In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Following a year off in 2020 and an abbreviated late-summer edition last year, Summerfest is back to “normal” in 2022. Well, kind of. Though the Big Gig has returned to its traditional late-June to mid-July timeframe this year, the 2021 format of nine Summerfest dates spread over three Thursday-to-Saturday blocks remains. Would you be surprised to learn that people have opinions about that? Shocking, I know.
Last year, I was just happy Summerfest was able to safely and responsibly come back in some way, shape, and form. Even if it was in September and there were two fewer days than the typical 11-day programming, it was back and it was glorious. Now that we’ve finished our second consecutive weekend on the grounds and, unlike pre-2021 installments, we still have one weekend to go, I’m reminiscing about the old format and am starting to wonder if I like that better. I’m not quite sure, but I see benefits (both plusses for attendees and economic incentives for the festival) for both formats. Between talking to people I know about the change, overhearing folks at Summerfest opining about it, and seeing chatter online about it, I know I’m not alone in comparing the nine-day/three-weekend Summerfest to the 11-day version with shows on weekdays.
Like I said, I’m mostly just glad it’s back in general, and there are far more significant things to worry about. Before I elaborate on my thoughts about this, I’m wondering have you heard similar discussions about the three-weekend vs. 11-day Summerfest format, Matt? And have you found yourself considering which version you prefer?
Matt Wild: Yep, I’ve heard plenty of chatter—both IRL and online—about Summerfest’s “new” format. And the tone of that chatter all depends on who’s doing the chatting.
Let’s start with me. I like the new format! As an increasingly elderly person whose body and mind are withering away as we speak, the weekend-only Summerfest is a godsend. Going out and drinking/enjoying live music/drinking multiple nights in a row can be tough, so having Summerfest pop off in three-day bursts—and having Sunday through Wednesday to collect myself before breaking down the gates again on Thursday to catch Doo-Wop Daddies play the BMO Harris Pavilion at noon—is pretty great. Does this “weekend warrior” format make Summerfest less of a local “event,” as I’ve heard some folks argue? I suppose, but I’m fine with losing that nebulous “vibe” in exchange for a more manageable festival experience.
I also find the new format pretty swell for covering Summerfest. I don’t know about you, but it was sometimes hard to wrap my editorial head around the old 11-day behemoth. As much as I enjoyed it, there was something so overwhelming about the whole thing, something so exhausting. I find that having the festival broken up into three discrete chunks helps me better organize my thoughts and actually write about Summerfest. I know we don’t do a lot of straightforward show reviews, but having the time to write more thoughtful and wide-ranging Summerfest articles has been nice. Look for a poignant sequel to my “Enjoying Summerfest despite [gestures broadly at everything]” piece soon.
But that’s just me. I can understand how the “new” format may be less than ideal for all sorts of folks: vendors who now have to block off three weekends instead of two, local club owners who now have to block off three weekends instead of two, service industry folks who work on weekends, etc. Like I said before, the tone of this year’s Summerfest chatter all depends on who’s doing the chatting.
So how about you, Tyler? Are you enjoying the nine-day, three-weekend format? And do you think it’s a viable model going forward? I definitely have some thoughts on that last bit…
Tyler: Occupationally speaking, yes, I have really enjoyed getting these built-in weekday breaks that—unlike in the 11-day format—allow me to have a little time to relax/recover, plan upcoming festival coverage, and even write about some non-Summerfest things for part of the week. For people like me and you (entertainment writers over the age of 35 who reside in Milwaukee proper), the new nine-day format is quite nice. Still, for both the weekend-dominating reasons you’ve already mentioned, and when taking some non-work-related factors into account, I’ve actually grown to miss the old 11-day runs of yore.
While I know it makes very little business sense for a massive festival to operate at half-capacity, I miss the easygoing Wednesday nights before tourists flocked to the grounds en masse, and the lazy Sunday evenings on the grounds after most out-of-towners had gone home. I miss having the option to limit my Friday and Saturday visits if I want to and still make it to the Big Gig a lot. It’s also worth noting that by shortening the schedule by two full days, the lineup has been reduced by close to 20 percent. Even when just taking main stages into account, that’s a loss of more than 100 acts—including dozens of internationally known headliners, a handful of afternoon dynasty acts, a bunch of lauded locals, and everything in between. It’s also two fewer Amphitheater shows, which means the nine that are booked really need to count. And if someone is forced to cancel or if a show drastically undersells, attendance figures will take a major hit.
Still, I get it. I really do. After missing an entire year in 2020 and making changes just to simply allow the festival to happen in 2021, it absolutely makes sense to cut operating costs, reduce booking expenses, and to let both the labor market and the comfort level of festival-goers bounce back with an event that lasts nine days instead of 11 for the time being. There are a lot of factors at play here, and the entertainment landscape has changed in innumerable ways since Summerfest started more than 50 years ago. While recognizing and respecting all of that, I still think it’s kind of unfortunate to see “The World’s Largest Music Festival” become noticeably smaller. And on a personal note, I do miss having that extra weekend.
So what do you think, Matt? Is this “the new way” or is it just “the way it has to be right now”? Do you think it will ever go back to the way it was and, more importantly, should it?
Matt: We still have three days to go, so I don’t want to spend too much time prognosticating about this year’s potential attendance numbers. Still, from what I’ve seen myself and heard from others—and factoring in the automatic 20-percent reduction you mentioned—I think it’s safe to say that this year’s fest won’t break any attendance records. And you know what? We’re going to have to get used to that.
Not only do I think the weekend-only format is here to stay, I think we’re going to see even more changes to Summerfest in the next few years. Longtime entertainment director Bob Babisch is retiring in 2022. Longtime CEO Don Smiley is stepping down after 2023. I think the folks who take over these positions are going to further tweak things and possibly look at ways to “right-size” The Big Gig. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Summerfest eventually gets shaved down to a six-day fest. (Or moved to three Friday-Saturday-Sunday blocks. I know Thursdays are essentially Fridays for a lot of folks, but going dark on Sundays seems goofy.)
Like you said, the entertainment landscape has changed in innumerable ways in the last 50 years. With music fandom becoming more and more fragmented, and with fewer and fewer artists becoming household names (and with many “household” artists retiring or passing on), it seems increasingly difficult to book a blockbuster 11-day fest that draws, say, 1 million people. Summerfest did top 1 million in 2001 and 2002, but recent years have been in the neighborhood of 700,000. In 2019, Summerfest posted its lowest attendance since 1986: 718,144. (I’m not really counting the late-summer, COVID-era, vax-card-required Summerfest of 2021, which drew only 409,386 people.)
So maybe the future of Summerfest remains weekends-only, but more densely packed? No disrespect to our region’s many fine cover and tribute bands, but stocking those early afternoon slots with more high-profile acts seems like a no-brainer. (There were a ton of people at Quiet Riot’s 3:30 p.m. show on June 24.) And I’m excited by the prospect of a new entertainment director shaking things up in the booking department. (Why this fest still doesn’t have a dedicated EDM stage is a complete mystery.) Right now, Summerfest’s “new” format is just a shortened one. Nothing else has changed. Maybe new management can figure out ways to truly exploit and maximize the weekend-only model.
Then again, I’m just happy Summerfest is back, period. It’s such a big, weird, hilarious, enjoyable, and uniquely Milwaukee thing. I don’t care if 900,000 people show up every year, or if 400,000 people show up. As long as it happens in the summer, in Milwaukee, on the lakefront, with thousands of friendly folks and hundreds of disparate bands and artists, I’m satisfied. That’s a vibe that can’t be replicated, and can’t be lost.
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