The lineup for KNE New Music Stage was unveiled yesterday. At the risk of my Summerfest press pass being lost in the mail, the cast of performers announced was a supreme letdown. In just its second year at the sponsorship helm, K-Nation Entertainment (or KNE) has managed to significantly diminish the good will and the local appeal of the little stage at the northeast corner of Henry Maier Festival Park, shrink Summerfest’s lineup by 11 acts, and take naming rights to a new, scary, and altogether tone deaf level of control.
To be fair, slightly more than half the lineup is composed of local bands. Acts like Maritime, The Championship, The Fatty Acids, Midwest Death Rattle, Kane Place Record Club, Ivy Spokes, Brett Newski, Bright Kind, Herman Astro, The Sleepwalkers, Paper Holland, Jay Matthes, The Delta Routine, Dogs In Ecstasy, Animals In Human Attire, and a handful of others keep with the spirit of the Cascio Interstate Music Stage—which shared top-tier sponsorship of the stage with K-Nation last year, and was the sole namesake before that—to showcase top-tier local talent. And, of course, there are still a few in-state bands of note that don’t happen to hail from Milwaukee, such as established Oshkosh festival standard Copper Box, and Madison metal band Lords Of The Trident.
The trouble is in the majority of other performers called to the KNE New Music Stage. The lineup is plodded down with a mixture of less established local Americana and singer-songwriter acts seemingly booked on the basis of being safe, inoffensive, and on Matthew Haeffel’s contact list. I’m sure plenty of them are just fine, and there’s some room for booking less-established acts to occupy early slots, but what’s the appeal of seeing a dozen fairly similar acoustic guitar-driven butt-rock bands populated by dudes from Madison, Milwaukee, and Kenosha who are in no way representative of those cities’ immense talent pools?
Worse yet is K-Nation’s thoughtless decision to pepper in a shocking number of bands that A.) You’ve never heard, and B.) Aren’t even from Wisconsin. This benefits exactly no one. Just as the would-be listener will be miffed that the Chambersburg, Penn. Post-punkers The Shackeltons are playing a 5:30 p.m. slot instead of [name 100 deserving and willing Wisconsin bands], I’m willing to wager that a band duped into driving halfway across the country to play the smallest, least heralded stage in the “World’s Largest Music Festival” won’t leave happy with the experience. Same goes for New York indie rockers Daughter & Son, Nashville’s Gabe Dixon Band, Indianapolis’ Hero Jr. (who might have a better time because they immediately precede frequent tour partners The Delta Routine), FOUR bands from Chicago, and poor little Gracie Schram—who is making the trip from Kansas City to play a 2 p.m. set to metal bleachers.
When K-Nation got its claws into some of the booking last year, unknowns from other cities (even ranging as far away as Liverpool, England) wisely skipped their pre-4 p.m. appearances. At least other stages schedule in pre-recorded music, not settle upon it to account for its numerous booking fuck-ups. And when a band inevitably no-shows, it will sting even more, as the stage now hosts just 55 bands, down from 66 last year. Oh yeah, and three of those sought-after slots will go to the winners of a nationwide “Land The Big Gig” contest—a K-Nation Entertainment production.
By the way, if K-Nation wanted booking help, it needn’t have looked any further than its co-sponsors for guidance. Based on everyone I’ve asked, I can safely say Shepherd Express and WMSE were not consulted about booking decisions and they found out about the lineup yesterday as well, which is a shame, as WMSE carries an astounding wealth of local music acumen, and ShepEx isn’t exactly a slouch when it comes to covering the scene either. Do you think MillerCoors demanded the Arctic Monkeys played beneath their logo? Did Briggs & Stratton waste a single second stumping for Jake Miller to play in its Big Backyard? Fuck and no, they didn’t. Like good sponsors, they threw money at a stage and trusted the Summerfest powers at be (who don’t exactly suck at their jobs) to assemble a lineup that will consistently entertain people, while making their corporation’s name synonymous with fun.
I’ll admit the Cascio Interstate Music Stage wasn’t perfect. Attendance for its exclusively in-state lineups occasionally dipped into the one- or two-dozen person range. The sound sometimes left something to be desired. (Including sound from one or both the surrounding stages drowning out performances.) Yet it was an oasis from the crowds, and an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to see Milwaukee’s distinct musical presence in the festival for which it’s famous. To some bands (certainly not all; there will always be those who avoid The Big Gig), it was an arrival point—a watermark of acceptance to, in some small way, be part of the same event as renowned national/international touring talent…and have a place to play when the rest of the city’s venues shut down.
Fortunately, Summerfest has become great at pairing locally based openers with big-name headliners. Like many, I’ll eagerly avoid Chicago bands Empires and Carbon Tigers, and other ill-fitting KNE bands to instead see YO-DOT, Kiings, Direct Hit!, Trapper Schoepp & The Shades, Vic And Gab, Prophetic, and Hugh Bob & The Hustle at larger, better-booked stages.
Since K-Nation Entertainment usurped control of the Cascio Stage, it’s been a rapid and—if it wasn’t so unfortunate—laughable freefall. I’ll still see the handful of appealing bands K-Nation stumbled ass-backwards into booking, but I’ve lost my trusty base camp where I could see something I knew I’d enjoy between national acts. I’m now a man without a stage. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way. I would say I hope this poorly executed plan in all its locally ignorant glory crashes and burns, but why waste the energy to do so? It’s already off to a hell of a start on its own.