Milwaukee musicians tend to dominate the Wisconsin Area Music Industry awards, the statewide equivalent of the Madison Area Music Awards. But Madison artists stole the 34th annual awards show, which took place in Appleton on April 27. PHOX was crowned best new band, Sexy Ester's Lyndsay Evans earned the title of best female vocalist, and Volcano Choir's Repave was named Wisconsin album of the year.
"I can't believe that many people know who I am," says Evans, whose energetic vocals are the cornerstone of her power-pop band. "Winning the WAMI will hopefully open some doors for Sexy Ester, like the door to Summerfest."
WAMI is a volunteer-run organization based in Appleton and dedicated to promoting Wisconsin-made music. To win a WAMI award, an artist has to be nominated by the WAMI membership, a dues-paying group composed of both individuals and businesses. When votes are tallied, the WAMI board determines how many nominees each category can have, typically five to eight. The act receiving the most votes wins in its category.
Many Madison artists aren't aware of how WAMI works, so some were surprised to hear they'd won an award.
"We didn't get notified that we were in the running, so when we saw the news in the paper, it was a nice surprise," Volcano Choir frontman Tom Wincek says with a laugh. "I feel like WAMI is [one of the more] legitimate awards programs, but I'm still not really sure...who works for them."
WAMI typically has about 200 members, mostly musicians, says WAMI president James McMahon, adding that the organization tries to get in touch with all nominees.
"This year there were a few bands that did not know they were nominated, even though we attempted to contact them," he says. "Many times the message gets in a spam folder, or the band's Facebook page or website has old [contact] information."
Tim Lochner of the People Brothers Band, a Madison act that won the WAMI for best R&B/soul artist, was also surprised.
"We'd heard of the WAMI awards," he says. "It's quite humbling to win something like this."
It seems that Madison's music scene has made quite a mark on WAMI members over the past year or two.
"We have seen a trend of more Madison artists being nominated," says McMahon. "I am really impressed with the strong push for hip-hop in Madison."
McMahon adds that increased awareness of Madison artists among WAMI members has helped.
"We have had some influential Madison music organizations at WAMI events," he says. The list includes the MAMAs, Launchpad, Broadjam, the Madison Area Hip-Hop Awards and Madison Media Institute.
McMahon stresses that WAMI members are enthusiastic about attending shows, sharing new Wisconsin music, connecting bands with venues and bringing musicians together for performances. This promotion could be especially helpful in Madison, where some artists say the live-music scene doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
For instance, Lochner says the city could do more to emphasize local talent.
"Madison has over 50 venues, and one of the best live-music scenes in the country, but it doesn't put a lot of money behind advertising," he says.
Evans wishes Madison bands felt more supported by music lovers who live in the area.
"It's difficult to get people out [to shows]," she says. "I feel like Madison's music rivals cities like Portland, but the people [who live here] don't know it."
It's important to remember that Madison is a college town, Wincek says. Students are constantly moving here and then moving away.
"It's hard...to establish a core audience that will come out and see you every time," he explains.
Volcano Choir guitarist Chris Rosenau says the revolving-door concept also applies to musicians.
"There's turnover in bands in Madison," he notes. Fans get disappointed when a favorite act moves away, and bands sometimes struggle to replace departing members.
Evans and Lochner say the collegial atmosphere of Madison's music scene strengthens its statewide reputation, and Wincek notes that venues like the High Noon Saloon do a good job of preparing local bands for big gigs, in part by having them open for well-known acts from around the country.
Says Lochner: "You don't get national headlining touring musicians without local musicians."