Some festivals like to talk big, boasting size and lineup. But with 11 days, 11 stages, over 800 acts and more than 1,000 performances for just about 900 thousand attendees, there’s no competition, the crown goes to Wisconsin’s Summerfest. The event will run from noon to midnight June 29 through July 3, 2016. It will take a brief, one-day break to observe the 4th of July, then the festivities resume on July 5 and conclude on July 10. The location is the picturesque 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park along the lakefront in Milwaukee. Festivalgoers can enjoy food, beer, shopping, interactive exhibits, and a party on the lakefront. However, the real draw is the music. Summerfest is one of the most diverse sonic experiences you could ever imagine. The phenomenal lineup crosses all genres and features all size acts from emerging new bands to long-established global conquerors. And the bulk of the responsibility for bringing in all of that talent falls on the shoulders of Bob Babisch, VP of Entertainment for Summerfest. The 2016 event marks Bob’s 39th year of working the festival.
“This is all I’ve ever done since I was 26 or 27. I wouldn’t know how to do anything else,” the jovial VP told AXS.
But we’re not completely buying that. Over the years, Babisch has adapted and learned how to navigate the ever-changing challenges he has faced due to the drastic upgrades and modifications made in technology. Furthermore, to acquire the lineup of top tier talent that Summerfest consistently has to offer fans year after year while remaining so engagingly charismatic and good-natured under all the stress, you need to have a highly enviable skill set that would make you a top candidate for just about any position you desired.
In the early days, Bob recalled making offers to artists via telegram. “Then after that, it was a telex. That’s the way you did it, you waited for your contracts to come in hard copies, and then you made the changes. If you needed any pictures or any promo materials, you had to wait for them to be overnighted to you because that was the fastest way to get them.”
Considering the 75 acres of festival grounds, Babisch noted, “We had the same size site back then and the only way you could find someone was we had these phones located behind each stage and you had to dial a three-digit code – yes, dial, there was a three-digit number that you actually dialed into a phone – and then somebody yelled that somebody was looking for you at some stage,” he laughed. “And we went from that to beepers – somebody beeped you… then you still had to go find one of those phones to call whoever was beeping you! We’ve come a long way.”
Although the many advances in technology have admittedly made a great deal of his job easier, there are other aspects that have become increasingly difficult.
“So many people have their digital fingers in the pie that you can’t hide anything from anybody,” he pointed out. “A couple of weeks ago, we wanted to have this big splash announcement, but we knew it would never happen. Some fan club guy is going to learn about it because he talked to some person who mentioned it in passing and then he’s going to write a little blurb about it on some little fan site and everybody’s going to know about it within 24 hours. That’s not how we want to break the news. That doesn’t give me any punch.”
Luckily, to counterbalance the lack of control he feels when it comes to a focused and impactful press strategy, Bob has the weight of an amazing lineup. When asked how he comes up with such an incredibly diverse list of talent, he replied, “There are a couple of us who do the booking. We sit down and we really get into it for a couple of days each week. I like certain things and they like certain things, but we are always cognizant of the fact that we are trying to hit as many genres as we can. It’s 11 days and 11 stages, so there is a lot of inventory that you need for that kind of an event. You need to be always looking to see who’s going to be in the market, who can get some people in front of their stage, and who fits the multi-genre criteria.”
Although Babisch wasn’t inclined to name any names, he expressed a great concern for the future of festivals, noting that many of the ones that are happening this year have an almost identical lineup. “Festivals are a destination event, if you have the same lineup at every festival, it becomes nothing more than a tour.”
With a potent bill consisting of such diverse acts as Paul McCartney, Luke Bryan, Sting and Peter Gabriel, Chris Stapleton and Alabama Shakes, Pitbull, Selena Gomez, Wheezer and Panic! At the Disco, Blake Shelton, Def Leppard, Rise Against, Tim McGraw, Kacey Musgraves, Blink-182, Ryan Adams and The Shining, Passion Pit, Willie Nelson, Hollywood Vampires, Jason Derulo, Death Cab for Cutie, Garbage, The Roots, Barenaked Ladies, Nelly, Neil Finn, Rachel Platten, and literally hundreds more, Summerfest has no such worries. Milwaukee’s long-standing love affair with great music is going to keep the event vibrant long after the rise and fall of the countless overhyped hipster havens that have become all the rage in recent years.
“The whole theory when we started this 49 years ago was that this festival was for the people of Milwaukee. We wanted to keep it inexpensive and make sure that there was something for everybody, all the time. A one-day general admission ticket – not valid for the Marcus Amphitheater shows – is still only $20. You can go the first day and see Willie Nelson, Joan Jett, Fitz and the Tantrums, Martin Garrix, Dustin Lynch, Weird Al, and Morris Day and The Time. You can see a rock show, you can see a country show, you can see a hip-hop show, and you can see some gospel. There’s a little something for everybody. It’s a melting pot, that’s always been the theory, and I don’t think you see that in other festivals.”
In closing, Bob told AXS, “Because I’ve been here for so long, I’m really involved in everything from the marketing to the sponsorships to everything else. There’s a great staff here. We’ve got great people in marketing, we’ve got great people on the food and beverage side, we’ve got great people in accounting, and it goes all the way up to the CEO. These are people who bleed Summerfest. If you look around at the people who are here, you’ll realize that half of them have been around for 15 or 20 years. They come here because they love it. And they stay here because they love it.”
Summerfest patrons can purchase tickets for the festival at an incredibly low price. General admission tickets are $20; Weekday tickets (valid prior to 4:00 p.m.) are only $13; and Multi-day tickets offer the festivalgoer increased value (with no incremental service fees). To see all of the options, visit the Summerfest website.