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.
Tyler Maas: I went to a show Friday. There, four bartenders were consistently busy serving beverages to an enthusiastic crowd that pushed—or, in my opinion, exceeded—the club’s 200-person capacity. A significant portion of said crowd was holding recently procured records and t-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands on the four-act bill. Half the bands hailed from Canada, including Fat Wreck Chords’ own The Flatliners. You’d think a thirsty and excited audience packing a local establishment in support of both homegrown and touring bands would be a great thing for Milwaukee. However, Milwaukee business owners seem to disagree. The show I attended was in Cudahy.
Direct Hit! frontman Nick Woods told me the reason he decided to book Friday’s Flatliners, Direct Hit!, Junior Battles, and The Moguls show at The Metal Grill on the Cudahy main drag of Packard Avenue—two cities away from Milwaukee, for those scoring at home—was due to Milwaukee’s utter shortage of options for all-ages venues. He referenced Shorewood Legion Hall’s recent unwillingness to host concerts, Bay View Legion Hall’s transition into Rocco’s and now, Little Demarinis Pizza, as well as lamenting the long-gone all-ages ally The Globe East. Woods prefers playing to people of any age group opposed to bar shows, and both supporting (non-band) sources in my recent Direct Hit! profile speculated that Milwaukee’s shortage of true-blue all-ages clubs is the primary reason Woods’ band is much more popular elsewhere than in Direct Hit!’s hometown of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee lost hundreds of dollars in door money and drink sales to Cudahy this weekend, just as the bands involved likely lost out on at least a few prospective music fans who were unwilling to trek to the no-collar Milwaukee suburb to see a show they’d otherwise attend. Maybe this is a unique situation, but I suspect it’s not. Matt, before I get too deep into my thoughts on this, I wanted to ask you (a person who both lived here and played in a band during the heyday of The Globe and the salad days of Legion Hall shows) whether you’ve seen a change in the all-ages spectrum and, if so, whether it’s a problem for Milwaukee music.
Matt Wild: Ah, yes. The classic “all-ages” debate. Like our recent discussion of Milwaukee’s purported “glass ceiling,” this is one of those issues that pops up every few years and refuses to go away—or, in this case, grow up. Here’s how it usually goes: Hey guys, the fucking city/neighborhood association/cops are trying to shut down our totally awesome all-ages venue! Where are kids supposed to enjoy live music in Milwaukee? Don’t promoters know 19-year-olds spend shitloads of money? Hey guys, why don’t we all chip in $10 and we can open our own totally awesome all-ages venue! Hey guys, the fucking city/neighborhood association/cops are trying to shut down our totally awesome all-ages venue! Wash, rinse, repeat.
But seriously, I sympathize with this problem. To a point. Yes, it seems ridiculous that Direct Hit! had to book a show in Cudahy, and yes, the days of The Globe East were truly magical and wonderful or whatever. But The Globe has been gone for 11 years, and anyone who thinks another legitimate all-ages club—even a part-time all-ages club—will pop up somewhere in the city anytime soon is crazy. That means underage music fans will have to do what they’ve always done: find some basement shows in Riverwest, drive out to bumblefuck Cudahy, spring for a fake ID, or just wait three goddamned years until they turn 21. Is it perfect? Nope. Is it a rite of passage we’ve all had to endure? Yep.
We should be clear here: there are plenty of true-blue all-ages venues in Milwaukee. Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater, Turner Hall, The Rave, The Borg Ward, and Miramar Theater are just a few that come to mind. (And let’s not forget about every single street party/outdoor concert series of the summer.) Those clubs are great for underage fans looking to check out national touring acts, but when we talk about Milwaukee’s “all-ages problem,” we’re usually referring to a dearth of places where local and/or relatively unknown punk bands can ply their trade. Direct Hit! is a perfect example. But The Rave and The Riverside are never going to open their doors for a weekend all-ages punk show, so it’s back to the basement and the occasionally open space on Center Street.
I’ll kick it back to you, Tyler, and poke at an assumption usually made about all-ages shows: Don’t you think that if these shows were such financial slam-dunks, more places like The Rave would start putting them on? Are club owners simply too scared to give them a try? And why the hell aren’t there more decent all-ages shows at the Miramar? Seriously, what’s up with that place?
