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The One & Only ‘Summerfest’

05:48 PM Wednesday 6/11/14 | |

Summerfest VP of Entertainment Bob Babisch talks with Pollstar about the annual Milwaukee event Guinness World Records certified as the “world’s largest music festival.”

On any given year Summerfest’s lineup seems as if it was created by Superman.  Fielding headlining shows at Marcus Amphitheatre each evening during the festival’s 11-day run along with an almost endless procession of acts spread out on the  many stages at Henry Maier Festival Park, appears to be a feat beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.

But Babisch and his Summerfest crew excel at the impossible.  Set for June 25-29 and July 1-6, this year’s Summerfest will host Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Outkast, OneRepublic, Dave Matthews Band, Zac Brown Band, Mötley Crüe, Fall Out Boy and Paramore, and Usher.

Digging deeper into the Summerfest lineup reveals Ray LaMontagne playing the BMO Harris Pavilion, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, Clay Walker at Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, Arctic Monkeys at Miller Lite Oasis, Neon Trees on the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue on Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, and Rick Springfield rocking the Uline Warehouse. 

But that’s just on day one.  Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Kansas, Girl Talk, John Hiatt, Yonder Mountain String Band, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, and Bonnie Raitt are just a few of the other artists making the trek to Brew City.

While speaking with Pollstar about Summerfest, Babisch sounded more like Clark Kent than a man of steel.  Friendly, down-to-earth and very much a music fan, Babisch just might have one of the best jobs in America.  One thing is for certain – he has the best gig in Milwaukee.

Counting down the days to Summerfest, Is every day busier than the day before?

We’re rockin’.  We’re getting excited. A lot of stuff going on.  We’ve announced all the grounds entertainers …  Now, we’re breaking it down per day, per stage, getting it out to the media.

Summerfest bills itself as the “world’s largest music festival.” Is that by attendance, box office, or a combination of factors?

I think it’s a combination.  From an attendance point of view, it’s an 11-day event that does anywhere between 800,000 to 1 million people every year. … That’s a pretty huge event. … It’s probably bigger than anything else going on around the country … that’s music related.

How wide a radius to you draw from for your audience?

We draw from every state in the country, from Europe, people come from all over the place. … Besides being the biggest, it’s also the best deal you’re going to find.  Look at the ticket price.  $18 to get in, half-price deals.  There’s always some kind of discount to get in every day. It’s the best bargain out there.

Is there any annual event in Milwaukee that’s bigger than Summerfest?

No.  I think the State Fair is probably close to that.  That’s in one of the suburbs – West Allis.  But as far as a music-centric event, this is definitely the biggest thing.

Have you already started planning next year’s Summerfest?

We probably have three, maybe four holds on the Marcus Amphitheater for next year’s Summerfest season.

Is one year as far ahead as you plan or are you already looking at 2016?

No, 2015 is as far as we’re going.  I think back to [when] we were talking to William Morris Endeavor about Bruno Mars for last season, and when that didn’t happen they were talking about bringing him in for 2014.  We had a date on hold on by July of last year.

When you’re negotiating for your top-tier headliners, are you ever presented with a situation where you can’t get the headliner unless you book a baby band that’s also represented by the headliner’s agency?

It’s never said that way.  But when you have somebody that’s put a national name out and they’re just as passionate about some new up-and-coming band they have, you’ve got to take a good look at it.  We look at them and if we think they’ll fit in, we always want to do them. There’s 11 stages going on for 11 days and there’s a lot of time slots to fill up. …  We want almost everyone that’s coming down the pike.

What are some of the acts that you booked as up-and-comers that  are now major headliners?

I think Bon Jovi played the Rock Stage.  R.E.M. played the Rock Stage.  A lot of acts came through here and played small [stages].  Imagine Dragons played one of the free stages on the grounds.  It’s been great.  It’s always good to see that happen.  You try to get them into the amphitheater as soon as possible after that if they’re becoming superstar status.  It’s a cool thing.

How many people does it take to put on Summerfest?

We probably have 800 people working during the festival – between ground crew, restaurants, beer distribution, stage hands, everything else.  The year-round staff, I believe, is about 50 to 60 now.

How long have you been with Summerfest?

This is …  year No. 37 as entertainment director.

Did you ever think this one event would be your life-long career?

(laughs)  No.  But I enjoyed it from the very beginning.  A lot of changes have gone by, that’s for sure.  From the first day there’s that excitement.  Anybody who does these events or does anything in the music business will tell you that it’s a lot of work to put an event together.  But there’s that moment when the band walks out and the crowd goes crazy … and knowing that you’re part of that is the coolest thing.  That’s why we all do it.

What was your position when you first joined Summerfest? 

I started one year as a stage manager for the Schlitz Country Stage.  Then the next year, all the guys who were doing Summerfest left to do ChicagoFest.  I got a call in April of that year saying, “Come on down if you’re looking for work.”   I had been doing some things in town, in the concert business. … I had a 10-minute interview and that was that. And I’ve been here ever since.

Other than the lineup what’s different about this year’s Summerfest compared the 2013 event?

I don’t know if there’s anything really standing out. … We’re trying to do a few more daytime things, trying to bring in a few acts like John Hiatt … trying to drive some business into the afternoons, get people down here to have a little fun.  Kenny Wayne Shepherd is in the afternoon, Pretty Reckless is in the afternoon.  There’s a lot of fun stuff to do. But nothing has really changed this year.  There’s a lot of work going on.  There’s a huge bridge that goes over the Summerfest grounds and the stage, we’re refinishing that. 

Come July 7, the day after the last day of Summerfest, does everybody take a deep breath or do you dive into next year?

The difference about Summerfest is that the site is used all summer long.  You have ethnic festivals happening every weekend, or runs … We have a huge run we do two weeks before Summerfest called the “Rock ’N’ Soul.” … We kick the grounds off, usually around Memorial Day.  This year we have the BMO Harris Stage.  We have Vampire Weekend in there June 4. … Polish Fest happens, then Summerfest happens, then we have a week break, then [we] have stuff going all the way to the end of September when Lorde [appears].  We have a lot of things happening all summer long.

Do you market Summerfest year-round or is there a set period of time for selling the event?

One of the things that’s a little different, when you look at the amphitheater shows, those are all hard-ticket events.  We’re putting those on as we get them confirmed.  So we’ll have acts that we’ll put up on sale for Summerfest in the amphitheater in November, already.  We usually have a country show that will get out there in November.  Then we’ll start announcing shows … maybe another one in December and then we really start to push it in January.  We always have something to talk about.

We’re right in the middle of it now.  We’ve announced all but one of the amphitheater shows.  We’ve announced all the grounds acts and now we’re putting them on specific stages, we’re announcing that this week.  There’s always something happening that we talk about as we go.

What factors do you consider when placing acts on specific stages?

We try to have an eclectic lineup. We try to hit as many formats as we can every day on the grounds because we want people to come down and sample a little bit of everything.  We try not to double up on the same format on specific days. That gets a little challenging when you figure you have … 10 major stages with national acts going at night. It’s a little tough to keep that organized.  We’re trying to get the cream of the crop in 11 days [with] five, six bands per stage per day. 

How many vendors do you have?

I would say there’s probably 40 or so on the grounds, all local food vendors, local restaurants putting their food out there.  And we have plenty of beverage stands, of course.

  • Britney Spears

    Summerfest, Marcus Amphitheater, Milwaukee, Wis.
    July 9, 2011

    (Bobby Talamine / SkipTheDial.com)

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But there’s only so much space for vendors.  Are you turning any vendors away?

Oh, yes. The people in our food and beverage programs are really cognizant of the different things we have on the grounds.  They don’t want to have, like 9 pizzas or anything like that.  They’re careful to lay it out and get a little something for everybody.  There are plenty of food samplings on the grounds. 

