In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Matt Wild: Unless you’ve recently sworn off the Internet in protest of that Facebook Messenger app (Jesus Christ, just download it, people), you’ve likely seen one Milwaukee band dominating the local conversation as of late: GGOOLLDD. The glistening electro-pop outfit has been playing a metric ton of shows, playing a metric ton of festivals, and getting a metric ton of glowing press for its excellent $TANDARD$ EP. Hell, all the synth-drenched buzz has even led to a mini backlash from infuriatingly anonymous music bloggers—the true sign of “making it” in Milwaukee. If there’s one ggrroouupp that’s likely to be the local band of the yyeeaarr, it’s GGOOLLDD.
But wait, there’s more! Just yesterday, it was announced that GGOOLLDD will be opening for The Polyphonic Spree Sunday, August 17 at Turner Hall. On paper, it seems like a sweet gig for the still-young band. The Polyphonic Spree is a relatively high profile group, and while its star-power isn’t what it used to be, it’s sure to draw a healthy crowd. And hey, its new album is pretty good!
Still, I sometimes wonder about local bands opening for bigger national acts. Is it beneficial to the local bands in question? Is it beneficial to fans that come to see the headliner, or is it just a chance to get some drinks and dick around on a phone? Before I share my thoughts, the thoughts of others, and a few personal experiences, I’m curious to hear how you feel, Tyler.
Tyler Maas: As someone who recognizes the wealth of talent in town and wants said skilled artists to gain the exposure they deserve right here in Milwaukee, I think opportunities like the one GGOOLLDD is getting can only be beneficial. As hard as Milwaukee Record, other publications, anonymous music bloggers, and dozens of other parties try to stress the legitimately great musical, comedic, film, and artistic works happening right under our noses, it’s lost on a great deal of the city that—like us all—are already inundated with the overwhelming and ever-growing list of things they must hear, laugh at, see, and experience on the international spectrum as well. Sometimes the only way for a stubborn or, just as likely, unaware person to take in Milwaukee-made entertainment is for it to be set right in front of them for 20-45 minutes before the nationally recognized thing they actually paid to see.
Yes, in these situations, I still think some of these people will dick around on their phones, get drinks with friends, or just show up late. That will never change. However, for somebody like me, I’m always more likely to pay attention when it’s a local band getting the call because this could be a band I can see multiple times a year, sometimes for $5 or free of charge. I haven’t taken a straw poll, but I’m willing to bet at least a few of the people who saw Midnight Reruns open for Rural Alberta Advantage earlier this year, watched Trapper Schoepp And The Shades go on before The Wallflowers at Turner Hall, or took in a Direct Hit! set while holding their bleacher spot before Rise Against at this year’s Summerfest went on to watch them elsewhere or investigated them further after the fact. Even if that’s not the case, being thrown to the wolves of an inattentive audience who might view you as an obstacle between them and the act they like is still of the utmost benefit to Milwaukee bands. For one, the money they make—usually more than the usual all-local show take, mind you—is more likely to stay local. Surfer Blood is going to get in their van and head to the next city after the show. Jaill’s staying here. More importantly, it helps these performers test their mettle before larger crowds and in bigger, more imposing venues than they’re accustomed. That’s an invaluable experience.
It extends beyond music as well. Local comedians absolutely benefit from situations like this. In recent months, Milwaukee comics have taken the stage before acts like Kyle Kinane and Michael Ian Black, and will open for Nick Thune and Godfrey soon. I asked Madison (by way of Milwaukee) comic Ryan Mason about opening for established names in stand-up such as Kumail Nanjiani, Joe Mande, and Morgan Murphy at Turner Hall, and he credits those opportunities for helping him grow as a comic, saying, “Knowing that I can handle that type of situation and audience has built my confidence in the material that I have, in my stage persona, and in the jokes that I am just trying out. The experience of performing in front of a huge group of people, opening for a proven talent is hard to come by.”
So yeah, to summarize a long response, fuck yeah, it’s great for local performers and for those in attendance. I think the real question is, could or should it happen more often, or are clubs and theaters alike aware of the risk of forcing some local commodities into places they maybe shouldn’t be?
