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When small-town bands aspire to make it big, they typically move to a larger city. For bands in Wisconsin, that big city is Milwaukee. With a population of nearly 570K, Milwaukee is the Dairy State’s largest city, but it’s still relatively small when compared to nearby Chicago, the country’s third-largest city — which is just a 90-minute drive down I-94.
So where do Milwaukee bands go when the city feels too small for them? Nowhere. They’re happy where they’re at.
Milwaukee isn’t necessarily a city that’s well known for its music. Instead, its reputation comes from its expertise in crafting a lot of beer, its waterfront location on the shores of Lake Michigan, and, lately, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominance on the basketball court. Despite the fact that the city hasn’t earned a reputation for its contributions to music, it has birthed punk bands like the Violent Femmes, guitar legend Les Paul, and one of the largest music festivals in the world, Summerfest.
But recently, it’s also been the home of a burgeoning DIY scene that’s centered around friendship, support, and a love of all things Milwaukee.
“If you’re [a part of the] audience, or just a music lover, Milwaukee has so much to offer,” says Parker Schultz, 24, a musician and founder of Social Cig, an indie surf-rock project who’s become one of the scene’s most beloved bands. Schultz grew up in West Bend, WI, a 40-minute drive north of Milwaukee. The Wisconsin native, who released his third LP Cheesehead last year, moved to the city to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and immediately felt welcomed into the city’s thriving DIY scene.
[Social Cig / Photo by Bobbie Knopp]
“Everyone knows everyone, and we’re inclusive,” Schultz says. “If you’re a newer band or if you want to start a band, it’s easy if you really want to get involved in this scene. Everyone is super down to support something that you want to bring into fruition if you have an artistic vision that you want to draw out. Everyone’s so friendly in the Midwest.”
That support crosses genre lines, because the DIY scene isn’t confined to just one sound. Schultz’ Social Cig is decidedly surf-rock, despite Milwaukee being hundreds of miles from an ocean; fellow scene staples riotnine! are a blistering screamo group; newcomer band Doubter are an energetic and exciting pop-punk band; and scene veterans of the past few years BUG MOMENT are a self-described “emo-adjacent pop” group.
Cleo Jackowick, 20, the guitarist for riotnine!, says that’s part of what has helped the scene to become as tight-knit and friendly as it is. Jackowick grew up in Waukesha, a suburb of the city that’s a 20-minute drive west. She’s been involved with the scene for several years, commuting in to attend shows, but has become a more active participant since moving to the city last year.
“Milwaukee is a smaller city than Chicago or LA, so you get a little bit more variation. You have a lot of people who listen to everything and go to shows for everything,” Jackowick says. “We branch out, we make friends with people [who] make very different music than us. The fact that it’s a small city, it’s less cliquey and everyone hangs out with everyone.”
Going along with that friendliness, there’s little, if any, competition in the scene. Rather, it’s a group of musicians and artists who see each other as friends and go out of their way to help one another. Schultz likens the Milwaukee scene to the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and even has a system to help support fellow musicians. He explains that he made a spreadsheet with all of the artists in the scene, so if Social Cig can’t take on a show when a touring band comes into town, he’s able to recommend another local band.
“Playing a bill with a national act or someone coming through from a different city or state, and allowing our scene to make connections outside of Wisconsin, is really important,” Schultz says. “It’s definitely huge to have that local support on these local bills to bring more people out. Milwaukee has a lot of resources and people willing to help out, you just have to find them.”
In April, Milwaukee-based garage-punk band Scam Likely opened for the Smoking Popes and Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls at the Pabst Theater, a 1,300-capacity venue and landmark of the city that was originally built in 1894. Later this year, Schultz is playing an all-local lineup alongside BUG MOMENT, indie-punk band Diet Lite, and surf-rock group Fellow Kinsman at Turner Hall Ballroom, a nearly 1,000-capacity historic venue in the city. Clearly, the scene is making momentum.
[riotnine! / Photo by Eli Johnson]
Another one of those people willing to help local bands out is JJ Kaiser, the assistant talent buyer at the X-Ray Arcade, a venue in the nearby suburb of Cudahy that regularly plays host to shows stacked with local bands, as well as touring acts, from Pansy Division to the Dollyrots. Kaiser’s been booking shows in the Milwaukee scene since 2016, both house shows out of a basement and for venues like the X-Ray Arcade.
“The local scene is very important to [X-Ray Arcade],” Kaiser says. “Without the scene’s support and without a lot of those bands supporting us, we wouldn’t be nearly as cool of a spot as we are.”
But local bands don’t have to get on a show with a nationally-known act in order to draw a crowd. There’s a revolving door of house venues near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus that open and close with each new class that enters the school, including the Washroom and the Litehouse, as well as venues and bars throughout the city, that host regular all-local lineups.
In December of 2022, riotnine! played a show at Cactus Club, a live music venue and bar in the city’s Bay View neighborhood, along with fellow local bands Doubter, Bug Moment, Honey Creek, and Unturned. Early into the show, the 200-capacity room was already overflowing with people, and later the venue sold out. That same night, another all-local bill sold out a house show on the east side. Jackowick saw that night as a special moment, and proof of the love that the DIY community has for its local scene.
“I can’t speak for a lot of other scenes, but I do think that what we have going on here is special,” Jackowick says. “Where else are you seeing local bands sell out 300-capacity rooms regularly?”
A lot of people in the scene attribute the recent passion to the COVID-19 pandemic. When venues began opening up and shows started to get booked again in 2021, members of the scene were glad to see live music again, and new members were excited to get involved.
“People were stuck inside for a year-and-a-half, so a lot of people are ready to go out and do stuff again,” Kaiser says. “Milwaukee’s had high points and low points, but since I’ve started booking shows, this is one of the best spots that [the scene’s] been in.”
Rather than focusing on past successes or planning far in advance in the future, Milwaukee DIY bands are enjoying the moment that they’re in, and appreciating that they’re taking part in an extraordinarily friendly scene.
“The scene’s been [like] a revolving door since I’ve been in it [since] 2018, with old venues disappearing and new ones popping up,” Schultz says. “[Right now], it feels so magical and special. Sometimes it feels like it’s going to burst. There’s so much going on and there’s so much support, and it’s not stopping.”
[Photo by Bailey Fiste]
Schultz says that he and fellow members of the scene are trying to hone in on this energy, and keep it going. They’re doing that by helping to foster support for newer bands on the scene, like Doubter, who started playing shows in late 2022.
“People are very supportive,” says Doubter’s bassist Byron Nelson, 30. “Bands really hype each other up online, and they always come out to shows. [Doubter vocalist and guitarist] Cameron Murdoch and I went to the first Litehouse show, and I know all of BUG MOMENT came out to our show at Anodyne [Coffee Roasting Company]. Everybody in the scene is a little sweetie.”
Members of the scene are enjoying living in the moment, and there’s no plans to abandon the city in the future. Both Jackowick and Schultz say they would love to tour throughout the country more in the future, but ultimately Milwaukee is where their community is based and will remain their home.
“I was a part of the scene before the pandemic, and the way that it functions now, it’s so much more wholesome and there’s a siblinghood here that we have,” Jackowick says. “The pandemic was a big gamechanger for the scene. Post-pandemic, people seem less worried about fame, less worried about making it big — and more worried about serving their community.”