Preserving “Original, Local Music” at Summerfest
In 2007, a small stage quietly debuted at Summerfest in the shadow of the Marcus Amphitheater. That modest stage, originally called the Cascio Groove Garage, didn’t attract much notice that year, but over the following summers it grew, taking on more sponsors and building a higher profile for itself as it changed names and locations, and engendering a lot of good will for its mission: to showcase local bands at Milwaukee’s largest music festival. One of the longstanding knocks against Summerfest has been that local bands are squeezed out, either by cover bands in the afternoon or by national headliners during the evening and nighttime hours. The Cascio stage helped correct that, serving as a platform for dozens of Milwaukee artists that otherwise wouldn’t have played the festival each year.
This year once again found the stage in transition. When a funding shortfall threatened the stage this spring, the Grafton-based artist management company K-Nation stepped up to take over title-sponsor responsibilities, along with support from founding sponsor Cascio Interstate Music, WMSE 91.7 and the Shepherd Express. With those changes to the newly titled K-Nation/Cascio Interstate Music Stage came some upgrades, explains K-Nation Senior Vice President Jason Klagstad. Cascio invested in a bigger P.A. system for the stage, as well as better lighting and signage.
“The idea was that without our support, this stage might have gone away, and if it had, that would have been a terrible thing for original, local music,” Klagstad said. “It’s totally essential for local bands to have this kind of presence at Summerfest, so we were happy to partner with a great music store to make it happen. I called up [Cascio CEO] Mike Houser and he was immediately receptive to the idea. I used to run the combo section at Cascio music in the ’80s, and we both realized that together we could make this stage better than it’s ever been.”
This year’s stage lineup features a typically diverse selection of local acts, from classical-pop purveyors I’m Not a Pilot to roots-rockers The Championship, synth oddballs Faux Fir and ska veterans The Invaders. The one thing all these bands have in common, Klagstad says, is that they all play original music.
“That’s the simple benchmark for the stage,” explains Klagstad, who plays in the local roots-rock band Semi-Twang. “If you look at the whole rest of the festival, almost all the bands playing before 5 p.m. are going to be cover bands. Somehow festivals in Wisconsin have come to worship cover music, and it’s come so audiences have come to expect cover bands, because cover bands are all that you see. When that happens, you develop a culture of expectation surrounding cover music, where only cover music suffices at these festivals, and as a result, you shove out all the new music.
“That’s what we’re trying to stop, the gradual erosion of original music,” Klagstad continues. “It used to be that a musician could actually make a living here in town, and now they no longer can, unless they play cover music. Now young musicians look at the climate and ask, ‘Can I make it in this town playing music?’ And the answer is, not unless they either play in a cover band or leave. So our goal is to help change the community so it supports original, local talent. If great talent stays in the city, then the arts stay in the city, and if arts stay in the city then young professionals stay in the city. The whole city benefits.”