In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle important city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Matt Wild: If you’ve been perusing the local and national Internets for the past few weeks, you’ve no doubt come across a lot of buzz surrounding Durham, North Carolina band Sylvan Esso. The group features Amelia Meath of Mountain Man, and, pertinent to our discussion here, Tyler, former Milwaukeean and Decibully member Nick Sanborn. Like I said, Sylvan Esso has been attracting a lot of (well-deserved) hype—the duo’s self-titled album even nabbed a sweet “First Listen” on NPR, with Stephen Thompson declaring leadoff single “Coffee” “one of the year’s best songs.” That’s great news for Sanborn, but it does raise an interesting question: Why can’t a band break that big in Milwaukee? Does the Milwaukee music scene have a—gulp—“glass ceiling?”
I had a chance to talk to Sanborn last fall on The Disclaimer, right before his jaw-droppingly awesome show for Alverno Presents. The subject of Milwaukee’s music scene came up later in the show (around the 23:30 mark). Sanborn had nothing but love for his former city, but he did share some candid thoughts on the difference between Milwaukee and a city like Durham:
“I do think that there’s a weird, self-imposed glass ceiling [in Milwaukee] that I don’t feel [in Durham]. […]
“When I was here, I definitely felt an energy of…we all just understood that it could only get so big, and if we talked about it getting bigger, we were kind of joking. […]
“For whatever reason, there are less people that want to go see shows here. I’m not sure what that is. Especially local music.”
Before I share my own thoughts on this time-tested subject, I’m curious to hear your take, Tyler. Do you agree with Sanborn? Is Milwaukee music doomed to getting only “so big?” And does that even matter?
Tyler Maas: I think Sanborn made some good points, especially considering that it took finally leaving Milwaukee for him to spearhead a project that garnered him national acclaim and pre-release buzz. However, I don’t believe any local ceiling looming above our city is directly responsible for holding anybody back. Rather, I feel the saturation of the music industry as a whole and the transition of the model of what makes a band “successful” can explain the possible lack of a “breakout band.” I put breakout band in quotes because I truly don’t know the watermark of accomplishment a band (playing in an era with more active musical acts than ever and more ways in which to hear them than ever for less money than ever, mind you) must reach before attaining breakout status—or to break the glass ceiling, if you will.
I look at what Field Report has done in its fairly short history. To me, they’ve surpassed said ceiling. If an NPR stream is part of the package, they’ve done it. With just one album beneath its belt, Field Report has toured the country with a host of respected, internationally noted performers. The band is soaking up—laughably belated—praise from The New York Times. And maybe I’m coming from the camp of local bias (though I don’t feel I am), but I think the forthcoming Field Report follow-up will drum up as much favorable attention as bands you feel have surpassed an invisible, incalculable level of notoriety to carry a city’s scene on its back. And if it’s not Field Report: Volcano Choir (I know, I know…not all Milwaukee), Sub Pop’s own Jaill, Maritime (A.V. Club darlings and labelmates with former Billboard alternative chart-toppers Silversun Pickups), and I’d even argue career musicians Vic And Gab have “made it” in the diluted modern sense. Northless, too, was deemed worthy of an NPR song stream back in 2011—likely because of the band’s huge following in the black metal contingent. I don’t think Milwaukee bands are incapable of breaking out. I just think the construct of contemporary music is becoming less capable of drawing a clear line in the sand stating “this band has made it.”
Lastly, and this isn’t to take away from Sylvan Esso—I’ve streamed the album no fewer than 20 times now—or Durham, but I wonder if the difference in show attendance has anything to do with Sanborn’s new city being less than half the size of Milwaukee (almost certainly meaning fewer shows at fewer venues for people to attend on a given night) and Sylvan Esso being the most exciting act in town, compared to Decibully being among a handful of our heavy-hitters in the band’s heyday. It’s like preparing two different foods with entirely different ingredients, then saying one tastes worse.
So I ask you, Matt, with the days of rocking 20,000 person arenas, being subject of a poorly developed Saturday morning cartoon, and inserting baby sharks into people’s orifices backstage long gone, what lets you know a band has “made it,” and what (if anything) do you feel is holding Milwaukee acts from such pantheons?
