Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The New "It" City

The next musical hot spot is but a formula away

Montreal is so over. That’s right—despite months of being heralded as North America’s top breeding ground for cool bands, Montreal’s tenure as the “it” city has expired. While this news may leave some relieved and others disappointed, no one can claim surprise. Once the New York Times and Spin Magazine tell the world you’re cool—as both declared last February of Montreal—you’re well into your fourteenth minute of fame.

This leaves a void, and we simply can’t have that. As in a game of tag, someone’s got to be “it.” Our culture demands faces and places to act as signifiers for what’s currently hot: pink is the new black, sincerity is the new irony, Barcelona is the new culinary Paris, Brad and Angelina are the new Ben and J.Lo. The same applies to music and cities. Twenty or so years ago, Prince led the revolution that made Minneapolis the cool place to be. Then it was REM’s home of Athens, Georgia. Grunge made Seattle “it” in the early nineties; then “it” was on to Halifax for about ten minutes before proceeding to Raleigh, Austin, Omaha and, finally, Montreal. I’m not breaking new ground by noting that our culture is breathless for novelty and celebrity. But acknowledging this truth forces me to wonder: who is “it”?

Traditionally, this has not been an easy question to answer. As David Carr of the Times noted in his meditation on Montreal’s then-fresh popularity, “The momentary consensus seems to come out of nowhere—as if someone blows a whistle only those in the know can hear, and suddenly record executives and journalists are crawling all over what had previously been an obscure locale.” Could it be the harsh climate that keeps musicians indoors, mastering their craft? Or is it cheap rent that allows guitarists to spend less time behind coffee counters and more time composing three-chord variations of generational truths?

So many factors to consider. Yet the music press need not worry over their next scene-making dateline. I’ve got my whistle ready, and I’ll blow it clearly so everyone can hear: Indie rock’s next “it” city is Milwaukee.

 

Now, I’m not a music journalist and I’ve never been to Milwaukee. I’ve never heard a note of music from any of the local bands that will soon be signing big record deals. So how can I be confident in my prediction? I used statistics; Richard Florida taught me how.

Richard Florida is a professor of public policy at George Mason University who has developed the Bohemian Index. This system quantifies the number of artists (writers, musicians, photographers, graphic designers and whatnot) that live in a certain city relative to its population, then assigns the city a rank relative to its size. Florida also ranks cities along a Gay Index in the same way, scoring cities based on how many gays and lesbians live in a given city relative to its overall population. The greater the number of artists and queers, the higher the ranking.

What makes these indexes more than just a gauge of where a lesbian sculptor may feel at home is Florida’s contention that lucrative high-tech firms will want to move into cities that have a high bohemian quotient, bringing with them fistfuls of investment dollars to inject into the local market. His reasoning is that “new economy” employees like the same things that bohemians do. Computer companies will therefore set up shop in areas where their employees will feel most comfortable.

This may seem reductive, but clearly Florida’s onto something. Places with the highest Bohemian Index scores actually are hotbeds of high-tech industry (Seattle scores high, Louisville low). More importantly, urban planners all over the world are now paying him tons of their old-economy cash to learn how to become more boho-centric.

Milwaukee is one such city. In 2001, Florida visited Milwaukee at the behest of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation to advise the company on how to join the new economy. While he was there, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that its city was cool. He may only have been telling them what they wanted to hear: in autumn 2004, Milwaukee was among the bottom ten cities in its size category on the Bohemian Index. According to the Journal Sentinel article, even those close to Florida, such as his girlfriend, were skeptical: “I called [her] last night and told her that Milwaukee was cool…She said, ‘Come on.’” Perhaps Florida wasn’t just putting a good spin on bad numbers for the benefit of the locals who hired him—maybe he sensed that, while Milwaukee’s boho rating sucked rocks, the city was ripe for another kind of coolness, one that lay in wait for some other enterprising indexer to discover.

Either way, Florida’s index charting the conditions for economic success raises the possibility that Spin and the Times had good reason to probe the frozen, alienated soul of Montreal. What if such factors actually create the conditions for an “it” city to emerge? What if, instead of travelling from place to place and sitting in smoky clubs watching obscure bands, one could predict the next Next Big Thing from the comfort of a desk chair, using nothing but the Internet and Excel? Was it possible that I could find the next “it” city without having to listen to any music at all?

The answer is yes. Behold the “It” City Index (see Table 1 [available only in the print edition]). I created this system by gathering information about eight former musical hotbeds in the following categories: population; industry; proximity to water; winter and summer weather conditions; number of universities and professional sports franchises; average income, rent and housing prices; relative importance of city to its region. After I crunched the numbers, I knew exactly what an average “it” city looked like on paper (bottom row, Table 1).

I set out to find the next one.

I selected every city in North America that was within shouting distance of my ideal “it” city population average of 571,620 (as you’ll note in Table 1, Montreal’s population is a statistical anomaly that needn’t distract us from our goal), then assigned it a score in each index category, based on how closely the data matched the ideal-“it”-city averages (see Table 2 [available only in the print edition] for the full results of this investigation). The perfect score—the mythical it” city Valhalla—was 13. As you can tell from looking at Table 2, none of the cities really came close to perfection. Calgary scored 4. Albuquerque, Hamilton, Tampa and Winnipeg all scored 8.5. Milwaukee scored 11.5, making it the clear winner. The numbers don’t lie: Milwaukee’s “it.”

