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Shining a Light on Original Music

Music Review Roulette podcast

We all know when the stars come out.  It’s big news when artists with a string of hits and gold records come out with a new song or an album or announce a tour, especially if it comes to your neighborhood.  

But for every Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake or Travis Scott, there are thousands of musicians honing their craft—writing and performing amazing original music who are trying to get their foot in the door.  Trying to rise above the crowd and get noticed.

For the emerging artist, getting their music out into the public and developing a following can be a daunting task. Similarly, it’s a challenge for the public to learn about new music.

To help support emerging artists and to encourage original music, Thea and Steve Vorass host a weekly podcast called Music Review Roulette.  Broadcasting from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Steve and Thea focus on original music from bands who are emerging and who either have are unsigned or have signed with a small independent label.  They identify and highlight artists who are deserving and working their way up to the mainstream.

Music Review Roulette presents three original songs each week, with discussion of each song and artist in an informal, conversational setting.

Steve and Thea Vorass are an incredibly busy and energetic couple, balancing full-time jobs with raising a family, while also maintaining active careers as musicians.  

Steve is a full-time web developer while Thea is the executive director of a senior living center.  Both Steve and Thea have found the podcast to be a needed break from the structure of their daily professions, providing a creative outlet as well as relief from day-to-day stress.

A Personal Conversation with Thea and Steve Vorass

I had an opportunity to meet with Thea and Steve at a local coffee shop to talk about Music Review Roulette. We had a wide-ranging discussion about the format and objectives of the podcast, how it began, their advice and insights on how artists can approach the challenges of becoming known, their side projects, and even what it is like being in a band.  Here are the highlights of our conversation, edited for clarity and length:

Describe the Music Review Roulette podcast

THEA – We do a weekly podcast featuring three artists highlighting original music.  With the submissions we have received, we are booked out a month to a month and a half in advance.  There is so much music, it feels like it is never ending. We try to review new and emerging artists as well as review new music coming out.  We look for album releases. We try to pair the podcast around a big show or an album release as a way of promoting the artist’s music or event.

STEVE –We want to let people know about things that are happening in our city.  There is so much music I was not aware of that we have found through the podcast with submissions we have received.  If there is a new artist with a new release, we invite them onto the show. We have found a ton of new music this way.

We want to expose those artists or different genres that wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by mainstream Milwaukee media, such as Radio 88Nine, Milwaukee Record or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

THEA – Artists have to be at a certain level to be picked up and followed by major local media outlets.  But there is so much more great local music that is happening on a much smaller scale that should be recognized.  But you can’t be recognized if you can’t get a foot forward and be recognized in the local scene.

STEVE – Our policy is we only say positive things about the bands.  We’ve received some submissions that we won’t review if we can’t say enough nice things about them.  

THEA–We are going to say things that we think are positive because it should be something they can put out there to promote themselves.  We’ve given constructive criticism at times too—it’s not just a happy feel-good fluff show.

Our shows tend to be eclectic, which I describe as being happy accidents–driven by the date of an event or the timing of submissions we receive.  We mix up the songs we review. Who wants to listen to 3 country songs in a row on a show? That gets kinda old.

STEVE–We are up to episode 97.  We plan to do something special for Episode 100 – we don’t know what quite yet.

How did you come up with the name of the podcast?

THEA—The name Music Review Roulette came from the idea that musicians submit their music and we ‘spin the music review roulette wheel’ and review a submission on the spot.  Kind of a play on words.

How did you get started with Music Review Roulette?

STEVE – I had my own podcast about a year before we started Music Review Roulette.  In one show, I asked Thea to come on and give me her view on an album I was reviewing.  That ended up being a great conversation. Instead of me saying what I thought, it was more of a back and forth.  I continued to have Thea in my podcast occasionally, maybe once or twice a month.

Then we got a sponsorship through a company called The Shop FM, who we had met at different places where we were performing.  The Shop FM also sponsored festivals we attended and played at. Once they sponsored us, they expect our show every Sunday.  It’s a great group to work with. They sponsor a number of talk shows—we may be one of their only music review shows.

Does your sponsorship include paying you for the podcast?

THEA – Nooooo!  We don’t get paid at all!

