Third annual Yellow Phone Music Conference calls up a local legend
He may have left town for Los Angeles over a decade ago, but it seems Jeff Castelaz's heart never left Milwaukee.
Back in the '90s, Castelaz was the manager of Citizen King, the local alternative rock band that hit it big with the single "Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out)." The band proudly wore its Milwaukee heritage on its sleeve, decorating its breakthrough album "Mobile Estates" with various Milwaukee landmarks like The Calling – the orange thing in front of the Art Museum – and the U.S. Bank Center, called the Firstar Center back when the album was released in 1999.
"We were obsessed not only with how do we get ahead, but how do we get Milwaukee ahead as a music scene," Castelaz said. "We did our part to do that, and I'm very proud of that time. It was an incredible time in my life. I look back on it all the time with absolute pride and love."
Citizen King's success ended up drawing Castelaz out to the west coast in 2000, where he managed the group until their breakup two years later. Castelaz landed on his feet, however, co-founding Dangerbird Records in 2004 and attracting a line-up of artists that currently includes Silversun Pickups, Minus the Bear and Sea Wolf. He's now the president of Elektra Records, the home of hit-makers like Cee-Lo Green, Ed Sheeran and Fitz & the Tantrums.
Even with all of the work and pressures that come with heading a massive record label (as well as the Pablove Foundation, a nonprofit pediatric cancer charity he co-founded with his wife Jo Ann Thrailkill in May 2008), Castelaz still finds time to frequently return to his hometown, promote the city and "get lots of great Alterra espresso."
It's not just recently rebranded coffee that's bringing Castelaz back to Milwaukee this week, however. The local music legend is the keynote speaker at the third annual Yellow Phone Music Conference, which starts Thursday night and runs through the weekend.
The conference, started by Doug Johnson, David Silbaugh and Scott Ziel, is intended as a four-day intersection between musicians, industry pros and fans. During the day on Friday and Saturday, several panels and discussions are scheduled at the Hyatt Regency with themes like "Video Didn't Kill The Radio Star. Neither Did The Internet" and "Endorsement Deals and Sponsorships – Doesn't Anybody Like Me?"
The goal is to spread the kind of information young musicians and bands need to know in order to thrive in the cutthroat entertainment world while also giving them a chance to make crucial industry connections that can help make careers.
"At the end of the day, it's about vital artistry, great performances and songs that move people's hearts," Castelaz said. "But along the way, every artist or band needs a team around them. They don't do it on their own. Some people send their kids to baseball camp, basketball camp, theater camp, whatever. Music conferences feed that same function for adults. Up-and-coming bands and artists need practice on how to talk to people on the business side of things, how to listen to people at panels and find out what they're looking for."
Castelaz's keynote presentation is scheduled for Friday afternoon, where he plans to talk about his basic pillars of finding success in the music business.
"I like to talk to people about having a plan, getting up in the morning and chipping away at it," Castelaz said. "In my belief, that is the thing that has gotten everyone to where they are. I mean, Jimmy Page was a session guitarist who played on hundreds of singles in London. He played on some of the most saccharine pop stuff that was going on, but that was his way of getting up in the morning and chipping away at it. And, of course, I want to talk about music, too."
While the industry rules the day, the music takes over at night. Live performances are scattered across the Third Ward, including Spin, Fire on Water, The Irish Pub and Milwaukee Ale House. The bands range from local favorites – like Vic & Gab, The Delta Routine and I'm Not a Pilot – to groups hailing from Tennessee, Vermont, Canada and even across the pond in Liverpool.
"The great hope everybody has is to be discovered and to discover," Castelaz said.
The Milwaukee native hopes his hometown is a part of the discovery, as well. According to Castelaz, the city and the goals of the Yellow Phone Music Conference match each other perfectly. While other conferences – such as South By Southwest in Austin, Texas – have grown in terms of size and spectacle, potentially alienating amateur bands in process, Yellow Phone hopes to build more of a community with its attendees. And Milwaukee, notoriously a big city with a small town vibe, fits that mission.
"In some cases, people have an outdated idea of what Milwaukee is," Castelaz said. "The conference actually acts as a Trojan horse for the city overall."
Don't worry; it's just a Trojan horse delivering an invasion of music and insight into an industry constantly evolving in new ways.
"There's never been more great, vital music," Castelaz said. "It's very easy to be cynical and say that we're not selling as many records as we used to and that the whole world has gone to hell in a hand basket. But I just don't feel that way."
The Yellow Phone Music Conference starts Thursday night with the kick-off party at 7 p.m. Click here for more information on the rest of the conference.
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