Beyond The Fonz
I had the chance to attend FUEL’s event ‘Beyond the Fonz: Four Image Makers Reinventing Milwaukee” and listen to presentations by Jeremy “Sham” Shamrowicz of Flux Design, Tarik “The Architect” Moody of 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, Jeff Sherman of OnMilwaukee.com and Scott Blum, creator of Info*Milwaukee and RockStar Design.
The evening’s focus was how these heavy-hitters have used their entrepreneurship and innovative ideas to change Milwaukee’s image- either through inspired design, new media or the local music scene.
The event was originally supposed to take place at Flux Design, but was moved at the last minute to the MMAC downtown due to some equipment issues. It was a shame, considering that the Flux space is not only massive but also visually appealing, which would have allowed the rest of us to peruse the shop comfortably and probably would have engaged the crowd a bit more. Instead, drenched attendees packed the lobby of the MMAC during the cocktail hour that preceded the panel.
Sham was the first to present. He warmed up the crowd with playful anecdotes about the early days of Flux Design, back when all he had was empty warehouse space in the Third Ward called Gallery 326. In those days, he and his business partner Jesse Meyer didn’t know where they would find their next meal much less what would become of their company.
Nine years and 30 bars and restaurants later, Flux Design has become a recognized staple in Milwaukee, and the company still holds true to its roots . At Gallery 326, Sham scrounged through dumpsters and empty studios to find building materials. They took found lumber and scrap metal and recycled it to create “organic” furniture. Today at Flux, he and his staff continue to experiment with different tools, materials and processes to create a signature look.
“For us,” he says, “it’s all art.”
Jeff Sherman was the founding president of FUEL Milwaukee and is currently the co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. He began his presentation by talking about what he calls “The Three A’s for Milwaukee”: Agitation, Appreciation and Anticipation.
What Sherman was trying to get across is that Milwaukee is in what he calls a “crisis of confidence”- in other words, we don’t realize what we have right here in Milwaukee, or we don’t think it’s good enough.
Yet, over the last 10 years Milwaukee has seen some amazing changes. He listed 7 key changes in Milwaukee and also at OnMilwaukee.com:
-A healthy increase in media competition, cooperation and collaboration
– The innovation and impact of FUEL Milwaukee and YPM on economic development and talent retention
-The reinvention of Downtown Milwaukee
-The emergence of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Miller Park and the Harley Davidson Museum
-The rebirth of the music scene, due in large part to The Pabst, Turner Hall and The Riverside
-The success of Milwaukee’s universities and colleges that have been able to propel growth and diversity in the area
-Lastly, the rise, fall and rise of local businesses, with an influx of retail spaces and restaurants.
Always looking ahead, Sherman noted that key changes still need to be made in Milwaukee- things like better public transportation, creating new jobs, and making a better use of public space. Sherman said one thing that really resonated with the crowd, though, when he reminded us that we need to incorporate the phrase “Milwaukee based” into our language. It doesn’t matter what burb’ you’re from- you are a part of Milwaukee.
Tarik “The Architect” Moody was up next. Tarik earned his moniker “The Architect” because before getting behind the music scene, he actually was an architect working for a design firm in Minneapolis.
Moody says that his main goal is to help redefine the urban sound in Milwaukee, promote local bands and to curb “band skipping” – bands skipping over Milwaukee for shows and heading to Chicago or Madison instead. 88.9 sets itself apart from other stations because it puts local and sometimes obscure bands into heavy rotation, giving it airplay on par with more mainstream acts. In this way, Moody says that 88.9 has become a “beacon for Milwaukee, letting artists know that they will be supported here.”
But, Moody adds we also need to toot our own horns, so to speak. To be successful, Milwaukee has to market itself to a much broader audience. He says that a perfect example of this is Summerfest. “Before I moved here I didn’t know what Summerfest was, but here it’s billed as the world’s largest music fest,” he says, laughing, “ If you’re gonna call it ‘the world’s largest music fest’, the world needs to know!”
Scott Blum, creator of Info*Milwaukee, ended the evening. For the amount of disruptions he made during other presentations- exclaiming, “print is dead!” during Jeff Sherman’s speech, numerous calls to his cell phone (which btw, is set to the tune of “The Final Countdown”), and an inexplicable Christopher Walken impression – you would think that he had something to say.
Honestly, it seemed that he was more interested in yukking it up for the crowd than showing us how Info* can enhance Milwaukee and maybe, just maybe, keep print alive.
But then again, Scott Blum knows how to work a room. When he (briefly) put the jokes aside, he demonstrated a sublime understanding of the state that Milwaukee businesses are in, and what we need to do to push them along. For Info*, that means highlighting local companies and individuals, hopefully giving them a boost.
“Small contributions make a difference,” Blum says, adding, “spend a little to get them by…then tell your friends.”
The floor was opened up for a few quick questions when one woman asked, “ Since Milwaukee is so economically segregated, how exactly are your businesses going to bring ALL of Milwaukee up?”
The room fell silent for a minute, but everyone had an answer.
Blum noted that Info features institutions all over Milwaukee, regardless of whether that institution can pay for advertising. “We’ll just make you look good because you’re part of Milwaukee.”
88.9 RadioMilwaukee started hosting a live broadcast of The Get Down at Mad Planet in Riverwest a few months ago and broke the attendance record. The main goal is to get people involved and get them out and about- maybe even to places they wouldn’t normally go.
This wasn’t a difficult question for Jeff Sherman. “OMC is open to the community,” he says. OMC’s staff is made up of members of the Milwaukee community, and the content mix is very focused on keeping it local. Plus, OMC works with other organizations to provide sponsorship and advertising. And wouldn’t you know it- OMC was an official sponsor of this particular FUEL Milwaukee event.
Conversations continued as the closing remarks were made and we were all sent on our way. I left wanting more. The presentations seemed rushed and when it came time for questions only three were allowed and the conversation preceding seemed stifled.
This is by no fault of the panelists- they were all prepared with notes, slideshows and ideas- even class clown Scott Blum had note cards. Don’t get me wrong- having a cocktail hour before the presentation was a great idea; it gave us all a chance to wind-down and mingle after a long day at work, but devoting 90 minutes to the bar and barely an hour to the panel seems, well, unfair.
All of that aside, I left the event with something that Jeff Sherman said ringing in my ears -“more cheerleading, less grumbling”- so simple, yet spot-on. It’s inspiring to hear the stories of how a place like Flux Design came to be, or how OMC faired as an online media outlet 10 years ago, when the internet was barely a blip on the radar in Milwaukee.
Then, paging through the last Info*, I found this excerpt from a section called “Grind of The Mil”:
“ It’s your city. Own it. Love it. Represent it with class and you’ll make it even bigger!”