With 37 years of doing Summerfest have you gotten to know your customers?

There are plenty of  [people] who … I see year after year.  There’s a group of guys who never miss opening day. They always come out here in their Hawaiian shirts.  I stop and say hello to those guys every year. Part of the fun of doing this thing is getting out and seeing  if people are having a good time.  It’s a real party atmosphere, something we strive to do every year.  It’s great.

Are there moments during Summerfest that you can step back and just be a music fan? 

Oh, yeah. … I want to see the Kongos this year.  I want to see Brand New. I want to see Rise Against because I always like seeing those guys.  I want to see Pentatonix.  I want to see The Bleachers, the ones who have the guitar player from fun.  I think their song that’s out there right now is great.  There’s a bunch of stuff I want to see – New Order, Kip Moore, the list goes on.  Of course, in the amphitheater there’s tons of stuff.  I want to see Bruno, I want to see Gaga.

How much of any performance do you actually get to see?

Two, maybe three songs in the amphitheater.  I’ll stop and watch a couple of songs when it’s first starting out, then you got to worry about settlements and all that kind of stuff.  Once the amphitheater is done then I’ll try to hit the grounds and see a couple of songs here, a couple there.

During the weeks leading up to Summerfest are you the most popular guy in your neighborhood?

I don’t think most of the people know what I do – so probably not. [But] I get[some]  people calling looking for tickets.

About how many hours per day do you put into Summerfest?

This time of year … I get here, probably, 8, 8:15 a.m., then I’m out the door by 6:30, 6:45 p.m. … there’s some marketing people who are putting more hours in than I am.

And once the festival begins?

We’re usually here anywhere between 8 or 9 in the morning and we probably get out of here, once the crowd gets out, about 1:15, 1:20 in the morning.  Then we turn around and do it again.

With 37 years under your belt, have you been able to streamline operations?

You do get to streamline it a little bit. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time.  There are some things we can do and some we can’t. We try to get that message out early to the bands.  You have to keep the machine running. It’s got to be a smooth operation.

  • Kanye West

    Summerfest 2011. Henry Maier Festival Park, Milwaukee, Wis.
    June 30, 2011

    (Jennifer Bronenkant / ConcertLivewire.com)

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Summerfest has numerous ticket options – three-day pass, weekday value pass, 11-day power pass.  From a music fan’s perspective, what’s the best deal?

I like that 11-day pass.  For $70 you can’t go wrong.  Once again, tickets are so inexpensive. You can see a lot of bands. There are some amphitheater [shows] that you have to buy a separate ticket for … look at the first Saturday with The Yardbirds, REO Speedwagon, Girl Talk, Robert DeLong, Walk Off The Earth, A Great Big World, Dennis DeYoung, Kongos, Michael McDonald, John Hiatt, Kopecky Family Band, Cory Chisel – there’s just a ton of stuff for the $18 general admission price on one day.  Plus you get to do all the people watching.  How good is that?

Do you have fireworks for the Fourth of July?

We do fireworks on opening day, June 25.  Then the city of Milwaukee does their fireworks on the lakefront on the 3rd of July. [That’s] just a little north of the Summerfest grounds.

Is this the best job anybody could ever have?

Absolutely.  I look back and [think] how lucky I am to have 37 years, 38 years doing this. I’m having the time of my life.  I love going to work every single day.

So it’s one great way to spend a week.

It’s a party.  That’s part of the charm. The ticket price is so low, people just want to come here and have fun. Even if you don’t see a band you like, it’s still a cool place to hang on a nice warm summer day.  Come down, walk around, do some people watching, dance on a picnic table, just have some fun.  There’s nothing like it.

  • Bob Babisch

    “We try to have an eclectic lineup. We try to hit as many formats as we can every day on the grounds because we want people to come down and sample a little bit of everything.”

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Please visit Summerfest’s website, Facebook page, Tumblr blog and Twitter feed for more information.


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