Mark Croft makes his living strumming his guitar at gigs primarily around Wisconsin.
On Thursday, he played to a small dinner crowd on an outdoor platform at the Schoolhouse Cafe in Paoli. Saturday was a four-hour set at the Sandbar Sports Pub in Pewaukee, and this week he’ll be at Grundahl Park in Mount Horeb for a Wednesday night show that is part of the village’s summer concert series.
Croft, who lives in Monona, played the Steel Bridge Song Festival in Sturgeon Bay earlier this month. But on the way home, he ran over a dead deer that hadn’t been removed from the highway near Beaver Dam. That adventure caused $3,200 damage to his car, which remains in the shop.
The road isn’t always kind or free — or even cheap.
But for a few hours last week, Croft and his four band mates in The Mark Croft Band — who mix pop, blues, reggae, funk and folk — were on a much larger stage.
On Wednesday, they played Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival that will draw nearly 1 million people to Milwaukee’s lake front over its 11-day run. And the appearance on the Johnson Controls stage wasn’t about the money, which he said barely covered the band’s expenses for the trip down Interstate 94.
“It was so cool to be there and realize that most people hadn’t heard me or my band play before,” Croft said Thursday morning while we sipped coffee at an outdoor table at Java Cat on Monona Drive. “They’re not there specifically to see you, but they’re stopping and listening because they like what they hear, and that’s great feedback.”
Summerfest offers stages to some of the biggest names in music. But the Big Gig is also a big deal for Wisconsin bands.
On Wednesday, Consult the Brief Case, a cover band founded in Stevens Point and whose members hail from places including Mosinee and Kiel, had the crowd rocking at Jo Jo’s Martini Lounge, a stage under a huge tent on the south side of the festival grounds.
It was just before 5 p.m., but lead singer and guitarist Shaun Krueger made it feel like a late-night show as she blasted her powerful voice into a vintage Shure microphone on tunes by Janis Joplin, The Who and Billy Squire.
The Milwaukee-based Love Monkeys, who played in the village of Dane Saturday and on the rooftop of Monona Terrace on Thursday, play Summerfest on July 5. That’s the same day that Steely Dane, a Steely Dan tribute band from Madison, will take to the Johnson Controls stage for an 8 p.m. performance.
Madison singer and songwriter Katie Scullin last played Summerfest in 2009 and will appear this year on the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage after winning the Project M contest sponsored by Madison’s WMMM-FM (105.5).
The Fort Atkinson native played a bar in her hometown Saturday night, Rhythm & Booms Saturday afternoon and on a stage the size of a piece of plywood on Friday night at Bowl-A-Vard Lanes on Madison’s Far East Side.
The modest stage was set up near the outdoor sand volleyball courts, within arm’s reach of tappers of New Glarus Brewery’s Spotted Cow and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy while traffic on I-39-90-94 rumbled above. Fewer than 20 people were in the crowd.
Just before strapping on her acoustic guitar for a three-hour solo performance, Scullin said all gigs are important, no matter how small.
“There’s a lot more of an adrenaline rush at a bigger gig like Summerfest and Rhythm & Booms, but every show we always give our all as much as we can because you never know who’s going to be in the crowd and who’s watching,” she said. “I’ve played for two people and I’ve played for 5,000.”
Scullin began writing music at 17 and started her first band a year later. About half of her show, which can include a five-piece band for larger venues, is made up of original music. Scullin plays rock, pop and melodies, making music full time except for infrequent bartending jobs.
She travels Wisconsin in a Honda Accord that has piled up 233,000 miles. Scullin is her own roadie for solo shows and also a mom.
This year, Scullin’s Summerfest show is at noon on July 6. She will have come from an 8 p.m. gig the night before at Springstead Lake Lodge. The lodge is just west of Lac du Flambeau in far northern Wisconsin — more than a five-hour drive from Milwaukee.
Said Scullin: “I put quite a few miles on.”
For Croft, his Summerfest appearance last week was actually his second. The first was about 10 years ago when he played a tiny tent stage along a walking path filled with exhibitors showing off gutter guards, bathtub liners and toothbrushes.
Wednesday’s show began within minutes of the gates opening so not many people, save for a few family members, saw the first songs. Eventually, the place started to fill.
After he paid his band, spent $60 for a permit to sell his CDs and gave his booking agent 20 percent, Croft had little monetarily to show for his two-hour stint. Had he not sold a bunch of CDs, Croft said he would have lost money on the show.
“You have to do these sometimes where you’re going and getting the exposure,” Croft said. “And I do feel like we got good exposure, so it was worth it.”
Croft grew up in Columbus, where he learned to play piano at a young age. He didn’t pick up a guitar until he was a student at UW-Madison and didn’t begin writing songs until taking a songwriting class in the fall of 2002 at UW-Extension.
That’s when everything changed. Croft met other writers and musicians, and three years later, released his first album. He’s won multiple awards from the Madison Area Music Awards, the most recent for his live album recorded last July at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point. It won for best American folk album.
Croft didn’t just play guitar and sing. He mixed the album in his home studio and created the album’s artwork.
“I think there’s a lot of talent here, but I’ve certainly learned it’s a difficult state to launch a music career from because the industry isn’t here,” Croft said. “The thing I’ve learned is that if you want to make big money in Wisconsin, you become a cover band.”
But Croft has other priorities, and as a result, he finds himself at a crossroad.
He wants to continue to make music but be home and to provide for his family, including his wife, Kiersten, and 9-year-old stepson, Noah. Croft says his current pace is unsustainable. He’s spent a lot of time lately rethinking his path.
“If the opportunity to be that guy at the Marcus Amphitheater stage came up, would I pass it up? No, I wouldn’t pass it up,” Croft said. “But I don’t know if my ego needs that anymore. I have learned that I can find more enjoyment playing for five people that are really paying attention, in a room where there’s not a Brewers game on, than I get from being in a room with 250 people that aren’t paying attention. That energy just feeds you like nothing else.”