Matt: At the risk of turning this into a heated battle between two writers with diametrically opposed viewpoints, I’m going to agree with you, Tyler. The days of “making it” and becoming a superstar arena band with backstage changing tents for intimate meet-and-greets with fans are long gone. Hell, the days of being able to pay your bills by being a middle-of-the-road touring act are practically extinct, too. So are the days when a single city’s “scene” could become a national media sensation. Sure, certain cities may garner some attention in the ever-fractured music press (Durham, for example), but something like “Seattle” will likely never happen again.
So what are we left with? Simple: bands that are driven enough to put their noses to the grindstone, throw themselves into the corporate machine, and hope for the best—all questions of “art” and “cred” be damned. And maybe that’s where I still detect a glass ceiling in Milwaukee. Nearly every time a local band gives even the slightest impression of trying to “make it,” people roll their eyes. Shit, I may be guilty of it myself. Take Vic And Gab: I’ve joked a lot in the past about how they seem to play almost every single day. (“It’s 3:45 p.m. Do YOU know where Vic And Gab are playing right now?”) But props to them putting themselves out there and trying to make a career out of playing music. In fact, I’d love to see more bands take a cue from them—especially bands that are really, really good. All too often it’s the city’s best bands that seem to be satisfied with playing Turner Hall once or twice before breaking up, and the city’s most middling bands that shoot for the stars. (Not you, Vic And Gab.) That seems like a glass ceiling to me. It may not be unique to Milwaukee, but it’s there.
Maybe what it boils down to is this: If we all but eliminate superstardom, what’s the end goal of being a musician? Self-expression? To make a living? To pass the time before you have a job and kids? To pass the time after you have a job and kids? Should Milwaukee musicians be happy with fostering their own scene, with no concern for “glass ceilings” or anything other than having a good time? Are we alone in the universe? What does it all mean, Tyler?
Tyler: Dude, when you really think about it, we’re all just nothing, clutching desperately to an existence devoid of any meaning. We’re all just unacknowledged stowaways on a ball shooting through an incalculably vast (and growing) universe to serve as the butts of what can only be construed as some type of cruel and elaborate practical joke. Some of us drum on buckets in hopes of earning enough change to buy a meal; others sell out arenas, are multi-platinum artists, and get beat up by Beyonce’s sister in an elevator. Most of us, however, exist in this sweet in-between with no tickertape parade to acknowledge our attainment of a certain level of success, nor banner to proclaim “Your dream is fucked.” Before I took the leap to co-found this thing with you, I technically made a living as a writer (another once-clearly drawn vocation now in transition). Sure, I have no health insurance; I pulled in like $18,000 last year, and my hair is almost entirely gray at 29 due to stress and poor diet, but I made it as a writer.
That long, awkwardly personal tidbit is so say that, unless a band’s aim is “iTunes commercial or GTFO,” an act’s definition of “making it” and the height of any “glass ceiling” are both self-imposed standards. Yes, it’s easier to look at PHOX’s indisputable rise to international consciousness and know there’s a floor somewhere in Madison strewn with glass that fell from above. Same goes for Sylvan Esso and (I’d say) Field Report. Yet I don’t think many Milwaukee acts are sitting around their practice spaces lamenting how they aren’t at that sweet “last-five-minutes-of-Sons-Of-Anarchy-montage-song” level of fame. Local bands tour both nationally and beyond; respected music publications beyond city limits recognize Milwaukee music from time to time; and dynasty acts like The BoDeans and that Jayk dude manage very lucrative part-time jobs by playing inconceivably high on concert bills throughout festival season.
Matt: I’m glad you brought up the co-founding of this little venture. One of the goals of Milwaukee Record is to elevate the discourse surrounding Milwaukee music, and hold it to the same critical standards as national music. Like we’ve said in the past, Milwaukee has grown up, and it’s time to act/write like it. So maybe that’s the best we can all do: produce great music, champion great music, and let the rest of the chips fall where they may. Want to change the world? Give it a shot or don’t. We’ll enjoy it either way.