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. Sometimes.
Matt Wild: Well, Tyler, it’s almost that time of year again. That time of year when the stars come out to shine, when gossip columnists dish on who’s wearing what, when friends and loved ones gather around their televisions and place their bets, and when careers are made or forever dashed against the rocks of show business fate. I’m speaking, of course, about Sunday’s WAMI Awards, held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California Fox Cities PAC in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Back in my A.V. Club Milwaukee days, I always relished the opportunity to take a few shots at the Wisconsin Area Music Industry—or WAMI if you’re nasty. From the adorably wrongheaded categories and nominations (Cover Artist of the Year! Rabid Aardvarks!) to the adorably wrongheaded notion that Wisconsin was home to a “music industry,” everything about the WAMIs smacked of cluelessness. Then there were the constant grumblings about how only dues-paying members of WAMI seemed to snag nominations, as well as the organization’s decision to move its annual show from Milwaukee to Appleton. Clearly, this was a group with its finger decidedly off the pulse of Wisconsin’s music scene.
Or maybe I’m wrong and I’m just a cynical asshole who doesn’t appreciate the finer points of our state’s premier hair-metal cover band, Cherry Pie. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the WAMIs, Tyler. Are they clueless? Are they irrelevant? And, more importantly, are they even worth making fun of anymore?
Tyler Maas: Believe me, if there was a war against the WAMIs even as recently as three years ago, I would’ve been right by your side on the front lines with my sarcasm musket loaded and my snark bayonet jammed deep into Vic Ferrari’s brainstem. I’m not sure what the ballot looked like when the awards started 34 years ago (probably lots of Sigmund Snopek), but for a time, the WAMI awards could not have been more incestuous, self-serving, and—quite ironically—tone-deaf in their recognition of the state’s music scene. Recently, though, it seems like the WAMI board has made a concerted effort to right the ship in terms of its nominations and by enlisting input from non-members to help turn over as many stones as possible in this vast state. And for the record, being an entity with Wisconsin in its name, I think it’s only fitting that it occasionally hosts an awards show outside metro Milwaukee and Madison.
Knowing it was that time of year reserved for entertainment writer kvetching, I got in touch with WAMI Vice President Chrissy Dzioba, who—along with input from President James McMahon—answered some questions I had about what WAMI was doing to rebuild its much-maligned reputation, the voting process for the awards, and, bluntly, whether the WAMI awards even matter.
Dzioba—who, full disclosure, plays with the Whiskeybelles—told me WAMI has expanded in recent years, and, in doing so, has seen its representation in both the general member and board member sense expand to reach more genres of music than ever. (She did admit a shortage of members with “thrash metal” ties.) The ballot is literally shaped by votes from WAMI members (whom any person with $30 and/or any band with $100 can become), and of those nominees, winners are “almost exclusively” chosen based on total votes within members. “This cuts down on the ‘good ol’ boy’ mentality that WAMI experienced with other approaches,” Dzioba told me.
Back to your question of whether these awards are irrelevant. I’d say that to most people, yes, they are. But aren’t most localized awards meaningless at their root? Does 88Nine with its “Myles Coyne and Rusty Nickels Band” voting option and “Best Bandcamp Release” category seem any more respectable? Do any of the “Best Of” plaques local publications scatter to dry cleaners and the default “best” tapas restaurants across town tote more legitimacy? Fuck no. Sure, WAMI has its warts. Admittedly, Whiskeybelles’ Christmas cover record—though honestly very good for what it is—being considered beside Volcano Choir’s Repave for Album of the Year is one of them, but it’s an ongoing renovation of an imperfect process that (as we learned with our 50 Best Albums list) will never appease everybody. We can laugh about there being a category for cover acts and polka bands, but I bet members of these bands are pleased as shit that there’s a platform out there to recognize their work in those unpopular genres when Grammy doesn’t come calling. Are you losing sleep that people from bands—many of whom we’ve never heard of—will be getting trophies in Appleton on Sunday?
Matt: Will I lose sleep over the fact that Oshkosh’s very own Road Trip is up for Cover Artist of the Year for the 8,000th year in a row? Not really. Will I lose sleep over the fact that the categories for Best Studio Engineer/Producer and Best Recording Studio hilariously don’t include nods to Howl Street Recordings and/or Mystery Room Mastering? Nope. Do I even care that the vice president’s Christmas cover album is up for Album of the Year? Incredibly, no. And maybe that’s my point: I just don’t give a shit about the WAMIs anymore, and I suspect I’m not alone.
To be fair, there are a lot of terrific artists included in this year’s nominations. PHOX, Volcano Choir, Blessed Feathers, The Fatty Acids, Klassik, Buffalo Gospel, Hugh Bob And The Hustle, Yo Dot, Midnight Reruns, Myles Coyne, Pizzle, and Heidi Spencer are all up for big awards. (Assumed spoiler alert: PHOX is going to win everything.) I know I can’t speak for these bands, but I just don’t see any of them caring one way or another about being nominated—much less about winning or losing. I think you’re right: These sorts of things are probably more meaningful to the cover bands and polka acts out there. Speaking as a music writer, those acts seem to be the only ones that bother mentioning being “WAMI-nominated” in their press releases. And hey, more power to them.
And that goes for the organization itself: The only group that seems interested in WAMI anymore is, well, WAMI. Tossing in plenty of hot-shit Milwaukee bands is nice, but the awards will always be best suited to groups that play on the outskirts of Fond du Lac on Thursday nights. And again, more power to them. So I suppose my message to everyone who has spent time “kvetching” about the WAMIs in years past (myself included) would be this: They’re fine. It’s time to let them go.
Tyler Maas: I think it’s unfair to automatically reduce a band’s talent because it’s not based in either of the two largest cities of a 60,000-square-mile landmass, and—despite unclaimed awards with Bon Iver, Jaill, and countless other band names on them sitting in a box somewhere—I think saying with such certainty that you feel a WAMI award means nothing to every Milwaukee- and Madison-area act on the ballot is also shortsighted. (Vic And Gab are playing the awards show this year. Though, in fairness, they play every show everywhere ever.) It might be underscored or omitted in press releases from “hot-shit” Milwaukee bands, but one of the only things that hasn’t changed in the music industry (the second half of the WAMI acronym) over the last 34 years is that positive attention is never a bad thing. Even if that attention is coming from an organization you can no longer muster one shit about, the longevity of the awards—rocky, polarizing, and occasionally regrettable as they may be—proves that some people still care. Who knows, maybe that accolade is the blip of artistic recognition Rob Anthony needs to feel okay playing that gig on the outskirts of Fond du Lac on a Thursday night.
In truth, the WAMIs don’t matter, but no localized awards really mean dick in the big picture. They do, however, matter to some people. Do you and I really care about the WAMI awards? Not really, but I’m personally glad they still exist. Plus, the organization’s sudden semi-self-awareness and recent efforts to take a more accurate reading of the state’s collective musical pulse is bringing me closer to caring. If WAMI decides to swap out its Rising Star of the Year category for a Wisconsin Music Journalism award (THIS SHOULD HAPPEN!), I’ll gladly drive up to Eau Claire or Manitowoc—even Superior—to accept the WAMI in Milwaukee Record’s honor. You’re welcome to come along.