February 28, 2017
Summer is just around the bend and the annual tradition of music festivals will soon get into high gear. While, most, if not almost all of these music fests will feature one or maybe a handful of music genres, only one - Milwaukee's Summerfest - will showcase scores of genres, all at the same time ... and at a reasonable cost to boot. And it has been doing so for 50 years. MWF VP/Entertainment Bob Babisch describes what goes into a successful Summerfest in a now-highly competitive festival season.
What were you doing before MWF and what made you decide to join?
This is my 40th year here, so I've been here a long, long time. I was in college, working at a record store, 1812 Overture, and one of the people who owned the store also had a production company in Milwaukee. I became a runner for them. After that, I worked for another promoting firm in Milwaukee, The Edgewood Agency, where I learned everything from box office to production. At one point, the Director of Entertainment for Summerfest was leaving to start Chicagofest. I had an interview with the new Executive Director for Summerfest, which lasted 15 seconds. He said that he was told I could do the job, tossed a contract to me, and said I had one day to make a decision. That was 1977, and I have been here ever since.
The original festival site was in downtown Milwaukee on the lakefront - a Nike missile site, but it was all temporary. The city decided that a festival in Milwaukee should bring all the people together, and to make it all genres ... and a party for everyone. That sparked an energy to create a permanent festival site for that small window of the year when we could enjoy the weather. We started with some temporary stages, then we rebuilt the 23,000-seat amphitheatre in two years with 9,000 seats undercover. Next to that was another amphitheatre that held 8,000, with 5,000 undercover. We added other stages from 14,000 to 2,000 -- all permanent stages. We improved the bathrooms and food stands. On top of the 11-day Summerfest, the festival site now holds an Ethnic or Cultural Festival almost every weekend. We now have German Fest, Pride Fest, Indian Summer, Mexican Fiesta, Polishfest, Irishfest. The list goes on and on. We can do something every weekend, as many shows as we can - even when the main pavilion is not being used.
How has the concert business changed since you started?
Back in the day, we would spend $50,000 for a headliner for our main stage area. Now it'll cost a million or more.
The main thing is, we're a little different than lot of other festivals. Our American Family Insurance Amphitheater, which holds 23,000 seats, can offer the biggest bands in the world, such as The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney. When we do have those acts at Summerfest, we have hard ticket pricing that justifies the cost of the artist. But for the rest of the Summerfest grounds, you only pay $20 to get in to see the other national acts on stage every night. We give the people of Milwaukee the best bang for their entertainment buck.
It's also important to present music that's multi-genre. Every single day of Summerfest, we have a Country stage, a Hip-Hop stage, ones for Pop, Classic Rock ... the list goes on ... with one ticket, you have the opportunity walk around to all these stages and enjoy yourself.
Is EDM becoming a regular part of your music mix?
EDM is a great example of a popular new music movement. But I'd also like to see some more new, young live bands come back. Music being cyclical, I'm sure it will come back. We remember a swing phase and a zydeco phase. Country is big right now. We watch those trends. First it was hip-hop; now it's EDM that'll do real well. We always have to remember when it comes to festivals, as people get older and move onto other forms of entertainment, younger generations come on and we have to be cognizant of that. We make sure we are on the forefront of it.
When do you start booking for the next year's Summerfest?
This year's fest runs from June 28th through July 9th, although we always close on the Monday in between (this year, July 3rd). I would bet that by the middle of this year's Summerfest, we'll already have three or four acts for next year. Booking a year out is not unusual; then for the other stages, we sometimes wait to see what acts will be on tour packages and can play our big buildings.
When lining up the talent for the various stages, is it a problem to deal with all the egos from artists and their management in terms of amenities or their place on the lineup?
There are always going to be situations. We tell them our ticket prices are inexpensive, and they have to understand, for instance, that we can't afford catered meals for all the artists performing on secondary stages. But they do know when they come here, they'll get good production and perform before big crowds; that's important to them.
With so many outdoor stages, how do you deal with competing sound systems?
The way the stages have been laid out on the fairgrounds through the years, we've been able to minimize the ambient noise and one stage's sound bleeding into another. We continuously try to alleviate that as much as we can. A festival like ours can attract 100,000 people a day; our record is 132,000. To make this work, we have to make sure there's plenty of room between the stages so everyone can see and enjoy all the different styles of music.
