South By Southwest (SXSW) is one of the country’s biggest parties, a massive city-wide series of conferences and concerts, music and entertainment in Austin, Texas that brings people from all over the nation together. And for the first time in a few years, Milwaukee has just RSVPed yes to attend.
Last week, MilwaukeeHome, Hotel Foster, Flye Gang and Festival City, a new digital marketing company, announced that they were collaborating to bring a stage exclusively for Milwaukee bands and artists to the much buzzed-about festival. The MilwaukeeHome SXSW stage will come to life on Wednesday, March 12 with a day-long set of 25 Milwaukee-based artists showing Austin what they have to offer.
The massive line-up includes Vic and Gab, Fever Marlene, The Championship, Hugh Bob & The Hustle, Boy Blue, Soul Low, Kane Place Record Club, Midnight Reruns, Cool Myles, Pizzle, Ray Rizzy, Valid Camp, Webster X, Klassik, Joe Wray, Knoxx, Jayk, Temple and Dana Coppafeel, amongst many others.
Milwaukee rapper Ray Nitti is not only scheduled to perform on the MilwaukeeHome SXSW stage, but he also served as one of the lead catalysts for the project.
"It started over the summer," Nitti said. "I was really just in my garage, just trying to figure out that we have all of this diverse talent here in Milwaukee, but for some reason, we don’t have our own market here. We saw a need for the artists to come together, separate whatever barriers there are, make it about the love of the music and the love of the art, and create our own platform, united as one city."
Nitti took his idea to Melissa Thornton, the founder and creator of the MilwaukeeHome brand. Thornton admittedly didn’t know much about the music scene or how to make something like a festival stage come together. Enter John Revord, the owner of Hotel Foster, who has plenty of experience booking shows and interacting with some of Milwaukee’s hottest up-and-coming bands.
"It’s like I was one cliff, and Nitti was another cliff, and then Melissa laid across and connected the two cliffs," Revord said.
What started originally as an intriguing idea in the summer, bringing three separate people from three separate aspects of Milwaukee together, caught fire barely three weeks ago.
"It was like meeting over coffee to we have a venue to we have a contract to sh*t we better do something," Revord joked.
Two weeks ago, the team dropped a logo and announced their plans for a stage at SXSW. The announcement, according to Thornton, dropped like a bomb. Musicians were coming into her store to perform in the hopes of making the cut. Nitti’s phone was blowing up constantly with text messages. Revord said he had to go silent on social media it was so intense.
"That feeling, for an artist to say, ‘I’m going to go to the MilwaukeeHome store and perform,’ that tells me that there’s market that can be created here," Nitti said.
"There’s so much hidden talent that even we don’t know about," Thornton said. "They’re just coming out because finally there’s a platform."
From an unexpectedly large number of applications and musician submissions, the MilwaukeeHome SXSW stage creative team selected 25 bands and artists stretching across multiple genres that they believed would help make a splash for the stage – and for Milwaukee – in Austin.
"It was tough," Revord said. "It’s a fine balance between having a hugely successful event and being able to feature all of these small guys that you really, really in your heart want to feature."
From there, the MilwaukeeHome stage crew mixed the various bands and genres together into what Nitti called "a good gumbo" of music. Instead of a block of rap and a block of indie rock, they intertwined the acts in the hopes of getting different groups of people together, interacting and listening to music both new and familiar. They hope it’s a set – a free one as well – that will draw some attention from the SXSW crowd, a goal that’s becoming harder and harder as the festival over the years has become more commercial and (not to sound like a hipster) mainstream.
There is still work to be done. Revord noted that they are looking for backline equipment and gear that people can donate. Transporting the 25-plus groups, volunteers and all of the equipment is also a concern ("If anybody has a bus and wants to drive a bunch of young, ambitious folks from Milwaukee down to Austin, we’ll accept it," Revord said).
The big thing, however, is funding. In order to help pay for the stage and transporting the bands down to Texas, the MilwaukeeHome stage collective started an Indiegogo donation page with the final goal of $20,000. As the page’s description notes, many bands operate at a loss when they come down to SXSW, and they’re hoping to avoid that for their Milwaukee groups. The online fundraiser runs through February 17 and offers several rewards for donating (other than the satisfaction of knowing you helped send off some Milwaukee bands potentially to a breakthrough).
The MilwaukeeHome SXSW stage’s mission, however, doesn’t end on March 12 down in Austin. After the festival ends down in Texas, Nitti, Revord and Thornton want to bring the stage – and hopefully a little bit of national spotlight – back home to Milwaukee and start a festival of their own in the hopes of bringing the city, whose issues with segregation have been greatly documented, together.
"Milwaukee is this great place," Nitti said. "We have great statistics and bad statistics, but we’re saying it’s not about that. We want to represent a different Milwaukee and show what it can be."
"Look at a Brewer game," Revord said. "Everyone goes to a Brewer game wearing a Brewer shirt, and for that small moment, for nine innings, we all get along. We’re all there for the same purpose: We all want to see our team win. As soon as we leave, though, people divide. The MilwaukeeHome shirt – and hopefully this idea – offers that, but on a city level. We’re all repping our team, but our team is the city."
They know from personal experience that it can work. Before the SXSW stage came to be, Revord, Thornton and Nitti didn’t really know each other despite being fairly close – blocks apart in some cases – in a small city. Now, they’re working to bring Milwaukee together, within itself and with the rest of the country.
"I don’t feel like we can fail," Thornton said. "We already succeeded by introducing ourselves to each other. We are already succeeding by showing everybody that we are coming together to create something bigger than ourselves."
As their motto, from Ray Nitti, says: "Together we do better."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.