STEVE – The Shop FM gets our show out to more people, so that more people hear it.  There are sponsorship opportunities if we had a paid ad at the beginning of our show.  We might get about $10 per 1,000 listens. We aren’t there yet, so I don’t want to inundate people with ads at this point.  If we get to those numbers, then maybe that would be worthwhile.

THEA – We do this for fun.  This is something we enjoy as musicians that we can share with each other and our family.  This has been a fun experience to set aside time each week to listen to music.

Steve and I have very different tastes.  Both of us are very eclectic and we like a lot of different things, but we each have a different perspective.

Where do your individual tastes diverge?

THEA – Steve likes a lot of metal and heavier music.  I like more of the pop and folk vein.

STEVE – I also appreciate all types of music.  For example, I really love Buffalo Gospel’s new record, On the First Bell, which has a bit of a country flavor.  I appreciate people who put a lot of effort into their craft—they make it sound so beautiful that I can’t help but like it.  The band Field Report is like that.  I listened to a live taping they did on Audiotree about a year ago and it was magnificent.  I also appreciate the technicality and the craftsmanship of putting together a metal song—they are more like a mini-symphony.  I love the power and progression of the music.

THEA – This is where we differ.  I would not describe metal as a mini-symphony!  Of course, as a cellist, that is not where my interest goes.

Thea—what perspective do you bring as a cellist?

THEA—I have a classical background.  When I met this guy, I started playing in local bands.  That’s where I began playing in more public performances.

My background is in music therapy, but I love playing in groups.  When I was in college, I loved playing in classical trios and quartets.  I’m not a solo artist. Playing in bands has been fun because you can bring something different.  I play electric cello, which lets me bring a melodic or rhythmic element to the music.

I play in the rock band Sacred with Steve.  I also play with Keith Pulvermacher, which is more adult contemporary music.  It’s all about being creative and bringing a different texture or color texture to a song.

How do you find stories and songs to review?

THEA – We started out just reviewing music from artists that we identified.  Now about half of the songs we review are from bands who submit to us. I am on social media quite a bit and as I see musicians putting music out there, I will reach out to the artist.  There are quite a few musicians who will submit to us. This stream of artist submissions has taken a long time to grow. We talk to others who also cover music, such as The Great Unknown Radio from Appleton, Wisconsin, and they are always reaching out to musicians.

STEVE – We have had a lot of referrals.  One artist will hear the podcast and mention to their friends, “oh, you should really submit to this podcast.”

THEA – We cover a lot of Milwaukee musicians, but we have also received submissions from all over the U.S., including Chicago, the Twin Cities area, Cincinnati and around the Midwest, and internationally, including submissions from the U.K., Greece and Sweden.  It’s been fascinating to see what comes in.

Where do you do your podcasts?

STEVE – Anywhere in the house.  You may hear our dog or our kids occasionally.  It’s very informal in that way.

THEA – We do it in between gigs and on weekends.  We make time for the podcast, but it also occurs when we can fit it in.

STEVE — We try to keep the podcast fresh.  We do it on the spot without a script. We get our blue snowball microphone and put it between us.  Whatever we listen to, our discussion is off the top of our heads.

How do you prepare for your podcasts?

STEVE –We prepare by looking at a band’s links to get their backstory.

THEA – Usually I will ask a band for what they would like listeners to hear, what they want to promote.  What is the story behind the song or what was the song writing process like. Anything the band wants us to share.  This gives us a head start in our discussion

STEVE – Sometimes a band will provide us with an mp3 with their own voice and spoken word and we will play that.  We enjoy that perspective coming directly from the artist.

We also linked up in a collaboration in one episode with Eddy Barco, a session drummer from Los Angeles who hosts his own podcast, Nebula Music.  He heard our podcast and we heard his.  We wanted to do an episode where we swapped, so he called into our show and we called into his.  Eddy listened to the songs with us and gave us his interpretation and perspective. I would like to do more collaborations like that.

How many listeners do you have for Music Review Roulette?

STEVE – We get metrics through the platform we use, Anchor.fm, which tallies the number of plays we get through podcast platforms like Stitcher or iTunes.  Recently we have been averaging between 700 and 1,000 listeners per episode, depending on the bands we feature and the amount of promotion they do of a podcast episode. Social media has a huge impact.  One of our Facebook posts had a reach of 7,200 hits.

