Jeff Castelaz – the co-founder of Dangerbird Records, current president of Elektra Records and Milwaukee native – kicked off the third annual Yellow Phone Music Conference, a four-day event featuring panel discussions with music industry pros and a free concert showcase in the Third Ward.
Castelaz was appointed president of Elektra (an imprint of Atlantic) in 2012, but his humble origins as a Milwaukee writer and band manager made him a perfect choice for a keynote speech addressed to a roomful of artists with lofty dreams. With his experience, he could have easily rattled off a list of music biz dos and don’ts, but he chose to adopt a broader perspective, offering advice that went beyond the music industry.
The centerpiece of his talk was a story about a chance encounter with Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz And The Tantrums in an L.A. coffee shop that led to his label Dangerbird signing the band. “It’s a story about possibility – about saying hello and about listening and about asking for help,” said Castelaz. “It embodies everything I came here to say.”
Castelaz did provide some helpful tidbits to aspiring musicians: record your ideas in a notebook or on an iPhone; have a routine; get music into the hands of producers who can help make connections. And when it comes to artist submissions, Castelaz was candid: “If I’m not grabbed by the first 20 seconds of a song, I’m not gonna get grabbed,” he said. “Sorry, but that’s what the world wants.”
He also had some things to say about his days in Milwaukee. “I fell in love with music a million times when I lived here,” Castelaz said. He was a major player of the scene as music editor at the now-defunct weekly Downtown Edition and managed local bands, most notably Citizen King, which broke out with a top-40 hit “Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out)” in 1999. “We were in it to bring a sense of urgency and connectedness about music to Milwaukee,” he said.
In many ways, that is what Yellow Phone itself has set out to do in its third year. Founders Doug Johnson and Scott Ziel, who operate Pursuit Live, an entertainment company that books acts for Summerfest and other local festivals, say they have been going to music conferences for over 15 years. They were inspired by how conferences foster one-on-one experiences between artists and industry folks. John refers to those as “golden moments.” However, as major conferences like Austin’s South By Southwest continue to grow, “you don’t get that kind of quality experience,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to give these people.”
“There’s so much going on here culturally,” says Ziel. “It’s getting hip. It’s cool to have Milwaukee as the backdrop for this event.”
Castelaz credits Johnson and Ziel with shaping the Milwaukee music scene as we know it today. “Their year-long pursuit of finding the best local and regional acts for Summerfest and putting them on bills with big acts has done a lot to build the base for so many bands,” he says. He also mentions Radio Milwaukee, WMSE, and the Pabst group for helping to build local artists. “None of that was happening when I lived here,” Castelaz says.
The Championship is one local act benefitting from the work of Johnson and Ziel. The band had a primetime slot at Summerfest’s local music stage this year and performed as part of Yellow Phone’s free concert showcase Saturday night. I caught up with guitarists Joe Crockett and Quinn Scharber before their gig to hear their perspective on Yellow Phone.
“I don’t think that Milwaukee really has anything as far as labels, booking agents, PR people, management that are really doing things on a national scale, so I think there are young bands around town and around the region that maybe wouldn’t have that kind of exposure to people who are doing this professionally and nationally,” says Crockett.
“Anything to bring attention to Milwaukee talent is a good thing,” says Scharber.
As for the future of Yellow Phone, Johnson and Ziel have seen growth over three years, and hope to continue on that trajectory. “We grew 47 percent our first year and 36 percent this year,” says Johnson. “We’ll continue to grow. I see it as becoming a national experience.”