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Does Milwaukee music need a "signature sound"?

When you think of Milwaukee music, does a particular genre or type of music typically come to mind?

Many major movements in popular music have been a result of a regional sound. Whether it is hip hop in New York, grunge in Seattle or numerous others, trends in popular music often come from a particular city pioneering a signature style. This is exactly what makes Milwaukee’s current music scene different, and possibly problematic.
Milwaukee currently has sort of a “DIY” scene. With no city blueprint from which artists can draw influence or mold their sound, we see a distinct range of styles. “There is nothing even close to a signature sound,” says Dan Backhaus, manager of the popular group GGOOLLDD. “This simultaneously makes it an exciting place for someone like me who likes lots of different types of music, and a difficult place for music industry folks to get their heads around.”

Several subgenres of rock, hip hop, r&b and pop all have found local success, proving that Milwaukee musicians can flourish within the city; but can they find national success?

Lack of national recognition

Unfortunately for many local artists, Milwaukee music has found little prosperity nationally, despite the impressive talent pool in recent years. Other than the occasional Violent Femmes or BoDeans, most people outside of Milwaukee would have trouble naming Milwaukee artists.

According to Backhaus, a current New York resident, “If I went to a show tonight in New York and asked 10 people what they think about about Milwaukee music, I’d get 10 blank stares.” But not due to a lack of talent.

 credit: Kelsea McCulloch

“The potential I see is absolutely insane.  Why isn’t Marielle Allschwang all over NPR?  D’Amato is an entertainer in the truest sense of the word.  ‘Whatever’ by NO/NO would be a huge single if it had any promotion.  Whips?  Whips are the best.  There is an alternate universe where all these folks are huge.”
Jake Balistreri, lead singer and guitarist of local band Soul Low, agrees. “What’s inspiring about Milwaukee bands is that they continue to create music without the expectation of national success, even if that means finding the money and time to pour into a project that might not have much financial return.”

Despite the lack of national recognition, Backhaus believes that a musical environment like Milwaukee’s can be more beneficial than it seems, referencing his experience with GGOOLLDD: “ Being in Milwaukee has allowed the band time to get their ‘stuff’ together while still relatively under the radar of the music industry.  If they had experienced the same relative level of quick success in Minneapolis or Chicago, the spotlight would have been on them too quickly.  If anything, Milwaukee is the perfect size microcosm for a band evolve in.”

credit: Michael Sears

Molly Roberts, lead singer of Milwaukee rock band Tigernite, also sees this wide range of music as a positive. “ A diversified scene means the music is accessible to all kinds of listeners, is inclusive to all types of players, raises the bar creatively for all of us and is ripe for collaborative projects across genres and creative disciplines,” said Roberts. She went on to say that success is ultimately in the hands of the artists: “It may not be that publications actively ignore Milwaukee music so much as Milwaukee musicians need to lay down the inferiority complex we perpetuate, recognize the merit of what we are creating and collectively take initiative to insist, “Listen to THIS”.

While these things may be true for some groups, we still continue to see little recognition on a larger scale. Would having a signature sound propel Milwaukee to the next level? Or does it need something else?

If I went to a show tonight in New York and asked 10 people what they think about about Milwaukee music, I’d get 10 blank stares.

What we can learn from other cities

It is not hard to find instances of a city’s signature sound bringing success for numerous artists. One current example is the trap scene of Atlanta. Branching out from the “dirty south” movement of the late 90s and early 2000s, rappers such as Gucci Mane and T.I. originated the trap movement, characterized by 808 bass samples and triplet hi hats. Today, many Atlanta trap rappers, such as Migos, Future and Young Thug, are reaching international popularity, even influencing hip hop artists nationally. But not all cities need a signature sound.

Chicago is proving that. Hip hop in the windy city has two major branches: the drill scene and the alternative scene. Influenced by trap and popularized by Chief Keef, the drill scene’s dark and ominous hip hop finds its home in the south side of Chicago. Conversely, the alternative hip hop scene, led by Chance the Rapper, is thriving while exploring a number of different subgenres, such as Chance’s gospel rap and Mick Jenkins’ elements of jazz. A city with the size and rich musical history of Chicago can be successful with such an eclectic range of styles, but it might not come so easily for a smaller city.

credit: Angela Weiss

Look no further than Minneapolis for the archetype on becoming known for music as a smaller city. Prior to the late 1970s, the only notable artist from Minneapolis was folk legend Bob Dylan, who moved to New York in his college years before rising to fame. Then, an undeniable superstar came along that single-handedly put Minneapolis on the musical map.

The legendary Prince debuted in 1978, creating what became known as the “Minneapolis sound,” with groups like Morris Day and the Time following suit. However, other genres later found recognition as well, such as rock groups like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, as well as the Rhymesayers hip hop collective.

Looking at Minneapolis’s situation, we can see a possibility for Milwaukee in the future. Much like Milwaukee, Minneapolis is a mid-sized, Midwestern city with an eclectic range of musical styles. The difference is that Minneapolis had someone who reached such superstardom people had no choice but to recognize it as a hub for popular music. While this is obviously much easier said than done, it appears Milwaukee’s best hope is to have that one ambassador that puts the nation on notice. Only time will tell us who that pioneer may be, or if there even will be one in the near future.