Tyler: I’m glad you mentioned The Rave, Pabst, Turner, and Riverside. I don’t want to undersell the opportunities each of those places give youngsters to see touring talent. I totally agree with you on Miramar as well. I saw Misery Signals there last year and it was a well-organized experience that was fun for hardcore kids and tallboy-toting 30-somethings alike. It could be a solid all-ages option, but it’s playing host to weekly talent shows with $7 covers and 2 p.m. dog weddings. And yes, the myriad of summer block parties and festivals present viable opportunities for underage music fans to see local bands that traditionally play out in bars and clubs. However, while we might enjoy the shake-up of seeing our favorite acts in the daytime, outdoors and basked in natural light, it’s a pity kids need to wait until they turn 21 for another option. I’ll admit that basement shows, along with spaces like Borg Ward and Var Gallery are decent alternatives as well, but the sound quality certainly suffers in untraditional venues that are primary used for something else.
This topic got me thinking back to when I was at that frustrating age range. For a time, I could see small touring bands I liked at Concert Café in Green Bay. That was around the time I also became acquainted with Call Me Lightning, who played very regularly at a bunch of all-ages venues in my native Fox Cities. I saw them at Ryan’s Ballroom in Combined Locks, the Lawrence University student union, a short-lived mini-mall-storefront-turned-venue called Money Wrench, and some religious multi-purpose room near the Fox River Mall in Appleton. I got to wondering why three dudes well into their 20s drove two hours north to play to a crowd of high schoolers, so I asked Call Me Lightning/Zebras drummer and Howl Street Recordings owner/operator Shane Hochstetler to enlighten me more than a decade after the fact.
It turns out Hochstetler is ardently pro-all-ages, even going as far to tell me, “If I never played another drinking show for the rest of my life I couldn’t give a shit less.” As a performer, he says kids at all-ages shows are usually more driven to see bands and to be exposed to new music. He referenced energetic, involved all-ages crowds. He compared that to overhearing people at bar shows wrestle with whether to spend the last of their money on merch or another drink. “I’m guessing you were more obsessive over your favorite bands back then than you are about your favorite bands now,” he says of underage me. “I know I was way more obsessive about my favorite bands back then. And because of that, I was going to five shows a week at minimum.”
He’s right. Though I try to open my eyes and my mind to new bands (it’s kind of my job and stuff), I’d be lying if I said I’ve never shown up late to a show or left early because I didn’t know the band. Even when watching bands I like, I find myself defaulting into arms-crossed mode nowhere near the front of the stage. I’ve been that guy weighing the pros and cons of buying a t-shirt over two more pints of beer. All-ages shows benefit bands more both fiscally and in terms of turnout. They offer every music fan an opportunity to seek out new music. Really, the only party that has any skin in the game is also the one who has the ultimate say: the venues. And I totally get it. Why pay elevated insurance premiums, risk loitering kids scaring away regulars, and narrow profit margins from soda-swilling youngsters? I can see why venues eschew opening their doors to all, but I wonder if there’s any middle ground between “fucking city/neighborhood association/cops” and “just wait three years, kid.”
Matt: Damn. Your memories of seeing CML in high school, and Shane’s unabashed love of all-ages show are striking a nerve. As you mentioned earlier, I was around during the days of The Globe, and I attended and played plenty of all-ages shows before my 21st birthday. There were shows in crummy teen centers (one of my band’s first shows was with Figurehead and Alligator Gun at the West Bend Teen Factory) and shows in high school auditoriums. There were shows in college student unions and shows in countless flash-in-the-pan basements. Hell, there were even more countless ill-advised semi-acoustic shows at local coffee shops. And yes, there were underage shows in normally 21+ venues that were cool enough to cover their taps for an afternoon.
But save for the last one, all of these options are more or less still viable. So maybe it’s up to bands to make sure Milwaukee’s underage fanbase is being properly served. It’s easy to complain about the dearth of all-ages venues, but how about the bands that aren’t willing to play the all-ages venues that already exist? Because, let’s be honest, it’s a lot less work for a band to set up a show at Cactus Club or Mad Planet than it is to hunt down some all-ages place in downtown Cudahy. Would it be nice if bands had more all-ages options? Sure. But, like Shane (correctly) suggests, all-ages shows tend to be a blast for band and audience alike.
So take a chance, bands that haven’t played an all-ages show in years! Book some out-of-the-way gigs (however hard they might be to nail down) and promote the hell out of them. And, most importantly, try to remember what it was like when you were under 21. It was kind of great, but it also kind of sucked, didn’t it? Help make it suck less for someone else. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll probably sell some merch for a change.