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.
Tyler Maas: Once Memorial Day comes and goes, Milwaukee’s long-awaited festival season will finally be upon us again. While it’s yet to officially kick off, each passing week has found more festivals, block parties, weekly music series, and other annual occurrences with the “days” or “party” suffix unveiling their lineups. At this point, almost every significant summer happening has posted its entertainment schedule. As it turns out, as each event’s individual collection of musical acts helps make every particular celebration clearer, the big picture is starting to smudge and blend together. Based on outward appearance and entertainment, “The City Of Festivals” could be considered in many cases to be “The City Of Pretty Much One Predominant Festival Look, Feel, And Sound With A Bunch Of Different Names.”
While each event has its own unique flare in regard to where it’s taking place, the holiday or group of people it’s meant to honor, and a portion of the entertainers, nearly every Milwaukee festival also offers attendees the utterly familiar opportunity to stroll around outdoors while holding a plastic cup of beer, eating some type of diet-murdering edible delicacy, and enjoying tunes supplied by some of the city’s most popular bands. As great as all that sounds, there is a sense of rote ritual accompanying Milwaukee festivals on the whole that can start to wear on you by August.
Before I get any deeper into this, I want to first stress that this is in no way written as a slight against any individual festival and especially not written with so much as an ounce of contempt for any performer punching their frequent-fester cards this (or any) year. Yet every May and June, some people can’t help but acknowledge “the same 10 bands who play every summer festival.” I must admit that there is a shred of truth about the small batch of bands, rappers, and solo artists getting their turn on the annual festival circuit. I know you’ve noticed as much, DJ. In not seeing Body Futures or IfIHadAHiFi on many of this summer’s lineups to this point, I can imagine you’d like organizers to eschew overlap when possible. I have my own thoughts about why there are so many repeats each summer, but with you being a Milwaukee musician, I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you feel it happens. Could it be changed? With people continuing to turn out to each and every Milwaukee summer festival in droves, should it change?
DJ Hostettler: Well, Tyler, before I say anything more, I should stress that not only am I not against bands looking to grab every piece of precious “exposure” that they can get their paws on, but I also have nothing but respect for the scads of promoters and organizers that bust their collective ass putting our city’s fine music festivals together (including Tasty Fest, which, full disclosure, Body Futures is playing this year, and thanks to Tasty Tapes for inviting us!). Having helped on the periphery of many-a PRFBBQ in Chicago, I know that there are a lot of balls being juggled during the planning of such multifaceted events. And having not been behind the scenes for any of the multitude of Milwaukee music festivals on the calendar, it would be unfair to speculate as to how their lineups are generally chosen. But as a relative outsider to the Milwaukee festival scene, it feels like that lack of knowledge is part of the problem. I can only speak to my bands’ experiences, and ultimately, it boils down to wondering the same thing every year as many bands I know (not just mine!) wonder: who the heck is organizing these events and how do we even let them know we’re interested?
I was legitimately asking this question online a few weeks ago, and the general consensus among most of my fellow musician friends in town was “you have to know the promoter, I think.” And while “it’s all who you know” is a tired cliche, the fact remains that Milwaukee is a town whose music scene is undeniably driven largely by its bar/club scene and its employees, many in the same bands being booked at the bars hosting live music (which is the case in every major city with a music scene worth a damn—this isn’t unique to Milwaukee). We’re a town with very close-knit social circles full of tight buds that support each other, and that’s a beautiful thing—but what feels like a family on the inside can oftentimes appear like an insular circling of the wagons from outsider’s perspective. And by no means are my friends or I immune! When I sent out a call for bands to contribute to the UNINTIMIDATED compilation, our lineup was set in a day’s time thanks to all the buddy bands that immediately volunteered. For a likely one-off project, that approach is probably fine, but for multiple festivals over multiple years, it could breed homogenization.
So, is that all there is to it? Is it simply that festival organizers find it easier to ask the bands they work or drink with every day, fill out a lineup, and move on to the next task? While it would be hard to blame them if that were the case (those sponsors and sound engineers aren’t gonna sort themselves out), it would be unfair to cast such a blanket statement and assume its truth. Besides, it absolves we “non-festival bands” from the responsibility of putting some effort into figuring out who books these things, and that’s not fair. But that said, it feels like a hard question to answer sometimes! Is there a submission form online? Can we mail a demo tape somewhere? And when’s the submission period? Should we subscribe to SonicBids? (Note: no one should subscribe to SonicBids.) Tyler, I’m guessing that, as someone who covers these fests on the reg, you probably have more of an idea what happens behind the scenes than I do. Enlighten me!
