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Is Milwaukee's Electronic Music Scene on the Brink of a Boom?

NiceFM wants to help make it happen

Mar. 7, 2017
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Donny Jankowski, Dashcam

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but a hitherto uncelebrated corner of the Milwaukee music scene may be on the brink of a renaissance. It’s a narrative that should be familiar at this point, following the growing interest in Milwaukee’s crowded rap scene, and more recently, the city’s jazz resurgence. Those scenes continue to do extraordinarily well for themselves, as does Milwaukee’s rock scene, the longtime anchor of the city’s live music calendars. For the last year or so, though, some of the Milwaukee’s most exciting music has come from a far less exposed source: the city’s fringe electronic music scene.

The scene hasn’t witnessed this kind of energy since the ’90s. The Noh Life collective is creating some killer club music for people who hate going to clubs, while the modernist EDM crew Close Up of the Serene is finding inventive ways to bridge dance music’s past and future. The city’s monthly MELT shows have shined a spotlight on some of the scene’s outsider sounds, a goal shared by the label Radiograffiti. On the other end of the accessibility spectrum, KIINGs are doing a fantastic job making wide-appeal electronic pop for the Radio Milwaukee set. And, for the first time in ages, the scene has a potential star in Luxi, whose sensationally dreamy new album, Geometric Universe, sounds like, if not her crossover moment, then the path toward one.

So there’s a lot to be excited about. Focusing on all that potential, though, overlooks some of the harsher realities. As most promoters will tell you, attendance at most auteuristic electronic bills—the ones that prioritize music over bottle service—is still pretty modest. Most of this music isn’t receiving any airplay. And the scene hasn’t attracted much attention at all from the local media, let alone even publications beyond the city. For all its promise, the scene is still just a blip on an extremely overcrowded radar.

Donny Jankowski is aware of all of this. It doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm any, though. “I’m thinking that the scene is just about to burst,” says Jankowski, who produces posh, velvety synthwave music under the moniker Dashcam. “There’s so much excitement right now, and a ton of creative energy—all of these talented individuals out there making music in their bedrooms and in their studios.”

It was in hopes of channeling that excitement that, last year, Jankowski co-founded the label NiceFM, which has already assembled an enviable roster that includes Milwaukee artists such as Luxi, the electro-funk project Hot Science and tropical house producer Plaid Hawaii. So far it’s released several online compilations, and on Friday it’ll release a Luxi remix EP featuring six of its artists.

NiceFM isn’t a label in the traditional sense, however. There are no contracts or expectations of exclusivity; many of its artists have deals or affiliations with other labels. One of them, Tyler St Clair of Datarunner, operates the label Radiograffiti. Jankowski himself is set to release his upcoming Dashcam project on Gloss Records.

“We wanted to distinguish ourselves, because these days anybody can launch ‘a label’ per se with a Bandcamp page and start selling songs for 99 cents apiece,” Jankowski says. “We’re trying to avoid that. We don’t have any songs for sale right now. Instead, what I’m trying to do is develop the label as a collective and to build a cohesive identity and an environment where artists can feed off of each other.”

So NiceFM is trying to create a little structure for a scene that might otherwise be too decentralized to capitalize on its moment. And perhaps just as importantly, it’s also trying to grow an audience for this music, something that Jankowski doesn’t see as a hard sell. Electronic music is squeezing market share away from rock all over the world, and even the rock music that gets the most buzz these days owes as much to electronic music as anything else. It’s not a stretch to imagine listeners into bands like Chvrches, Sylvan Esso or Radiohead making the leap, and NiceFM’s roster is as good of a gateway as any. They may not make pop music in the traditional sense, but it’s all pretty accessible.

“We’re going for the summer vibe,” Jankowski says. “I want to make music you could put on and people would think is nice; something that someone might share with friends. You know, I’m trying to make it so it’s as accessible as possible, without sacrificing the avant, the part that makes it interesting.” To underscore that, the design aesthetic on NiceFM’s website and cover art is bright and inviting—in obvious contrast to, say, the doomy, industrial iconography of Radiograffiti’s releases.

Will it be enough to convert listeners, or to help Milwaukee catch up to cities with far more established electronic scene? And what about the fact that even NiceFM’s most polished, presentable artists haven’t found any regular local radioplay?

“It will come,” insists Jankowski, who says he’s playing the long game. “It just takes patience. We do want our music to play on 88.9, and it will when they’re ready to play it and when we’re at the level that we should be. We’re kind of on the cusp, so right now it’s about pushing it over and getting to the next level. We’re trying new things. It’s not what everyone is used to hearing. We’re not just a bunch of rock outfits.

“It’s hard,” Jankowski continues, “because Milwaukee doesn’t get a ton of national hype, so we don’t have that leg to stand on. We’ve got to prop ourselves up within the community. It starts from all of us. We don’t have an established industry here, so we’re writing our own rule books.”

NiceFM’s music is streaming at NiceFM.org.

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