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There’s a new concert series jolting Milwaukee’s live-music scene

(Clockwise from upper left) Disq, Graysea, Okay Omen and Sex, Fear.
Courtesy of the artists
(Clockwise from upper left) Disq, Graysea, Okay Omen and Sex, Fear.

Music Go Round and Volta Records have very two cool things in common: They’re both metro Milwaukee music mainstays, and they’re both presenters of a newer, scene-centric concert series held at Cactus Club in Bay View.

Created in 2022 by Milwaukee-based musician, DJ and writer Sahan Jayasuriya, the series aims to showcase newer and lesser-known acts looking to “bridge the gap and foster relationships between the music scenes in Milwaukee and other cities in the Midwest.”

Technically in its infancy, the showcase has notched a couple of events thus far but wants to keep building. What it’s brought to the table so far is a step in the direction of solidifying a more vibrant local music scene for all ages, utilizing a grassroots, community ethos. This Saturday brings yet another step forward: a half-Milwaukee, half-Madison lineup of Disq, Graysea, Okay Omen and Sex, Fear (plus sets by Volta Records DJs.)

Jayasuirya thought the two Milwaukee shops were the perfect fit for a series designed to directly support its scene. Volta Records may be best remembered as the former Greenfield location of the Exclusive Company. And although its branding is new, its drive is the same: to bring great music in various formats to music nerds in the greater Milwaukee area.

Music Go Round in Greenfield has likewise become notorious for being the go-to resource for working musicians in Milwaukee. Affordable drums, guitars, amps, pedals and strings? Check.

“Record stores, music shops, etc. used to play such a visible and active role in the local, live-music community, and I just wanted to see that sort of thing happen again,” Jayasuirya noted. “Additionally, there was a desire to bridge gaps between scenes in other cities that exist beyond individual connections made by artists through their own out-of-town gigs. Music Go Round and Volta, to me, are somewhat of a rarity in the age of streaming and web-based music retail, respectively, and having them involved with the series seemed like a no-brainer.”

Bert Zweber of Music Go Round and Jennifer Young of Volta Records gave us the scoop on why they both signed on to the series, and how their individual and collective shops are going the extra mile to help fortify the scene — starting in Milwaukee, and then gradually rippling out to Wisconsin and beyond.

Bert, tell us about how Music Go Round serves the Milwaukee music community and live show scene, especially in recent years.

BZ: We’ve always seen ourselves as a go-to spot for local musicians as it relates to gear. We pride ourselves on helping to pair people with the gear that suits their needs and wants, not just ringing up a sale. Since we have such an emphasis on taking trades and buying gear musicians no longer use, we've seen a lot of musicians step through the process from beginner to active participant in the Milwaukee music scene.

We particularly love sponsoring all-ages events, as it's the key to a strong local music scene. When younger people see that there is an audience for their music and places to perform, they are more likely to stick with it and progress as musicians. We’ve also provided backline support for cause-driven events around town in a pretty low-key manner.

What are some trends that you've noticed in the scene? More interest in electronics? Home recording? Unusual instruments?

BZ: Social media has really broken down the barriers to creating and consuming content. We see a lot of our customers posting videos of themselves playing recent purchases, even if they’re not experienced with the instrument. That’s cool to see, as it’s super-authentic. People in general have been gravitating toward higher-quality gear as well. It seems that when so many things are meant to be thrown away, things that are built to last have more appeal.

What's the average age of someone who walks through your doors?

BZ: We really see the entire spectrum at the shop every single day — 14 to 35 is probably where we’re strongest, though.

Jennifer, same question: How does Volta Records — and the Exclusive Company before it — serve the Milwaukee music community, including the live-performance part?

JY: Volta Records is a spot where music lovers can find old favorites and discover new music. Our team members are experts, and love helping customers learn and experience new artists. We have a local music section in both vinyl and CD — and would absolutely put one in cassettes if needed — and just restarted a consignment program to help local artists get their music to customers.

While we don't have a stage, we are open to having acoustic performances in the store, especially on special days like Record Store Day. We wanted to be part of the show series to help do more to promote local music around the area.

We hear all the time how popular vinyl is right now. What's a guesstimated percentage of vinyl purchases vs. CDs (or tapes)?

JY: Since Volta opened in July, about 60% of music sales are vinyl, and 40% are CD, with just a sliver for tapes. They are a small but loyal group.

Like Music Go Round, our customer base is extremely varied. We have young children picking out music with their parents and retirees who are excited to have time to listen to more music. Extremes would be 6 to 85, more typical might be 16 to 55. The younger generation is really into vinyl right now.

What has the greater Milwaukee area been lacking as far as resources go for music lovers and musicians of all ages? And has there been anything available that came close to providing what you're mentioning?

BZ: I think there is a little something for everyone in town currently, but you may have to dig a bit to find it. Social media can be an echo chamber, so relying on that as your primary source for what’s available will limit your options. Listen to all the stations that promote Milwaukee music, actively go to the local shops that advertise on their airwaves, click the links of sponsors that support them. Broadening that exposure should get you tuned in to everything the city has to offer pretty quick.

Most importantly, don't be stingy with likes and shares for artists that you already know and like. It costs you nothing to help spread the word.

JY: I would love to see more variety and promotion of shows in venues outside of downtown. I think Milwaukee has a great arts and music scene, with lots of places for people to go see great music. I bet there's a lot happening outside of downtown, too, and I want to help find and share those venues.

Cactus Club (and other venues and establishments) have certainly offered all-ages shows. What's the biggest struggle in getting more venues to get onboard?

BZ: I don't think the struggle is to get more venues; it’s getting a scene built up around the idea of consuming live music. In a city of our size, it shouldn't be problematic to find enough kids to sell out 150-capacity rooms one Sunday afternoon each month, but somehow we haven't collectively figured that out yet.

JY: Totally concur with Bert here. Nothing to add.

Do you feel like the Milwaukee music scene is a little insular? What changes would you like to see?

BZ: If you have the mentality of someone who only goes to a show if they “know someone” that will be there in attendance or are familiar with the artist, that definitely will put you on an island. Go see bands you haven’t seen before. Talk to a stranger here and there.

JY: I'm pretty new to the Milwaukee local live music scene, so I'm not in a position to comment on that. But I will say I'm really happy that Sahan is working so hard to bring in bands from all over. It's always good to see a band you've never heard before.

So many young artists have to do everything themselves — record, produce, distribute and book their own tours, just to start. How could record shops like Volta and/or hubs like Music Go Round offer support? 

BZ: What we are doing with these shows is a very small step toward direct support of those artists. Step one is covering the direct production costs and helping to promote these shows. It helps to increase what artists get paid at the end of the night and hopefully extend their social reach. We’re actively working on next steps behind the scenes currently — but, as a hint, keep your eye on what is going on with Cactus+ .

JY: In addition to the show-series support already happening, Volta would be happy to put local music in the store and have some musicians play a set in-store. We have a dedicated area for show posters and can help with social media promotion.

What do you both hope this series will foster in the music community in Milwaukee and beyond?

BZ: We just want to see local bands play sold-out shows to local fans.

JY: I would love to see a love of live music grow and thrive in our community. Streaming is great, and so is playing physical media music on an amazing stereo system. But there's nothing quite like the feel and experience of live shows. The more people who get to experience that, the better.

What can we expect for this upcoming show April 29?

BZ: The kind of show I want to go to, where the genre isn’t followed across the entire night. You should expect each of these shows to be eclectic and not like the last.

JY: What Bert said — plus awesome DJs to keep the vibe going between sets!

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee