There was a time when getting on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine was the ultimate goal of any band, and getting ample radio airplay was the quintessential status symbol of "making it." It may have worked for The Beatles; hell, it may have worked for John Denver, but climbing the corporate music ladder proved not to be for everyone.
Enter The Sex Pistols in 1976, playing their first gig to an audience of about 40. Sure, they eventually got signed to Virgin Records (and EMI and A&M, all in quick succession, if not in that order), but their songs were getting banned by the BBC left and right. When the punk movement took off, it was, in many ways, a rebellion against manufactured pop music and the marionette strings perceived to be attached to musicians by their labels and managers.
During this time the DIY ethic ran rampant, and understandably so. What better way to say "piss off!" to the corporate music industry than by disregarding it altogether and doing it yourself? Suddenly, bands everywhere were taking their music back to the places where it originated, the basement. With the rise of the almighty basement show, the scene was (literally) going underground.
In Milwaukee, Riverwest in particular, the last decade or so has seen kids organize to successfully turn their homes into music venues when bands had no where else to play. Places like the Twitch House, Endless Nameless, The Monkey House, Canadaland and The Ship Yard thrived on word of mouth, the Internet and show flyers, and seemed to be successfully filling what was (and still is) seen as a large void in Milwaukee's music scene: all-ages venues.
"Basement shows are a completely different experience than anything else. They're intimate, really cheap and a lot more fun," says Corey Baumann, who lived in the Punk Mahal house on Milwaukee's South Side, which hosted shows from 2000 to 2003. "You don't know what to expect at a basement show. At a place like The Rave, you have guys searching you, bouncers telling you what to do, and a huge barricade blocking a six-foot stage. I think it misinforms younger kids what rock 'n' roll is really about."
For Baumann and a houseful of musicians, rock 'n' roll was about keeping it fun, accessible and being supportive of each other.
"There were seven of us living there, and most of us were in bands. Hosting shows for our friends just seemed like the right thing to do."
And seeing a handful of bands for a few bucks at a friend's house seems like the right thing to do for a lot people -- mostly high school and college students -- who love music but can't afford all the extra charges tacked on to concert tickets, or aren't 21 yet.
"The beauty of a basement show is that it feels like you are outside of the music industry," says Temper Temper bassist Andy Menchal. "It's something that's bigger than dollars and cents. The only people willing to do this are doing it out of love for music and good times and nothing else. I have a lot of respect for that."
Wolfbite's Chuck Engel agrees. "It's a need to fulfill a role in what's really a global network of punk rock venues and trade. It's like an 'underground railroad,' of sorts. A lot of the people who live or run the house venues also tour the country with bands who go from state to state and play in similar venues."
Baumann, Menchal and Engel agree that the network of people hosting basement shows across the country have made a significant impact on smaller bands' ability to tour. "What it comes down to is low cost and low risk," says Engel. "The idea of paying a $250 fee to rent some hall can be really intimidating when your personal income is already really low and you have no idea how many people might show up."
With basement shows, he says, a band is almost guaranteed the loyal following of friends and the small core of people who always show up because they know there'll be music, it'll be fun and it's easily affordable. Plus, there are no overhead charges or guarantees to worry about meeting.
"Little or no overhead equates to a low 'donation' for attendees, and all the money goes to the bands," says Engel. "Some houses take a cut for upkeep or cleaning purposes, but taking an employable cut off of a house show is totally crass and discouraged."
Perhaps it is this sense of equality and camaraderie that is keeping several Milwaukee bands like The Mistreaters, IfIHadAHiFi and the Modern Machines -- who could easily fill bigger venues -- returning to the basement to play shows.
"I think a lot of touring bands, especially smaller ones, would rather play a basement over a bar or club," says Baumann. "There isn't a backstage to hang out at so you get to meet people in the area and get to know about the scene. That really helps kids get into (your music), in my opinion, because you don't come off as a rock star."