Describe the relationship Summerfest has with local radio stations.
Local radio stations don't "own" stages, but they can have their representatives on a specific spot on the grounds. We advertise with all the radio stations; we love the fact that they want to have a presence at our festivals. It's like a rite of spring. When it first starts to get really warm - usually in late June - people want to rock. They want to get out and have a good time, and our big events provide a great place for them to go.
In this day and age, with an 11-day festival, on top of your other summer events, security must be a never-ending concern.
Our CEO, Don Smiley, has been on top of this for years, when the notion of terrorism became a reality. We have always been in the forefront to make sure our patrons are safe. We utilize magnetometers that people walk through, and we have security bag checks. When we first started this years ago, we always did a media blitz weeks before each festival, essentially saying, "This is going to happen for your own safety, which might slow down the line, so please be patient so everyone can be happy." And nobody has complained about it.
What kind of food does Summerfest offer?
The food stands here are predominantly manned by Milwaukee restaurants. We try to balance them what a sampling of a variety of tastes. We want to make sure we don't have nine pizza places - and they're all next to each other. We like to spread them around so people can walk around the grounds and see lots of different food stands. The fun thing is that a lot people come down here just to have lunch and hang out, or have dinner and hang out. Or for a big national show at night, they'll come at noon and stay until midnight. That's why we offer a wide variety of choices.
I would imagine that more restaurants and food merchants would want a spot on the fairgrounds than there are spaces available. Is it difficult to choose who gets in?
There are food people who are grandfathered in - and we keep them, unless they decide not to come back. Then we bring new vendors in, with an emphasis on variety.
Is parking an issue at Summerfest?
We have parking around the grounds, but we also use a Summerfest shuffle system with the county that goes to and from various parking lots around the city. If you buy a ticket to Summerfest, your shuttle is free and you get dropped off at the front gate. We estimated that 55% of the people who come here ride buses. There are also plenty of city parking lots located in Milwaukee that are walking distance from the festival. There is usually plenty of space in these lots and many have shuttle options.
There are other festivals and open-air amphitheatres in the region, starting with Lollapalooza in Chicago and Alpine Valley in Troy, WI, that also operate during the summer. Do you find yourself competing with them for talent?
Not really. One of the things we have going for us is that we're truly multi-genre. We can tap into talent that ranges from Country and EDM to Classic Rock, and everything in between - and we're offering shows for 11 days, which offers an opportunity for practically every act working. Actually, we believe our main competition is in Europe because think about it, a run of European festivals go on right about the time of Summerfest. A lot of bands who think about coming here have the opportunity to head for Glastonbury and stay there doing festivals throughout Europe for a month or two. That's why we have to take advantage of multi-genre acts.
Has Summerfest ever sold out - even for a day?
No, but we have sellouts for our hard-ticket amphitheater acts all the time. For general admission on the grounds, we've never had a sellout - and we've been doing this for 49 years.
What was your favorite Summerfest concert?
I've enjoyed so many. The Stones were incredible; Paul McCartney was incredible. Years ago, the early Pearl Jam shows were great. Tom Petty's shows were magical. We've done so many for a long time.
Have you ever considered branching out to put on festivals in Madison or Green Bay?
We haven't. Summerfest is an epic event; on top of that we're a festival landlord for other city events. Sometimes you just want to focus on your best event and just stick with it. I'm sure Madison would be a great place for a festival, and the people in Green Bay would enjoy their own festival as well, but we've got our hands full here.
So what of your future ... and that of Summerfest ... always bigger and better?
I've been here for 40 years, and we still have new goals to conquer. For us, we feel that every year, we're rebuilding. You see it this year with the new Miller Lite Oasis stage. We're building new seats and a staging area. We will be completely rebuilding the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage and area to be ready for Summerfest 2018 and our latest partnership with American Family Insurance will allow us to tackle our biggest project yet, a new American Family Insurance Amphitheater. Construction of that project will begin by 2020. Along with the Amphitheater rebuild, we will also be reconstructing our north gate and box office. We're always upgrading systems and improving the fan experience, which is the most important thing for us to do. By and large, we stick to what works best for us. As long as we hit every genre, we can provide them with the best facilities they'll ever find.