What Makes a Musical Artist Belong to a Community?

The finalists for the Radio Milwaukee Music Awards were announced on Tuesday and there were quite a few that weren’t surprises, like GGOOLLDD doing really well in various categories and Marigolden by Field Report being a finalist for Album of the Year because Marigolden is the best album of the year, even when you remove the Milwaukee-specific label. (Disclosure: I am a member of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and I did vote on the categories for the music awards.)

Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took issue with some of the finalists, comparing it to the Grammy nominations, which seems odd since anyone with access to a computer could vote on the finalists, as is pointed out in his piece. Levy points out that Field Report’s “Home (Leave the Lights On)” was not a finalist for Song of the Year and Vinyl Theater didn’t get anything.

The interesting part of his piece is when he points out the the artists who aren’t particularly based in Milwaukee that are finalists.

The solo artist category might also cause some major grumblings. Nominee Grace Weber had a great year with her new soul-pop album “The Refinery,” and fellow nominee Tony Memmel is a talented singer-songwriter. But neither live in Milwaukee any more; Weber’s been calling New York home for eight years now, while terrific solo artists with noteworthy years, such as Brett Newski, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams and Sam Llanas, were overlooked.

Weber is at least treated as a Milwaukee artist. She appeared on Radio Milwaukee’s 414 Music Live, which brings Milwaukee musicians in its studios and have them perform three songs and do an interview. Weber is from Milwaukee, but lives in Brooklyn. There are plenty of great Milwaukee musicians who live in the city, but since Weber is in fact from Milwaukee, I personally see no problem with her being included as a Milwaukee musician.

There are some musicians Milwaukee may rally around because they have a Wisconsin connection. For example, some people may latch on to Justin Vernon and any of his projects a Milwaukee label because he’s from Eau Claire. Never mind that Vernon has actually dissed Milwaukee. Vernon and his projects have received a level of recognition most bands can’t receive, but it seems confounding to give him the level of love he receives from some Milwaukee residents. (There was even Bon Iver day declared in Milwaukee once.) Although there are Milwaukee connections with his projects, do you put a band whose front man said Milwaukee is a “dark, beer-drunk place” on a pedestal?*

Then comes the question of how do you determine if a band does belong to an area. One-half of Sylvan Esso is from Milwaukee, although the band is based in North Caroline. But by the rationale of “Grace Weber is a Milwaukee musician because she’s from Milwaukee” then Sylvan Esso is from Milwaukee and Sylvan Esso is treated by some as a Milwaukee band, from my perspective.

But Weber does come back to Milwaukee and performs on local public radio stations and does interviews. Maybe going to Brooklyn and recording music is best for her career. Milwaukee, after all, is a city where The BoDeans were named Best Milwaukee Rock Band by readers of the Shepherd Express and when I think of The BoDeans, I think, “Weren’t they on the bill for the 1999 Iowa Caucus?” (Tyler Maas and Matt Wild of Milwaukee Record discussed that last bit better than I probably could. The part about The BoDeans being named Best Milwaukee Rock Band, not them possibly playing the 1999 Iowa Caucus.)

While some bands in Milwaukee seem to gather a huge following after a short time period–I was at GGOOLLDD’s performance on 414 Music Live and that was one of the largest turnouts I’ve ever seen–the question comes as to if they can make it big outside of Milwaukee. I can yell on Facebook and Twitter all I like that you need to listen to GGOOLLDD and The Living Statues, but it might not make much of a difference to someone in Ypsilanti, Mich. or Chicago if those bands don’t get air time or ever perform there.

At the end of the day Weber is from Milwaukee and she did release a great album. There are bound to be people who will complain because there is always something for people to complain about. If Weber moved to Brooklyn and said “Yeah, Milwaukee, I’m from there. But it’s just a bunch of people who drink constantly. It’s so sad.” It seems more of a situation of someone from the area going and making an awesome album Milwaukee residents can be proud of. If you live in the city or were raised in the city, you get to be an artist who can call that city home. Those things ultimately influence your art. And, yes, some artists were left off, like Hayward Williams, but that happens with awards.

If we want to consider Weber a Milwaukee musician, go ahead. Lines should be drawn at some point as to what makes someone a Milwaukee musician, but I don’t think places like Radio Milwaukee should start putting a residency requirement on bands to be eligible for the award.

*Vernon was in a band called DeYarmond Edison with Chris Porterfield, who is the frontman for Field Report. So Vernon does have bands with Milwaukee connections. It’s just that Vernon isn’t the Milwaukee connection. Also, go listen to Marigolden.

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