How Is Milwaukee’s Live Music Scene Weathering the Pandemic?

We checked in with a few of Milwaukee’s music venues.

Local music venues of all sizes are providing virtual platforms for Milwaukee’s artists, as the future of live music remains uncertain.

We checked in with a few of Milwaukee’s venues to see what’s in store for the next few months and find out how we can continue to support local artists and venues as long as concerts are largely off the table. The name of the game for most venues remains what it has been since March: livestreaming.  

The Pabst Theater Group — which includes the Turner Hall Ballroom, Riverside Theater, the Back Room @ Colectivo and the Pabst Theater — launched the livestream performance series #ReviveLiveMKE several months ago.

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Matt Beringer, chief operating officer at Pabst, said that the group was on the brink of reopening when cases spiked in Wisconsin. They had scheduled a performance — Chicken Wire Empire at the Turner Hall Ballroom — at 25% capacity with abundant safety precautions. They even completed a staff-only test run of all the protocols, which went smoothly. But the spike derailed these carefully laid plans.

“We made the decision that regardless of the measures in place, now was not the time to be reopening to the public,” Beringer said.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee and The Coffee House have taken similar livestream routes. 88Nine replaced its weekly 414 Live studio performance with the virtual 414 Live Variety Hour. This new series combines interviews and performances with a few local artists per episode. You can learn more about the series on the radio’s website — the second episode aired on July 30 and features Paper Holland, Best of Both Worlds, Klassik and Amanda Huff.

Jordan Lee, the station’s program director, emphasized 88Nine’s mission of amplifying the music scene in the rest of the city, whether in person or remotely.

“Our plan as it stands today is to continue to use the air waves to amplify those artists,” Lee said. “Our building is currently not open to the public and for the safety of our DJs and staff we’re being very, very conservative and slow with how we’re going to reopen our space.”

Booking coordinator John Higgins said The Coffee House has hosted a few livestream concerts this summer, both to sort out technical difficulties in preparation for the coming season and to provide an additional platform for musicians who no longer have the rich performance season a Milwaukee summer usually provides.

Local charities also benefit from The Coffee House’s shows, and Higgins encourages would-be concertgoers to consider donating to food pantries as well as supporting local musicians.

However, not all venues have stayed closed. Caroline’s Jazz Club reopened several weeks ago, following all social distancing guidelines and sanitizing often. Owner Caroline Rubitsky said that business has been quiet for the first few weeks but that she is excited to once again be able to provide a platform for local musicians.

“It’s our responsibility to keep Milwaukee’s music alive,” Rubitsky said.

Beringer and Lee emphasized that in addition to watching livestreams, buying artist merch and albums is an essential way to support musicians. Milwaukee’s venues and performers need our help — so, head over to your favorite artist’s website and splurge on a t-shirt or two in the name of supporting our beloved music scene.

And in the meantime, we’re eagerly awaiting the day when we’re bumping elbows with strangers in a crowded concert hall once again.  

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Elizabeth Johnson is an editorial intern at Milwaukee Magazine and a journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.