THEA – I spend a lot of time adding links to podcast episodes and we try to be creative in adding musical memes.  However, the more a band shares or adds links to an episode, the more plays it will get. We do have regular listeners, people who say they listen to every episode, every week.  But a lot of listeners are new and will be drawn to an episode because of a particular band or artist.

STEVE – Some great musicians I know listen to the podcast on a weekly basis.  This can be a little intimidating but it’s nice to know they enjoy what we are doing.  I think they are trying to find new music as well.

You both have music backgrounds and you are active in your music careers.  Do you feel that has given you additional credibility as you talk with artists and review music?

STEVE – I believe it does.  It also gives us the ability to meet more people, such as bands who are playing before or after us.  We can talk with them, check out their music, maybe ask them to submit to the podcast. If we really like a band, we want other people to hear them too.

THEA – Original artists are an interesting breed.  They write their music and put it there, but they don’t want to promote themselves.

STEVE – I don’t think they don’t want to promote their music, but they have that fear of being rejected.  The music is a part of them, which may make it hard to put it out there.

THEA—It is a very personal thing to write and perform your own music.  You are wearing your heart on your sleeve. Being able to have a podcast like this allows an artist to showcase their work without worrying about negativity.  

What advice would you give to an emerging artist to get their name out into the public?

THEA – For artists who want to get out there, the best things they can do is to go out to shows, meet people, share contact information.  If an artist supports the local scene, he or she will be supported as well. You can’t sit at home and write emails all day and then expect anyone to give you the time of day.  You gotta make that personal connection.

STEVE – Here’s an example.  There is a fellow I met, Ben Baumann of the band, Throwback Stereo, through an open mike night.  He made the time to connect with me and tell me about the music he was writing.  Suddenly, he was out at every local open mike night where he met a bunch of people.  Then I saw Ben on the YouTube channel “The Album Cover,” doing a cover of “Anna Begins” by the Counting Crows.  The relationships you make in clubs grow to playing opportunities.    

THEA – Musicians need to go out and find their niche in Milwaukee.  You have to go out and meet people, find like-minded people that you fit with.  Once you find your community you can really grow.

STEVE — It’s easier said than done, but an artist should try not to be afraid of criticism.  You have to put your stuff out there to know if what you are doing works and maybe to get a little constructive criticism to help you grow and get better.

You start out at the open mic nights where you test the waters, maybe get on a radio show and play at small venues.  Eventually you move your way up to larger venues like Shank Hall or Saloon on Calhoun. Eventually people want to get to the Turner Hall level where Abby Jeanne is at, or the Pabst Theater where Field Report has played or Summerfest.

It’s a process that you must go through.  You can’t skip any steps. People here have to pay their dues.

THEA – Once you are in a band, a lot of musicians get to know each other and then play with other bands.  That’s a good way to get established and work your way through different bands and different level of bands.

STEVE–Another example of how a musician can put himself out there is Chris Porterfield, who now goes under the monicure Field Report.  He has been with several bands, including DeYarmond Edison in Eau Claire, Wisconsin with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.  When Justin and the rest of the band moved to North Carolina, Chris didn’t go because he felt he wasn’t good enough to be in that band.  He felt the other people were years ahead of him in experience.

So, Chris stayed back in Milwaukee and went to open mike night every week at a local bar called Linneman’s Riverwest Inn.  And every week he would share ideas with all the other open-mic’ers.  He said he spent a couple of years going there before he felt confident to put these songs out into the world.

There is nothing wrong with a hobbyist musician, but an artist who wants to get out there and maybe get paid for what they do, they need to treat this like a job.

THEA—New artists and bands need to have the business mindset of planning, setting up shows, and doing promotion.  Efforts that grow that fan base and get people to the show. You need a person with a business mind in the band, because if you don’t, you are kind of SOL.

Have you helped artists make connections?

THEA – I get messages all the time from someone asking for recommendations.  Like “who should I connect with if I want to do this festival?” Or “we are looking for a new member for our band—who do you know?”  A lot of people ask us for suggestions.