 

Surprised? I was. To me, Milwaukee has always been the town that produced Lenny and Squiggy and Potsie and Ralph Malph—where Fonzie was the undisputed king of cool and the most stinging putdown was “sit on it.”

Those who will be most shocked by the revelation, however, will likely be the citizens of Cream City itself (one of Milwaukee’s several nicknames). If you google the terms “Milwaukee” and “music scene” together, the top return is a bulletin board that sports the bold heading “Anything to do with the Milwaukee Music Scene.” Under that, you’ll find two posts: a call for volunteers to hand out flyers for a show and a lonely metal singer in search of a band, who begins by writing, “Is there anybody out there?”

In a recent online chat about the local nightlife, the first question posed to Milwaukee reporter James Burnett was, “Hey James, are there really enough hot night spots in Milwaukee to host a monthly chat? Our city is okay, but the night life, concert scene, etc., is weak compared to neighbouring Chicago, which is just an hour or so away.”

The music fans in Brew City (another moniker) are used to playing second fiddle to the Second City. Throughout the twentieth century, Milwaukee lived in the shadow of genre-making Chicago innovation: there was Chicago Blues, Chicago Soul; Chicago became the birthplace of house music. More recently, Milwaukeeans could only envy the lo-fi scene around Drag City Records and the hip-hop fuss about Kanye West. For too long, Milwaukee’s had to play Hamilton to Chicago’s Toronto.

That’s all about to change. Soon Chicago and the rest of the continent will be taking its lead from the Milwaukee sound—a metal-throwback style led by the teenaged hook-happy rockers Marashino and the Whitesnake-influenced 9mm Solution. It’s music best played with the volume cranked and the windows rolled down; a harsher, less introspective sound than the art-crank collectivism of the Montreal empire. It translates into quirkily destructive, anthemic performances that are already earning IfIHadAHiFi a reputation. The scene doesn’t end with the metalheads, of course, but the high-intensity vibe is present in other cheesehead groups like post-punkers Call Me Lightning and the slightly more melodic hip-hop soul of Black Elephant.

If you haven’t heard of these bands, you soon will. Hipsters deserting Montreal’s Plateau will soon replace their mesh-backed caps with triangles of orange foam meant to look like cheese—an ironic adoption of the costume of Wisconsin sports fans who appropriated the insult “cheesehead” as a badge of honour to be worn proudly on their heads. So adorned, cool-seekers can move to Riverwest, “Milwaukee’s Left Bank,” where they can check out the live music at the Riverside, the Rave and Shank Hall while quaffing cans of Beast (a nickname for the beer Milwaukee’s Best). On weekends, they can head up to the Third Ward to admire America’s largest preserved collection of industrial architecture, then dine at some of the swank restaurant-clubs that have, according to Burnett, been popping up.

And some lucky reporter at the New York Times can dust off her pith helmet, because there’s plenty of cultural detritus to sort through. Here’s a gimme: Les Paul—the man who invented the solid-body electric guitar, the instrument that made rock ’n’ roll—was born in nearby Waukesha. If it’s difficult to pin down the Milwaukee sound, maybe that’s to be expected in a city whose previous musical contributions have been Liberace, the Violent Femmes and the BoDeans. Maybe it was only a matter of time before the scene exploded, since this is the city that’s home to Summerfest, “the World’s Largest Music Festival.”

If you’re not yet convinced that M’wacky (last nickname, I promise) meets the conditions for rock ’n’ roll greatness, then consider the criteria laid out by David Carr in his piece about Montreal. Cheap rent to ensure the music stays viable? Check. A two-bedroom apartment goes for $617. Are there universities that will funnel kids into the scene, who will keep it fresh? Check. The University of Wisconsin and Marquette University are right downtown and Cardinal Stritch University is in the suburbs. Is the weather harsh enough to act as a rehearsal incentive? You bet. The average temperatures in January and July are only a few degrees removed from those in Montreal. Let’s not even start on what a hack in a poetic mood could wring from the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers as they roll across the flat geography of the Midwest, through Milwaukee and into Lake Michigan. Once you know where to look, this stuff pretty much writes itself.

So raise a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon (maybe even do a dumper, which is what they call shots in Milwaukee) and get ready for the cheesehead invasion. If I’m mistaken about which bands are coolest or what music venues you’ll want to visit, that’s probably not too big a deal. Remember that the map of Montreal in Spin magazine had bars in all the wrong places and that when the New York Times broke the Seattle grunge story, it printed an entire sidebar on grunge slang that someone at Sub Pop made up off the top of her head. “It” city reporting isn’t about accuracy, it’s about celebrating a fresh trendy territory that’s ripe for both exploration and exploitation. It’s about naming “it,” and naming it first.

So hurry to Milwaukee. You’ve only got a few months before the backlash begins.