artist in talks with a big record label or a major collaborator, but most of these talks don’t pan out. Kings Go Forth, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees and now Jail are on the path to success and exposure, and Prophetic is a tremendous talent who has played his cards brilliantly so far, but all these artists still face unfavorable odds as they climb up the cruel music-industry ladder. Even a signed contract is no guarantee of success, as recent Milwaukee music history attests. The city is filled with musicians barely better off for the time they spent on a record label.
So I’ve given up the hope that a few breakout success stories can transform the city’s music scene. Even when The Gufs and Citizen King were all over the radio in the late-’90s, there was no real halo effect for the rest of the music scene. In fact, in the dispiriting case of Citizen King’s rise and fall, the city’s music scene may have been worse off in the end. I do genuinely expect some of the acts mentioned above (as well as perhaps some other local acts with undisclosed pots on the stove) to find significant national success, and those success stories should further feed the growing optimism in the local scene, but my days of hoping Milwaukee could somehow become the next Seattle (or the next Portland, to use a less dated analogue) are long over. Milwaukee’s music scene is too scattered to grow a singular sound to forge a national identity around, so even if Kings Go Forth emerge as the biggest band of 2010, I wouldn’t expect the spotlight to spill over onto other bands in the city (unless there are some other 10-piece retro-soul ensembles I’m overlooking). In short, I think right now is as good as it gets for the Milwaukee scene, at least for a while. The city now has an enthusiastic, nurturing and (hopefully) self-sustaining music scene, and compared to where we were just six years ago, that’s a real happy ending.