STEVE – We even get questions from people seeking to start podcasts like ours.  They will ask technical questions like where we host, how we find artists, who provides our server, what mics we use.  I totally encourage people to start their own podcasts. Starting a podcast is so much easier than it was even 5 to 10 years ago, especially with a platform like Anchor.fm.  Just get on, get a cheap mic and talk about what you want to talk about. If people like it, great. If they tell you to fix something, take their advice, mostly if it’s positive criticism.  Just do what makes the most sense and people will gravitate towards the podcast if it’s good.

What are your impressions of the overall Milwaukee music scene?

STEVE – It’s definitely eclectic.  There are a number of standout musicians you will hear about through the music news outlets or social media.  I think that’s great because the cream rises to the top. But there are a lot of other musicians, including a lot of metal music, that you won’t hear about through the local music news outlets.  There are also a lot of different genres represented by local artists.

The Milwaukee scene is very creative.  Local artists don’t have to feel like they fit into a radio pop band to get a following.  In Nashville, for example, you have to do the country pop thing to get noticed. As unfortunate as this sounds, no one moves to Milwaukee to become a musician.  But, you also don’t have the restrictions that may exist to try to make it in other markets.

THEA – There are so many different genres of music in Milwaukee, different styles out there to keep the city from becoming too saturated.  If this was Nashville and everyone just sang country music, the area might become too saturated. But Milwaukee is so diverse that any weekend you can go out and see a hard rock show, or a headline act at a major theater, or a singer-songwriter at a coffee shop.  There are so many opportunities out there

What challenges do emerging artists have in Milwaukee?

STEVE –There may be a need for more venues in Milwaukee that cater to the beginning or aspiring musician.  When you are just starting out, there may only be a couple places where you can get your feet wet, so to speak.  Sometimes there may be more musicians than available venues, so you have to book months in advance.

THEA – That’s why it’s so important not only for the band to promote itself, but also the venue where they are playing.  That’s where the venue makes its money, from ticket and bar sales. It’s a two-way street—as an artist, you have to make sure you are promoting the venue.

STEVE – Here’s another side – venues often invite cover bands over bands playing only original music.  

THEA – A cover band can play a 4-hour set and will bring their party people to hear songs they know and stay and drink.  But it’s not like people are really listening to the music. That’s what I like about original music. You are sitting a listening to something someone created.

Give us a recommendation of a band or artist you regard highly who needs more exposure.

STEVE – There is a great local rock band that has about 181 likes on Facebook.  An amazing band called Flat Teeth.  They are so good, but nobody knows about them.  Our band, Rocket, offered them an opening spot for our CD release party because they are so good.  The members of Flat Teeth have been playing together for a couple of years, having joined from other local bands.  Their first public performance was October 2018 as they released a new EP, Winter House.  (Click here to listen to watch Flat Teeth perform their song, “Side Attack”)

THEA—One band that stands out to me that has been working really hard and has something unique is Pretty Beggar.  The lead singer, Michael Castle, reached out to me for an episode of Music Review Roulette.  I liked their music so much, I had them come to play in the round for Amplified Artists Sessions.  They are continuing to write and are really hustling to get their work out in the public.  I feel they are an up and coming band that will do great things. (Click here to watch Pretty Beggar perform their song “Time Is Coming”)

What other projects are you involved in?

THEA—I play with Keith Pulvermacher, but I am also recording with another Milwaukee band, Layers&Layers.  I’ve been doing a number of projects lately where I will come into a studio and do a song here or there.

STEVE – Thea started Amplified Artists Sessions at the Saloon on Calhoun in Brookfield, Wisconsin with several artists who have played on our show, as well as others.

THEA – Amplified Artists Sessions is an original singer-songwriters group.  It’s much like The Bluebird Café in Nashville.  We have a performance of a song in the round, followed by discussion about the song.  Then there will be a performance by a band playing original music. This has been a lot of fun for me, setting up the showcase and arranging the artists.

STEVE—I play with Sacred.  I also have bands that are a split between an original band and a cover band.  We do the cover band to make money and the originals to get that creative side out.  The original side is Rocket Cat.  The cover band is called Mixtape.  We cover 80’s music, which I love.  I also play in the band, Mouse Corn.  

