Why 'small' Milwaukee is a big concert city

Posted at 12:00 AM, Feb 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-02 08:36:35-05

Sometimes it's the stage you play here. Sometimes it's the financial deal you make.

Sometimes it's the people you get to know here. Sometimes it's the sightseeing. Sometimes it's the fact you can get your favorite kind of pizza here, exactly the way you like it.

A large number of factors go into why Milwaukee has become a destination for musical performers, but it's unmistakable that the Brew City far outperforms metropolitan areas of its size when it comes to attracting big name artists. 

"Once they come have this place here that has so much to offer other than just a place to play," says Milwaukee's own Victor DeLorenzo. As the long-tenured drummer with the Violent Femmes, he has had plenty of tours of duty - literally - on the circuitous pathways bands make around America.

"(Artists and managers) come up to me and say 'I didn't know about Milwaukee,' " explains Doug Johnson, a veteran of many years with Summerfest and now the director of booking at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"They don't have high expectations. They come here. They see a very vibrant city. They see numerous things to do. They want their artists to play in those types of facilities and environments. They book Milwaukee. Everybody talks. One band comes through, they go 'Wow. Milwaukee was fantastic.' "
And word spreads.
Apparently, one of those artists to whom word really spread is the remaining active performer from the most impactful band in rock music history, Paul McCartney.

Doug Johnson of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, behind a picture of Paul McCartney performing there. | Photo: Jay Sorgi
"He can play anywhere in the world, anytime he wants. We've been very, very fortunate," said Johnson about the Beatles bassist, guitarist and co-lead vocalist who still packs stadiums and arenas in his 70's. "He doesn't like to re-play cities."
But he does like to re-play Milwaukee.
Among 11 metropolitan areas of similar size, Milwaukee is the only place that McCartney has played twice in the last four years. Milwaukee and Las Vegas are the only areas among that grouping he has played three times over the last 12 years, with the Brew City being the only location where he has played at three different venues.
"What he's telling us is he likes Milwaukee in many different sizes (of venues), Miller Park (45,000 seats), the amphitheater at Summerfest (23,000 seats), we (the BMO Harris Bradley Center) reconfigured at 18,000 seats. The Bradley Center against those two venues is maybe the intimate venue, but he likes to switch it up. He tells us a great deal when he comes back as many times as he's come to Milwaukee."

Why does an artist like McCartney like to come to Milwaukee so often, when they could go to bigger cities? Every artist - like DeLorenzo - promoter and manager have their own list that is unique, but Milwaukee reaches a number of these criteria more than other cities.
"What a touring musician always looks for in a city is: Number one, is the venue nice?" he asks.
"Number two, the people that you meet that maybe will become future friends on a long-term basis, places to eat, which is very important for a touring musician, and also what artistic value it has, whether it's seeing a famous cathedral, going to a recording studio that is of some renown or maybe seeing some other kinds of natural sites that are particular to that city. Those are the things that always excited me as a touring musician."
He says Milwaukee's nature as a city with a lot of cultural pockets attracts artists like him. But, of course, there is that big festival with the smiling face logo that puts smiles on the face of artists every summer along Milwaukee's lakefront.

One of the gates at Summerfest. | Photo: Mike Spaulding
"One thing we have here in Milwaukee that nobody else has is Summerfest, the largest music festival in the world," DeLorenzo, now part of the local group Nineteen Thirteen, adds.
"A lot of musicians have heard of Milwaukee via that reputation of having Summerfest. Once people come here and play Summerfest and realize it's such a great collection of little venues in one spot on one side of the lake, I think they grow fond of it. Not only is it a nice series of venues, but the audiences here in Milwaukee are just incredible. They're really music lovers and they appreciate all different forms of music."
Hundreds of thousands, even sometimes a million fans come through the turnstiles for that event. Johnson helped make countless shows happen there before his time bringing big time concerts to 4th and downtown Milwaukee.
He sees the importance of little things as the formula for success to bring artists to a city like Milwaukee that they don't necessarily have to play, but do, and that treatment is seemingly the formula at all the major venues here.
"I've had people on the road, tour managers who have been here four years ago and said 'I've been waiting for years to eat your catering,' " said Johnson.
"Those little minor details, and it's not minor for (an artist) who's been on the road for six months, these are basic necessities. They change their home every day or two. You want to make sure all those little idiosyncrasies are covered. They love it. They love coming here. They love playing here. They're well taken care of."
Sometimes, that may not be enough in the eyes of an artist or promoter to attract an artist to Milwaukee, particularly with Chicago - a metropolitan area five times the size of Milwaukee - just 90 minutes away.
"Sometimes bigger groups skip Milwaukee because they are playing Chicago and they figure they will draw people from Milwaukee to Chicago anyway," admits DeLorenzo. 
For example, the newest U2 tour includes an early June date at Soldier Field, but nothing scheduled yet for any venues in Wisconsin.
"I like to think that it's maybe not the right way to look at it, because you can't forget Milwaukee," he adds.
It's the job of people like Johnson, and of Raj Saha, the general manager of the new Milwaukee Bucks arena under construction, to make sure artists, promoters and managers don't forget Milwaukee.
Saha believes Chicago's close locale actually plays well into bringing big-name artists here.
"Chicago is in no way a detriment to anything we're doing. In fact, it's an advantage. Every tour that goes to North America is going to hit Chicago. There's no way Chicago's not (in) play for anyone going out on an arena tour in the U.S,," Saha believes.
"At the end of the day, it's an hour and a half come to our building."

14 million people live within a two-hour drive of Downtown Milwaukee, and it's sometimes easier for many of them to take the 90 minute drive north than to see a concert in their own city. That attracts artists who want to piggyback onto Chicago and add a Brew City concert.

"Chicago, we have great relationships with the guys down there in the arenas," said Johnson. "We actively work with them, and work with agents and managers throughout the world to bring talent such as Paul McCartney here."

However, it ultimately comes down to relationship-building between venues and the promotional groups which artists team with to create their tours.

Saha and Johnson are both spending much of this week in Los Angeles at the Pollstar meetings held between venues and promotional groups - the biggest of its kind in America.

"We want to make sure the agents and managers that are out there are coming on board. You need to have a very good relationship with agents and managers, but you need to have a great partner on the promoter side," explains Saha.
"You make sure the agents and managers know you're out there, what you're capable of, what you can do to help their artists."
In fact, Saha says he already has dates reserved for potential concerts for the new arena before a Bucks or Marquette game is ever played there.
"We've got some great holds in the calendar for 2018. We're basing this on a late August, early September building opening," said Saha, who is working on everything from concerts to boxing and wrestling..
He can't release names of possible artists, but as he puts it, "we're going to really try to push the limit and book as many days as possible in the first 60 to 90 days of the building being open for all kinds of content...we're going to try to blow out the opening."
Something that might put Milwaukee even more on the map as a concert destination, far beyond its market size, furthering the reputation Milwaukee already has among musical artists.
"They know when they come to Milwaukee," says Johnson, "they're going to come out of here feeling good."

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