From the start, it was cast as a fight for survival.
When plans for a pair of music halls in the Deer District backed by mega concert promoter Live Nation became public earlier this year, local independent concert venue operators scrambled to join forces to try to block the project. They formed a group called Save MKE’s Music Scene, warning that some treasured Milwaukee venues would almost certainly disappear from the city’s concert landscape if the $50 million proposal became a reality.
“It’s an Armageddon issue for the existing venues in the city,” says Joe Balistreri, who along with Leslie West owns and operates The Rave/Eagles Club complex on Milwaukee’s Near West Side. Save MKE’s Music Scene also includes the owners of the Riverside Theater, Pabst Theater, Turner Hall and Miller High Life Theatre as well as smaller clubs like Shank Hall and Cactus Club.
The plan sailed through city committees and was approved unanimously by the Common Council on Nov. 1. The new music halls will be situated adjacent to Fiserv Forum on a section of the Deer District where the Bradley Center once stood. The project is part of a joint venture with the Milwaukee Bucks and a Madison-based affiliate of Live Nation. The operators expect the concert halls to be up and running by early 2024.
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At the same time, another planned development less than a mile away, one that has drawn little scrutiny, would add yet another competing concert venue. The planned 3,500-capacity hall, in what has been dubbed the Iron District, would be part of a $160 million development that also includes a soccer stadium and a hotel. And although the concert venue there would be operated in part by AEG, a global sports and music firm, independent operators have voiced fewer concerns.
“With Live Nation and their facilities, there is no competitive business. It ties up a whole tour nationally,” Balistreri says. “With the [Iron District], we’d all still be competing for the same attractions, so it’s still a competitive marketplace.”
The central issues in the rancorous debate that has surrounded the Deer District project are important to understand and certain to linger far into the future.
How much concert capacity does Milwaukee need?
A KEY BOOSTER of the Deer District project is Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, who touts it as a difference-maker for the city and a way of “growing the pie” to the benefit of local music fans.
Since winning election in April, Johnson has repeatedly expressed his desire to grow Milwaukee’s population to more than 1 million residents. He sees the Deer District and Iron District proposals as important developments that could subsequently boost the number of city residents, or at least serve a growing city. “I don’t want Milwaukee to be stuck in this image of ‘what you see is what you get’ and not have the possibility to grow or change,” Johnson says.
Balistreri contends that Milwaukee already gets more than its fair share of concerts for a market its size, in part because of the 800 or so bands that fill the stages at Summerfest each year. He and others insist that the planned new venues aren’t needed, noting that only a small fraction of shows in the market sell out under the existing venue setup. “There are only a certain number of bands that are touring,” Balistreri says. “If you open other facilities, you just take the same attractions and shift them from one venue to another. It’s exactly the opposite of growing the pie.”
“[Milwaukee] has all of what you want in a burgeoning music scene. Our venues will be versatile, flexible and they will have great amenities and be comfortable.”
– CHARLIE GOLDSTONE, FRANK PRODUCTIONS PRESIDENT
But project partner Frank Productions views Milwaukee as a highly attractive and growing market for live music. “It’s a city with a rich history of concertgoers, venues and promoters,” Frank Productions President Charlie Goldstone says. “It has all of what you want in a burgeoning music scene. Our venues will be versatile, flexible and they will have great amenities and be comfortable. It will work in Milwaukee.”
Jim Kacmarcik, chairman and CEO of Grafton-based Kacmarcik Enterprises, a driving force behind the Iron District project, insists that the concert venue planned there will be built regardless of the Deer District proposal. “We’re moving forward 100% with what we are doing, and we’re excited about it,” Kacmarcik says.
If both projects come to fruition, which appears to be a strong possibility, independent venue operators warn of an impending shakeout that would affect facilities of all sizes.
Two major developments planned for Milwaukee’s Westown area would add three music venues to the city’s landscape. Here are the projects at a glance:
Project: Two concert halls
Location: Immediately south of Fiserv Forum in the block bounded by State Street, Highland Avenue, Sixth Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue.
Developer/Operator: A joint venture involving the Milwaukee Bucks and promoter and venue operator FPC Live. FPC Live is an arm of Madison-based Frank Productions, a subsidiary of Beverly Hills, California-based Live Nation, a global entertainment company.
Capacity: 4,000 and 800, both primarily for general admission, standing audiences, although both would have defined seating areas
Project: Concert hall that would be part of a sports/entertainment district including an 8,000-seat soccer stadium
Location: 11 acres at the northeast corner of the Marquette Interchange
Developer/Operator: Grafton-based Kacmarcik Enterprises and Kenosha-based Bear Development purchased the property from Marquette University. Venue would be operated by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and the Pabst Theater Group in partnership with Kacmarcik Enterprises
Capacity: 3,500 with mostly general admission, standing audiences and limited seating
How will Live Nation affect the local concert landscape?