Zach Pietrini will be playing at South-by-Southwest in Austin beginning March 7.  Zach has a full band day and a singer-songwriter day at SXSW. His drummer can’t make the trip, so Zach asked me if I was available to do this.  I said yes. I played at SXSW in 2012, so it’s been a while. I’ve had to learn every one of his songs. There is so much magic in his songs. He’s just a great song writer.  We will have 7 different dates on the way there and back. (Click here for a Shutter16 review of Zach Pietrini, who recently released Denver Sessions)

THEA – I’m so jealous.

What is it like being in a band?

THEA – Being in a band is like being in a relationship.  Everyone has to be on the same page in order to be successful.  Everyone must have the same view.

STEVE—It’s hard to have an attitude in a band, where you feel like you are better than others.  Eventually that person will be cut from the band perhaps for someone with a little less talent but a much better attitude.  You are around that person all the time and that negativity can really bring a band down.

There are definitely a lot of family dynamics in a band.  Unfortunately, in a family you can’t get rid of your family members, but in a band you can.

Where do you see yourselves in 5 years?  Will you continue to do the podcast?

THEA – Since I typically do the coordination for Music Review Roulette, I have made a lot of strong connections.  I have always done the bookings for the bands in which I have played. So, I would love to do music promotion and band management

STEVE – Thea has learned the social media aspect in managing the backend of the podcast with social media promotion so that could lead to a different path for her.

THEA—Like anything, it’s hard to get your foot in the door.  Just like a new artist, if you are trying to get into a new field, it’s difficult.  You have to look for and wait for the right opportunities.

STEVE – I would like to keep the podcast going and expand into something more.  Maybe we can do more for the artists. I would like to develop a database of artists to perhaps create a Music Review Roulette playlist on Spotify, for example.  People could play the list as background music and maybe hear an artist they would like to follow more closely.

This won’t turn into a job for me, but I love it as a fun activity outside of my job.  

You have a family with two young children.  Are you going to encourage them to become instrumentalists?

STEVE – We won’t force them, but we will give them those opportunities if they want.  Our son takes drum lessons and also plays upright bass in an orchestra. Because he is in percussion, he takes piano lessons.  

THEA — He is really into it and wants to come to every practice and stay for the shows.  Our daughter is into other things, like dance and gymnastics. She played cello at one time but was not into practicing.  She’s at the stage where she’s into friends.

Here are other artist suggestions we received from Thea and Steve:

Steve – 

Neocaveman (Milwaukee)

Human After All (Milwaukee)

Humbird (Minnesota)

Peridot (previously Fox Cities, Wisconsin, now based in Los Angeles)

 

Thea –

Chris Haise (Milwaukee)

Newvices (Milwaukee)

Collection of Colonies of Bees (Milwaukee)

A tip of the hat and a round of applause to Thea and Steve for shining a light on original music in a knowledgeable and insightful way!  If you have any questions, comments or recommendations for Thea and Steve, send an email to musicreviewroulette@gmail.com.  They will be glad to hear from you!

Listen to Music Review Roulette, available through Stitcher, The Shop FM, iHeartRADIO, or where ever you download your podcasts.

Twitter/Instagram: @musicreviewroulette, @brookebillickphotography

Brooke Billick is based in Milwaukee. By day, he is a mutual fund securities lawyer dealing with scads and scads of arcane laws, regulations and requirements designed to ensure that client assets are handled and invested appropriately. He is almost always willing to help cure someone’s insomnia through careful and lengthy recitations of the intricacies of modern portfolio theory, dollar-cost averaging, supply side economics, the Oxford comma, and similar topics. By night, he happily haunts crowded bars, taverns and music venues featuring live music while pursuing that perfect artist profile or facial expression. Over the past 40 years, Brooke has been actively photographing everything from scenic landscapes and portraits (including his sons, who typically respond to a camera with their middle finger). He has covered singer-songwriters, bands, and music festivals for several years, and feels energized by the passion and talent of the performing artist. Facing the prospect of retirement from full-time employment head on, Brooke looks forward to expanding his photographic opportunities and takes to heart Tom Petty’s advice – “if you don’t run, you rust.” Brooke’s website is perpetually ‘under construction.’ Until that project is completed (probably after he retires), @brookebillickphotography.

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