So, How Did Milwaukee Do at SXSW?

Milwaukee acts critique MilwaukeeHome's inaugural Austin experiment

Mar. 18, 2014
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In the lead up to this year’s South by South Music festival in Austin, MilwaukeeHome’s plans to premiere a daylong stage spotlighting more than two dozen Milwaukee acts were invariably described with one of two words: “ambitious” or “overambitious,” depending on how any given commentator viewed the stage’s chances of success. And indeed last Wednesday there were signs that the MilwaukeeHome team had bitten off more than they could chew. The stage started behind schedule and was hampered by technical issues. A live stream video of the stage, a key promise of the promoters’ aggressive fundraising pitch, never happened, and most disconcertingly, for all the promotion the stage received here in Milwaukee, it hardly had any in Austin, leaving many performers to play for a nearly empty room.

None of these issues were particularly unique to MilwaukeeHome’s stage. Even showcases with far more formidable sponsorship than Milwaukee’s run behind schedule during SXSW, and throughout the festival countless bands find themselves playing to smaller crowds than they’d anticipated, outgunned by bigger, sexier shows with celebrity headliners. As anybody who has ever attended knows, disappointment runs rampant at SXSW. By and large, though, the Milwaukee acts that made it to Austin this year say that the trek was worth it and they’d do it again next year.

“The MilwaukeeHome stage crew did a crazy fantastic job putting this all together,” said Scott Starr of Fever Marlene. “Yeah, so what if the show started 30 minutes late? Who cares if the sound wasn’t amazing? Half the shows we saw at any given club ran into technical failures and production hiccups. It’s a part of the game. It’s understandable. And it’s far from what the festival is about. It's about being there … If you're not playing SXSW, hopefully you're satisfied with playing local clubs and working a day job. If you’re not playing a show, you’re networking and talking to other bands about sharing shows or contacts. You’re drinking with bands you listen to on a day to day basis and sharing stories about touring, managers, festivals, booking agents, etc. There’s no other place to have that experience than to be in Austin during SXSW.”

Starr says Fever Marlene broke even on the trip.  “We managed to pull in two licensing deals,” he said. “More than likely these contracts will pay for our entire trip and then some.”

Rapper Pizzle walked away from the festival content as well. “We made a lot of connections and met people in person whom we only had only maintained an online relationship with, when is always a beneficial,” he said. “The MKE stage was definitely a good stepping stone for future events. Having people from Milwaukee come out to support the stage transcended into Milwaukee having notable presence throughout the entire festival. We ended up at a mansion party for major blog site in which Milwaukee was shouted out numerous times in between performances by artists such as Ty$ of Taylor Gang, Gunplay of Maybach Music and Dom Kennedy. I’m definitely looking forward to being a part of the festivities come this time next year.”

Rapper Klassik admits that he was taken aback by the sheer amount of rappers blanketing the festival—“Like, literally everyone was a rapper, with a crew or label, parading the streets,” he notes—but says he was encouraged by the response he received during his live shows with Fresh Cut Collective and also plans to return next year.  

Several attendees agreed on areas of improvement if MilwaukeeHome should attempt another stage next year. Thirty bands on one bill is too many, they agreed, and the indoor stage needed a more visible presence from the street. “Cielo was a nice enough venue, but festival goers really tend to stay and watch more acts at the outdoor/patio venues when it’s nice weather,” noted Klassik’s manager Louis DeFino. “I would also recommend finding an outdoor/patio venue that functions as a ‘destination’ for people attending the festival.”

Also important: realistic expectations. No performer is “discovered” at SXSW on the basis of just one performance, yet for many acts the MilwaukeeHome showcase was their only gig for the week. Twelve hundred miles is a long way to travel to play to play just once for a couple dozen people.

“The vibe that I got from everyone at that Milwaukee stage was that nobody was really playing much at all,” comments Boy Blue’s Josh Loeffelholz. “I know that Hugh Bob and the Hustle, those guys had a lot of shows booked, and Kane Place Record Club and Vic and Gab had outside shows, too, but a lot of acts didn’t. For us it was a very long week; we played 10 shows in six or seven days, so we didn’t hang around as much. I mean, it was great to see everybody from Milwaukee, but we didn’t go down there to hang out with Milwaukee bands. We went to spread out and meet some contacts. But that’s something you learn. When we went down there last year we had just one show, so that was our learning curve. We learned how South By works, which is pretty crucial.”

As for the MilwaukeeHome showcase, Loffelholz says, “it’s hard because it wasn’t in a great spot. Anytime it’s an indoor bar, especially when the music isn’t pointed out toward the street, it’s hard to bring people in there, especially if it’s just Milwaukee acts. I just don’t know how you can pack a place with just Milwaukee acts when you’re competing against literally the biggest names in music. But I applaud MilwaukeeHome for what they’re doing; it’s just a hard thing to do. I guess maybe they can use this year as their learning curve.”


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