From music to representation

(First published in Feb. 22, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Bon Iver manager Kyle Frenette cites new economy reasons to run for Congress


Kyle Frenette, whose management company Middle West handles the acclaimed band Bon Iver, says current policies are stifling opportunities.

America is an era of unlikely political candidates. Our president is a reality TV show star, after all.

Kyle Frenette is no TV star, but his life over the last decade or so has been about managing celebrities. Frenette, a Chippewa Falls native and Chetek resident, has announced his candidacy as a Democrat for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District.

He will join Polk County attorney Margaret Engebretson (already announced), and former Marshfield Clinic CEO Dr. Brian Ewert, who’s expected to announce later this month. Also looking to run for the seat now held by Republican Sean Duffy of Wausau is Bob Look, a former local radio host, and Ashland psychologist David Beeksma.

The 30-year-old Frenette has managed Eau Claire-based band Bon Iver since 2006, helping it go from an obscure indie rock band to a Grammy Award-winning act in six years. He was also a key contributor to the early stages of the Confluence Arts Center development in downtown Eau Claire, an $85 million arts center set to open this fall.

Jumping headfirst into politics is the next step in Frenette’s life. From an outsider’s perspective it may be an unnatural career change, but to Frenette it’s a logical move. “We’re at a point where I felt like I needed to spread my wings a bit,” Frenette says. “Working in the arts had been extremely rewarding and a complete expression of our freedoms. To me, those freedoms are at stake right now.”

Frenette stresses that he’s not a politician, and doesn’t want to be one. Rather he wants to be a representative for the people of the 7th Congressional District. He doesn’t see any leadership from Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau), who has represented the district since 2010.

One of the areas in which Frenette says Duffy has failed is his vote for the massive tax cut for corporations and the rich that passed late last year. In the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the tax rate for corporations was cut from 35% to 21%, the highest tax rate for top earners was lowered from 39.6% to 37% and the estate tax exemption was doubled.

“This trickle down thing we’ve tried it before,” Frenette says. “Why not work from the bottom up?”

Frenette grew up in a middle class family, where his parents had “decent jobs with good benefits” and were able to provide for a family of four. Looking back though, Frenette says his family was definitely on the lower end of the middle class and it shocks him how much his parents were able to provide given how little they had. Frenette wants to give all middle class families in the 7th District a chance to grow and succeed like his did.

One issue concerning Frenette is the lack of broadband access for 7th District residents. In some counties such as Marathon or Bayfield, more two-thirds of residents have access to high-speed internet. But in some places like Price and Polk counties, less than 25% of residents have wireless internet at those speeds.

High-speed internet could draw young professionals and businesses to areas of the 7th District that are struggling for good-paying jobs, Frenette says. “The policies being put in place by the majority are stifling that opportunity,” he says.

Frenette knows what access to opportunities can do for someone. If it weren’t for the scholarship he received to attend McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn., he might never have met Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, or created his management company Middle West from a four-person operation to a multi-million dollar company that employs 30 or more people during tours.

Those opportunities allow Frenette to give back to his local community. Visit Eau Claire Executive Director Linda John says Frenette has been a great contributor to the Eau Claire scene, even serving as a panelist for a music summit in late 2016. “Kyle has always been very supportive and is extremely knowledgeable about the issues related to the creative economy and development of a local arts and culture scene,” John says.

Still, the question many might ask Frenette is, “Why now?” He has a burgeoning management company; his biggest client is known worldwide. There’s not one seminal moment when Frenette decided to make a career change. Rather, it has been a culmination of events that started with the 2016 presidential election. He was in Iceland with a group of friends, woke up the morning after the November elections, and was stunned by the results.

Frenette’s transition to politics continued last August when he began listening to Pod Save America, a progressive political podcast hosted by four former Barack Obama staffers. The popularity of its message is something Frenette wants to tap into.

“I had to leave this area in order to find the resources I needed to start my career, but I came back,” Frenette says. “I want to encourage our young people to do that.”