AT THE HEART of the independent venue operators’ opposition of any Live Nation-backed project in Milwaukee is one idea: exclusivity. From ticket sales to a portfolio of artists under contract, to promoting concerts around the country and owning music venues, Live Nation has created a business model focused on vertical integration at every level.
Opponents argue that the strategy is monopolistic and provides Live Nation and its associated companies with an unfair business advantage. In October, an activist group urged the Justice Department to unwind the 2010 merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster, alleging abuse of its market power over venues and artists. “When you inject Live Nation into the picture, it changes the entire economics of the music scene in Milwaukee,” says Craig Peterson, spokesman for Save MKE’s Music Scene.
As an example, Balistreri cites rapper Yung Gravy’s sold-out show at the Eagles Ballroom in November, what he called a key show for the venue’s overall financial health. It was one of the few on the tour that didn’t take place at a Live Nation venue. “If Live Nation would have had a venue in Milwaukee, Yung Gravy wouldn’t have played our building,” Balistreri says. “If there is a Live Nation facility in a city, no other venue there has a chance to bid on that band.”
“If you open other facilities, you just take the same attractions and shift them from one venue to another.”
– JOE BALISTRERI, CO-OWNER RAVE/EAGLES CLUB
Goldstone says the doom and gloom position taken by the independent operators is unwarranted and firmly believes that the old can coexist with the new.
FPC Live’s modern venues would attract some bands that have bypassed Milwaukee in the past and would improve the concert-going experience for fans of performers who have regularly played at other facilities in Milwaukee, Goldstone says.
Goldstone says he doesn’t expect the Deer District venues to directly compete with the Sylvee, a sparkling 2,500-capacity venue that Frank Productions opened in 2018 in Madison’s Capitol East neighborhood. FPC Live operates that venue. “Milwaukee and Madison are two different markets, and data supports that,” Goldstone says. “You can do more in Milwaukee. It’s a much bigger market and it has a more diverse population.”
This is not the first battle over Live Nation
MILWAUKEE IS THE LATEST city being targeted for a Live Nation-backed project but not the first to meet resistance. Independent venue operators in Chicago joined together in 2018 to fight Live Nation’s plan to operate a $5 billion entertainment district. They, like venue operators in Milwaukee, cited Live Nation’s business practices. “The property is across the street from me, but that wasn’t my objection,” says Katie Tuten, co-owner of the Hideout, a small bar and music venue that sits at the edge of the Lincoln Yards development. “We were objecting to Live Nation.”
After months of pushback, the Live Nation plan was scrapped in early 2019, along with plans for a soccer stadium, though Tuten and others are convinced their victory was only temporary.
Some of the same independent venue operators in Milwaukee who have banded together today took a similar tack in 2005 over a plan for an expansive House of Blues project proposed for the former Pabst Brewing Co. property near Downtown. The group succeeded in blocking that plan, in which the House of Blues, now a Live Nation operation, would have become the anchor tenant of a 1.1 million-square-foot development known as PabstCity.
The Sylvee also ignited opposition in Madison among independent operators there. “When we built the Sylvee, we were met with the exact same arguments about how everyone else was going to go out of business,” Goldstone says. “What happened was the opposite. All the venues that were open then are still open now, and there have been investments made in some of them and even more new venues have opened.”
Balistreri doesn’t buy it and insists there will be collateral damage in the Milwaukee concert scene if the new venues are built. “Live Nation is selling an impossible dream,” he says. “Somebody is going to go out of business over this.”
Venues of various size and vintage dot the local music landscape. Here’s a rundown of live music facilities in the Milwaukee area, the year they opened and concert capacity.
American Family Amphitheater:
1987 / 23,000
2018 / 18,000
BMO Harris Pavilion:
2012 / 5,000 seated
Miller High Life Theatre:
1909 / 4,086
The Rave/Eagles Club venues:
1927 / 3,500 (Eagles Ballroom)
1,800 (Rave Hall)
1,000 (Eagles Hall)
500 (Rave Bar)
1928 / 2,450
1895 / 1,279
1882 / 987
Northern Lights Theater (at Potawatomi Casino)
2004 / 500
1989 / 300
The Back Room at Colectivo Coffee:
2015 / 250
1996 / 200
2019 / 200
Linneman’s Riverwest Inn:
1993 / 160
1907 / 150