Tyler: I believe it was either John Lennon or Lou Bega who famously said, “The more I see the less I know for sure.” Similarly, the more festivals I attend or cover and the deeper I’m able to peer behind the curtain of how they’re organized, the more I’m coming to realize that there’s no single way these events are put together. Lineups tend to land in a similar place, but do so in a number of ways. While it might be easy to envision an elite entertainment society gathered in secrecy in some darkened downtown board room, that’s simply not the case. Yes, occasionally, a group of tight-knit pals band together to book one another in the same way your UNINTIMIDATED project came to be since, well, it’s easy to get them to commit, promoters know what they’re getting, and it might even save a few bucks to work with like-minded friends with a firsthand awareness of a booker’s constraints. Coming from somebody who has dabbled in putting together small-to-mid scale things these last two years, it’s fucking hard. So working with artists you know and trust is a huge way to expedite a sincerely taxing process. It’s sad to admit and could be construed as unfair, but it’s the truth.
Of course, the overriding goal of promoters is to bring in the maximum number of people they can out to their event. More people means more beer is poured, more fried food is consumed, and more MilwaukeeHome fanny packs are sold, which translates into happy vendors, happy business, (hopefully) happy people, and a successful event. With that being at least one of the primary objectives, the music lineups are assembled with the hope of appealing to the largest possible group of people for at least part of the day. In the same sense we don’t fault bands for nabbing every vaunted festival opportunity that comes their way, I don’t look down on a promoter for not considering who is playing preceding or subsequent events when preparing their particular event with a proven recipe. With all due respect to Heat Death (which made easily one of my favorite records of the year so far), their sound isn’t something I’d consider universally appealing. Bandleader Kenneth Sabbar would be the first to admit that, but in noticing a lot of the same acts were popping up on festivals, he put together this chart to show the spread (or lack thereof) of acts booked.
Basically, the cream rises to the top every year. That’s not to say those left on the outside—or in especially small lettering…look! I kind of see Body Futures!—aren’t great as well, but many of the names that appear the largest on this are, frankly, some of the most popular bands in town right now. Perhaps they got that way because a record they recently put out is getting positive attention on WMSE, 88Nine or this very website (Hey! I can dream!). Maybe they’re the vanguard of their particular style of music in town. Sometimes, an act’s sheer ability to draw will help get them on a show. Other times, a band’s positive attitude, preparation, and raw energy makes them a hot commodity. Do you notice that Tigernite, the largest name on this list by far, adheres to all the criteria I just mentioned? It’s not an accident everybody wants them on their shows (myself included, as I asked them to headline Milwaukee Record‘s PrideFest stage this year). They’re a no-brainer.
And yes, I’ll admit that sometimes sound and talent could possibly be secondary to whom an act knows. It sucks, but it’s not going to change. While it would be nice for festivals to be all-inclusive and share the literal business improvement district wealth with bands hailing from every (as you put it earlier) “circle of wagons,” the onus is on individual bands to spread their own circles and flank themselves with more wagons in hopes of gaining consideration when festival time comes around. Play with more bands—and younger bands—from wholly disparate ends of the musical spectrum at a variety of area venues (bands should be doing these things anyway). Send emails or Facebook messages to organizers months before the first wave of “same 10 bands” outrage can be typed out. Release something unlike anything Milwaukee has heard before. If you don’t like the outcome that robs you of that 2 p.m. Bay View Bash slot, change your placement in the equation. Whether that’s done through taking a small step toward a sound that’s more conducive to daylight/outdoor gigs (which I’m not advocating, mind you), being more proactive about contacting organizers or (ugh) “networking” with unfamiliar bands, how you go about getting these slots is up to you.
DJ: Oh dude, you’re opening quite the can of worms that could spill out for pages upon pages when you get into the chicken-and-egg question of whether a band’s quality affects their coverage vs. whether their coverage affects their perceived quality. You can say “put yourself out there and have a positive attitude” to Northless (a band doing something unlike Milwaukee has heard before) until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to get them onto most festivals in town because—as you are right to point out with Heat Death or either of my bands—some projects are just too abrasive or non-mainstream for a festival audience. Speaking as a member of one or two of those bands, it’s a damn shame, but it’s also going to be the truth for as long as “popular music” is a relevant turn of phrase.
But lest I end this on a sour note or give the impression that I’m bitter, I’ll point out that, for those bands that fall into the more user-friendly 88Nine-ready sonic palates out there, you’re totally right in saying the squeaky wheel gets the grease, you don’t get a “yes” if you don’t ask, etc. That’s a lesson that even we noise-rocking cranks should be able to learn something from. But even then I’d caution any musician reading this to take your sage advice of “change your placement in the equation” and ask themselves what that advice means to them. If it just means enthusiasm, playing out as much as possible, and networking, networking, networking, hey, best of luck! But if by changing your place you find yourself sanding off your edges, you may find you’ve become an easier fit, but will any of the day drinkers notice?