Matt: At the risk of turning this into a knock-down, drag-out war, I’m going to agree with you, Tyler. Local bands opening for hot-shit national bands (or just kinda-sorta hot-shit national bands) is always a good thing. A lot of local bands agree, too—though from what they told me when I brought this subject up on social media, it’s often an experience that’s more about kicking it with bands they love than furthering their careers. Some examples:
“[Our] stints opening for Jesus Lizard and Archers Of Loaf were worth it strictly for the thrill of sharing the stage with our idols. […] Both shows were worth it because I have a story to tell and they were a dream come true.”
“We played all Florida Warped Tour dates in 2008, as well as opening for The Toadies, Trampled By Turtles, and Local H. It did absolutely zero for record sales and exposure, but I guess it was cool to tell our friends about it.”
On the other hand, some bands do find success on high-profile bills, and appreciate the overall high-profile-bill experience:
“We’ve gotten lucky with opening for some great bands over the years. We ended up selling a lot of merch at those shows and having plenty of new show-goers following those dates. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that people that go primarily to bigger shows don’t really venture out to see local ones. Once they know those bands exist, they continue to check them out if they enjoy it.”
“We sold close to $600 gross in merch. […] That aside, playing to a sold-out crowd in a world-class theater like the Pabst is probably as good as it gets in terms of stage experience, audio/tech crew and hospitality. They run a tight ship and have such a fine crew there.”
My personal experience with opening for a big band is closer to the first two examples: it was nice sharing the stage with a band I admired, but it didn’t do squat for my band’s “career.” And yes, this is just a way of shoehorning in the fact that my long-defunct band, Holy Mary Motor Club, once played immediately before Arcade Fire at Mad Planet. Go figure.
But back to your question about whether or not local bands should open for high-profile national acts more often. It’s important to note that while Pabst/Turner/Riverside shows (mostly Turner shows) have local support on their bills from time to time, smaller club-shows almost always have Milwaukee openers. Cactus Club, Mad Planet, Quarters, Shank Hall, and others are great places to see scrappy local stars opening for scrappy, touring national stars. Over the weekend, for example, The Trusty Knife played the Chain & The Gang show at Riverwest Public House. So yeah, I think there are plenty of big-ticket shows with homegrown openers. You just have to know where to look.
What about you, Tyler? Would you like to see more local openers on high-profile shows? And have you ever seen a Milwaukee band completely blow it in front of a crowd waiting for a national act? (Barring a few Summerfest shows, I can’t say that I have.)
Tyler: Don’t think the cavalcade of openers employed for club shows is lost on me. I’m fresh off seeing Jaill and Towers precede Crocodiles at a recent Cactus Club show, and I’m tempted to drop by the bar soon and corner ownership to see what locals will be tapped to precede Braid on October 3. Speaking of your Mad Planet example, it’s no Holy Mary Motor Club-type popularity bump, but I’m inclined to think Rusty Ps, as well as Dana Coppa & SPEAK Easy benefited from the Summerfest-rivaling opening slots before Blueprint in June. These sorts of arrangements are great for everybody. Bands get a memorable and (if the credits in PR emails we get daily are to be believed) career-boosting experience; mid-rung touring acts are often privy to an infusion of additional gas money brought in by people with extra incentive to see a mid-week show with partial local appeal; and we all get to witness a beautiful arranged marriage (albeit one of convenience) between Milwaukee’s music scene and touring talent. Maybe it’s the hyper-local journalist in me or perhaps I’m proud the locally sourced cream is rising to the surface, but I get giddy when bands I cover such as Sat. Nite Duets or comics I tout like Allison Dunne get the call to open for established acts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Nick Thune, respectively.
As far as seeing a locals “blow it” once given the go-ahead to perform on a larger stage (both literally and metaphorically), I honestly can’t say I have. On one hand, I think the various venues we’ve named do a predominately excellent job of pairing homegrown commodities and out-of-towners on bills. On the other hand, the scarcity of this happening—oftentimes abandoned in favor of another all-local lineup or totally touring assemblage—doesn’t really allow for much opportunity of it happening. But I welcome the possibility. I don’t want to watch a Milwaukee musician or comic flounder in someone else’s spotlight before the biggest crowd of their life, but the risk of that happening (not to mention the growth and increased area awareness the experience coveys, whether positive or negative) is far preferential to seeing some vanilla promoter-approved act killing time before the headliner. I think people would be surprised what Milwaukee artists can do, and even if it goes horribly awry, we can all just start dicking around on our phones.