The accessibility of the musicians to their fans and vice versa helps to create friendships and relationships, and with everyone essentially working toward the same goal, the result is a solid network of support.
"It's a punk rock rite of passage," says Menchal, who has both hosted and attended numerous basement shows. "Now that I'm older, I don't go to them as much," says the 25-year-old. "But I think they are a necessary component to a cohesive music scene. They are a stepping stone."
And even though his band Temper Temper has signed with Revelation Records and toured extensively, Menchal says his band would still play a basement show. "And we do, as long as it's booked smartly. Some places are really organized with good equipment. It makes all the difference in the world. The Bremen House in Milwaukee (Riverwest) was like that. They were seven years strong because they did things professionally. I saw some of the best shows in that basement, including Tristeza, The Faint, Jimmy Eat World and The Rapture."
Yet, despite the idyllic image of a thriving underground music scene, almost everyone involved agrees that there are problems.
Since these houses are almost always in residential areas, there are threats of noise violations, house wear and tear, and, most importantly, the legal ramifications of running a music venue without a license.
"Some would say that the police in Milwaukee are already 'cracking down' on basement shows, but I could see it getting a lot worse," says Engel, who also lived in the Punk Mahal for a while. "Having 75 people packed into a small basement with booze and cigarettes and whatever is admittedly somewhat unsafe. Imagine crowd surfing at a basement show! I can still picture this one kid getting passed on top of people and his face rubbing on all these asbestos-covered pipes."
And realistically, almost any sort of indoor assembly can potentially be unsafe, which is why there are building codes and high insurance costs for legitimate venues.
So with kids getting slapped with $250 fines, which, for some, could easily be half of their monthly income, what drives them to continually put their houses on the line for this?
"It's a love of music and I don't think their legal record really matters to them," says Engel. "To really understand it, I think one has to separate himself from the adult mindset of careers, loan payments and social reputation. Think of a more nihilistic place in your life where the only reason you really need money is to cover your rent, minimal food, and to buy booze."
Another big motivator is the lack of legitimate and regular all-ages venues in the area. Admittedly, it's tough for all-ages venues to thrive because they can't sell alcohol (which is what bar venues bank on). And the reality is that if the venues aren't making any money on the shows, the bands are making even less.
The good news is that there are people making steps in the right direction. A group called the Milwaukee Venue Project formed in 2002 and has already raised more than $5,000 for a permanent all-ages venue in Milwaukee that would potentially be non-profit and run by volunteers.
Plus, some existing venues have been doing their part to pick up the slack a when a house that hosted shows gets shut down. "The Riverwest Commons has been hosting a lot of bands that used to just play in basements," says Baumann. "The owner just wants to help out the bands and he doesn't even take a profit."
But in the end, even a charitable bar can't replace the experience and impact of a Milwaukee basement show. And for some music aficionados, a bar or venue just isn't where they want to see their music.
"In some ways, the popularity of basement shows has created this weird divide," says Engel. "Some of the basement show kids have adopted this reverse snobbery and won't allocate funds to clubs. They want it to be on their terms."
And they're not the only ones. Motivated by the same desire to provide smaller, out of town bands with shows in Milwaukee, Linsey and John Sieger have offered up their Wauwatosa home to bands for a few years now. Usually catering to a slightly older crowd than most Riverwest shows, these "house concerts" essentially run by the same principles: the Siegers charge at the door, guests bring their own refreshments and the money goes to the bands.
As long as doing it yourself remains the punk rock thing to do (or just the right thing to do), and bands and fans continue to benefit, the basement show tradition is likely to survive and encompass the next generation of die hards.
"Milwaukee's an amazing city that stays true to its roots," says Menchal. "But at the same time, there aren't that many resources here. It's a working class town, and you have to rely on your friends to get a following. We work with what we've got, and through the basement scene, Milwaukee's getting the shows that the venues often see as too risky to book, and bands are getting exposure they might have never seen otherwise. In that sense, it's really an important institution for Milwaukee."
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”