For 50 years, Summerfest has brought together people
from all backgrounds who share a passion for music. It’s what
Summerfest has striven for since the start, says Bob Babisch, vice
president of entertainment. “Let’s get all the people from Milwaukee
to get together and celebrate the summer and good vibes, if you
will, and great music and all the different cultures,” he says.
Don Smiley, president and chief executive officer,
says the longevity of the festival is due to early and continuing
support of fans and sponsors. “Without that support, I’m not sure we
would have made it 50 years,” he says.
It wasn’t until two years after its inception, in
1970, that the festival locked in the lakefront location it still
holds today. While Babisch joined Summerfest years later, he’s happy
with the strides the festival has made in that spot, adding that
it’s evolved from a very temporary spot to one with permanent stages
“And it’s been a site for not just the Summerfest
period, but the entire summer,” Babisch notes, referring to the
plethora of cultural and ethnic festivals held throughout the season
on the Summerfest grounds.
For Milwaukee-born musician Steve Miller, who will
play July 2, it doesn’t get much better than Summerfest. “The
festival has always been an integral part of (the) Milwaukee and
Wisconsin music scene(s),” he says. “I’ve seen the venue change
quite a bit, and (I’ve) seen the city grow up.” He says that when
his band first started playing at the festival the city wasn’t sure
whether it liked Summerfest or not. “Then, as time went on, it
became part of the cultural scene of the city,” he says. “It’s a
much bigger audience for live music now.” In fact, he says he plays
for music lovers from four generations today.
Milwaukee native Victor DeLorenzo, who is best known
as a founding member of the Violent Femmes and, more recently, of
the band Nineteen Thirteen, has played at the festival on and off
for 40 years. He first attended when he was 16 years old, in the
“I remember going as a young kid, and I liked it
because the whole idea of an outdoor rock festival or music festival
just seemed really exciting,” he says. “Especially in the early
years, you really got to see some good stuff and didn’t have to pay
an arm and a leg to see it. In those days, it was a great place to
meet up with your friends. And you could still afford to buy a
Every year Summerfest makes changes to make the
festival experience even better. Adding new stages over the years
has made a big difference, says Bob Babisch, vice president of
entertainment. “And the new amphitheater is going to be the icing on
top of the cake,” he says. Look for:
-New 23,000-capacity American Family Insurance
Amphitheater to replace the current 30-year-old amphitheater.
Expected construction date: 2019, expected completion date: 2020.
-A newly designed Miller Lite Oasis stage, with a
better viewing area and new sound, lights and hospitality areas
-New major sponsorship making the festival now
formally known as Summerfest presented by American Family Insurance.
“(The sponsorship) enables us to keep ticket prices low for our
fans,” explains Don Smiley, president and chief executive officer.
“It also allows us to rebuild the North Gate, which will coincide
with the Lakefront Gateway Project in Milwaukee. And it gives us
the opportunity to rebuild the amphitheater.”
-A new North Gate and community plaza, which will
link the festival to downtown Milwaukee. Expected construction date:
later this year, completion date: 2018.
-A complete rebuild of the U.S. Cellular Connection
Stage for a larger performance area, more seats, improved access and
a backdrop of the Milwaukee skyline and the lakefront. Expected
construction date: later this year, completion date: 2018.
-Traveling and on-site historical exhibits detailing
decades of festival highlights.
The Art of
Booking a Gig
Over 40 years, Vice President of Entertainment Bob
Babisch has more or less perfected the art of booking music at
Summerfest, filling more than 350,000 slots. The process begins
shortly after the end of each year’s festival, when Summerfest
officials announce that they’re taking electronic press kits for the
following year. Babisch and a booking committee sift through these
acts and find the ones they feel belong at the festival and fit
“We put those deals together, and at the same time
we’re looking at all the other bands locally and regionally that
have played here or (at) other events that we feel are important to
the integrity of the festival,” he says.
They strive for an eclectic lineup, so attendees can
experience multiple music genres. “We try to have as broad of a
stroke as possible with the lineup. We try to hit every single genre
every single day of the week,” Babisch says.
He admits that it’s easy to fall into repetitive
habits. In addition to being hard to fill an 11-day festival, they
like to bring back artists who have a good track record of selling
tickets, especially for the amphitheater. “Putting a show on sale
that sells out — you want to do it again,” he says.
The way he books hasn’t changed a lot, and local and
regional acts are still essential bookings, Babisch says. “It
behooves us to put bands that are local and regional and
up-and-coming in front of (headlining) bands,” he says. “It gives
them an outlet to be seen and heard. You also want to hit all the
national up-and-coming acts, because you want them to remember they
got their start here at Summerfest and come back.”
For his part, musician Victor DeLorenzo feels the
process of getting a gig is more professional these days. His band
Nineteen Thirteen opened for The Avett Brothers on the festival
grounds prior to last year’s Summerfest.
“Everything is run on a tighter schedule,” he says.
“Decades ago ... everything seemed a bit more colloquial and a
little more neighborhood-y. Now it’s pro all the way, especially
with the acts that they’re getting.”
The biggest thing Babisch has learned is that booking
is very fluid and can change in an instant. “A lot of time you think
you’ve got a show done and it’s ready to go, but it doesn’t happen,”
he says. “You’ve got to make sure you have something in your pocket,
just in case.”
fresh acts are worth seeking out.
Car Seat Headrest
The rock band from Seattle will play July 2
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
The Americana group from Stevens Point, Wis., will play July 1
The Brooklyn, N.Y., rock band will play July 2
Milwaukee’s own electronic pop group will play June 29
The Chicago rock group will play July 8
Photo by Daniel Topete