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: Hey, Cal. First of all, it’s great to have you finally writing for Milwaukee Record. I’d say it was a pleasure working with you back in the day at A.V. Club Milwaukee, but since I can seem to find the voluminous AVCMKE archives anywhere online, I guess that site was only a figment of our fevered imaginations. Weird!
Anyway, let’s talk about the present—or two weekends ago, to be precise, when you and I were both at the Death Blues show at the Cactus Club. The openers were Marielle Allschwang (of Altos and Hello Death) and Old Earth. Though we didn’t discuss it, I’m guessing we would both describe the show similarly: powerful, beautiful, intense, mind-blowing, etc. But I spotted a tweet of yours after the show that portrayed it a little differently: “Tonight I don’t care about how insular our little flock of creatives is. Tonight I just feel grateful to be awash in it.”
Now, I know you were only talking about the Death Blues show, but it got me thinking about the Milwaukee music scene in general. Is it at all “insular,” as some have claimed over the years? Is it an exclusive, clique-y club that constantly pats itself on the back? Before we get too deep into another installment of “two dudes needlessly talking about the Milwaukee music scene,” I was wondering if you could clarify your tweet, and maybe share your thoughts on this oft-contentious subject.
Cal Roach: Howdy, Matt! What’s this A.V. Club you’re talking about? Sounds like a bunch of nerds to me. Anyway, thanks for inviting me aboard this new venture of yours! And I completely agree with you: that night at Cactus Club was incredible. Of course, we would agree on that, wouldn’t we? We’ve both been immersed in this city’s music scene for quite some time, and we’ve come to expect good things from people like Jon Mueller, Todd Umhoefer, and members of Altos. We’ve sung their praises, they’ve shown their gratitude, and we all feel pretty good about this scene we’re nurturing.
Of course, it extends to a wider range of local musicians and writers, too—but not that much wider. Although we both enjoy a variety of musical styles, we tend to focus on a very Caucasian, guitar-centric bunch of acts. Sometimes it seems hard not to; those acts tend to get the most gigs at the most prominent and best-sounding venues, and the most airplay on our publicly funded radio stations. Yet even within that spectrum, I feel like I’ve made a huge breakthrough when I get just one of my many music-loving, non-musician, non-writer friends to even venture out to see a local band. After a while, the scene starts to feel like a self-congratulatory closed circuit. WE know how great this scene is, but are we doing anything besides preaching to the choir?
Matt: I think it’s useful to remember that no matter how “world-class” we’d like Milwaukee to be, it’s still a relatively small big city. By extension, our music scene is small-ish, too. And that has its pluses and minuses: on one hand, nothing beats going out to a handful of clubs and seeing familiar bands play to familiar crowds; on the other hand, it can get tiring going out to a handful of clubs and seeing familiar bands play to familiar crowds. Sure, there are separate circles within the greater sphere of Milwaukee music (is Riverwest bands vs. Bay View bands still a thing?), but it seems that for the most part, the city’s size ensures that its music scene is close-knit and fairly incestuous.
So how do we open it up? It’s interesting that the jumping-off point for this piece is a Death Blues/Marielle Allschwang/Old Earth show. All three artists are part of what I’d call the “Alverno scene,” since they have past, present, or future connections to the Alverno Presents performing arts series. (I assume this is what you were hinting at in your tweet.) And while that scene in particular does feel a bit insular, AP has done more than most to expose different people to different local music. Past shows like “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project,” “Nick Sanborn: Lend Me Your Voice,” and “Unlooped Vs. Marvin Gaye” have brought together a diverse selection of live music (rock, folk, hip-hop, jazz, experimental) and tossed it together on one stage. The “Unlooped” show alone featured Christopher Porterfield, Klassik, Mark Waldoch, Dasha Kelly, adoptahighway, and more. I know I was certainly exposed to a few artists I normally wouldn’t have come across, and I’m sure the rest of the audience was in the same boat.
Which is a long way of asking this question: Does the responsibility for making our local music less of a circle-jerk fall on the bands themselves? You asked if “we”—critics, writers, dudes who needlessly talk about stuff like this—can do anything about it, but frankly, I think our powers are fairly limited. Thoughts?
Cal: The short answer to your question is: “Yes, absolutely.” I’m glad you mentioned the Alverno Presents series, because that’s a great example of cultural cross-pollination and a constant source of fresh ideas, and the connections made through these performances don’t just dissipate after the event is finished. Collaborations between the Alverno clique and its guests have created some of the most interesting and unusual music Milwaukee has ever produced within the past few years, and there are several new albums from that scene slated for release soon that will expand that vision even further. And they will undoubtedly get plenty of coverage in local media.
You can see where I’m going, though. There are thriving communities of metal, electronic, noise, and plenty of others in Milwaukee that don’t generally get much more than a token representative per year on a best-of list. If it weren’t for DJ Bizzon’s Journal Sentinel column, you’d think there were only a half-dozen rappers in this town. I love rock and roll and folk and synth-pop as much as the next guy, but those acts are really easy to find.
I do realize that in the age of the SEO, it’s probably hard to justify a lot of coverage for the fringes of the music scene. We both know as well as anyone that opportunities for writers to get paid to review music have been steadily disappearing for years now, making it a risky proposition to devote Web space to, oh, I don’t know, some experimental duo playing in a bar at 6 a.m. on a Sunday. The audience for the performance itself is tiny, so how can we expect people to click on the article?
This is where I think we could all start using social media a lot more effectively, and where artists helping artists could have a bigger impact. I see plenty of tweets and Facebook posts by musicians promoting their friends’ and bandmates’ projects, but guess what: we get it. Don’t you guys ever listen to music not made by someone you know? Ever go to local shows you’re not on the guest list for? It’s nice of The Fatty Acids and Sat. Nite Duets to goofily shout each other out all the time, but fans of one are most likely already following the other. I hate to single out two bands I love, but they happen to be easy targets in this case. Conversely, last year I got an email from the Fattys that mentioned an artist called Pony Bwoy, whose album (though not local) became one of my favorites of the year, and I might never have heard of it otherwise. In a hopelessly oversaturated music landscape, maybe social media recommendations are the most viable way to promote the local scene. But being more experienced in the business side of things, Matt, maybe you have some more ideas on how we (media, artists, promoters, the whole community) can diversify our reach?
Matt: You mentioned the difficulty in drumming up clicks for stories about the “fringes of the music scene.” Since starting Milwaukee Record, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that those kinds of stories have been getting clicks. Stories on local bands that would have died a quiet death on A.V. Club Milwaukee have done surprisingly well on Milwaukee Record. Even more encouraging, I’ve received plenty of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from folks who have been turned on to groups like Space Raft or WebsterX because of something they read on the site. To me, that suggests a few things:
• The Milwaukee music scene is better off than it was even three or four years ago.
• People are hungry for new Milwaukee music.
So what can we do to make sure more people hear more local music? Maybe we as writers and publishers can do a better job of telling readers why they should check out certain bands. Maybe talking about local acts in a broader, national context would be helpful. Also, I think it’s important to keep our standards for what constitutes good local music high. Recommend too many stinkers just because they’re from Milwaukee and you’ll likely turn off folks to the entire scene.
Also worth mentioning: If there’s an amazing band or artist in town (emphasis on “amazing”) that falls outside our sometimes too-small coverage circle, tell us. And if you can string a few sentences together about that amazing band or artist, write for us. Seriously. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and Tyler’s is email@example.com. We’ll even pay you!
So maybe that’s the best we can do: bring together as many voices as possible, and write about as many different kinds of local music as possible. It’s great to have your voice on the site, Cal. Who’s next?