Milwaukee's signature event, Summerfest, begins its annual run on June 28 at the Lakefront.
With 10 shopping days left before the first beer is tapped and the first power chord is struck, we figured it was time to catch up with Don Smiley, the CEO of the festival, and Bob Babisch, the vice president of entertainment.
Enjoy the Milwaukee Talks interview with Don and Bob:
OMC: Thanks for meeting us with us, gentlemen. As the countdown to the World's Largest Music Festival intensifies, how are things going here at headquarters?
BB: It's insane. But, it's always insane, so everything is normal.
OMC: Since Bob is obviously a veteran, I'd like to ask Don if this is getting to be old hat by now.
DS: I don't think it's old hat. There is always something new and exciting that comes up at either the last moment or at sometime during the festival. You never take anything for granted. But, there is so much experience around here in terms of personnel. Our staff can handle anything.
OMC: Do you guys feel more pressure because it's the 40th birthday?
DS: We're excited. Our plans, promotions, advertising and marketing plan have been in place for awhile. Forty years is really something, when you think about it; that this festival is able to sustain itself and stay economically viable over 40 years when you consider how many music festivals come and go on a year-in, year-out basis. Some make it two years, some make if five years, some make it 10 years, but four decades is really saying a lot.
OMC: How has this festival been able to survive?
BB: One of the reasons that is because it's never been really a fast-buck kind of thing. You never had promoters coming in here seeing how much they could get out of the market and how much they could get out of people. It's always been kind of a people's event. A people's festival. It's had its chance to grow that way. It's had its bumps like anything else, but ...
DS: Mayor Maier wanted it to be affordable to the masses and to this day, it certainly is. We just did a ticket-price analysis of some other festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, SunFest in West Palm Beach and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. When you compare their ticket prices and what they offer compared to what we offer and our ticket prices, this is just one heck of a value that you can't find in the music business.
OMC: Consumers in Wisconsin are known for frugality. Would charging more at the gate allow you to bring in acts that would result in better attendance?
BB: A lot of the time, those bands that make people say "Oh, oh," we have already booked. There are acts we can't get because during our time they're in Europe or they aren't working. I'm not necessarily talking about the flavor of the month, but there are some names, like the White Stripes, that we go after and they go to Europe.
Europe is a real thorn for us right during our time period. A lot of people go over there. When you look at the stuff in the states that's available, we get the lion's share of it.
OMC: So why aren't you guys charging $25 a ticket? The price of everything else seems to have gone up. Concert tickets certainly have.
DS: We try to keep it as affordable as possible. If you walked up on a Saturday night at 9 p.m., it's going to be $15. You can't walk up to SunFest in West Palm or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at 9 on Saturday night and do that. You're going to pay $40.
BB: That's if you can even get a ticket at the gate. I'm not sure you can.
DS: That's right. How do we do it? We have great corporate support. Without that corporate support of companies in the city and state, and we're starting to reach out nationally now. Without that type of support, I don't think you can keep the ticket price at $15.
DS: The Amp is kind of a business unit in and of itself. The reason Bob is able to keep the ticket prices scaled where they currently exist is in large part because of the big-wig program. Like you'd have at Lambeau Field or Miller Park or whatever, those seat holders pay a license fee for those seats. That generates dollars for us and instead of charging $125 for a show, which you do in another market, we can charge $85. We try our best. It's becoming increasingly difficult to do. Bands prices aren't going down; they're going up. Production has gone up. We have to be aggressive and creative in how we generate other revenues.
BB: If you want the names and the act is going out, they know what kind of numbers in their head that they want. To do that, they set the ticket prices. It's an ongoing battle with us to keep our ticket prices lower than they are everywhere else.
One of the good things about Summerfest, and another reason why we can get some of those acts is that we do better in numbers as far as ticket sales in the Amphitheater as those shows will do somewhere else. That's just because it's attached to the festival. So, in some market where an act might do 10,000, we might get 15,000 or 16,000 people. We price it accordingly to get more people in the Amphitheater, not to get less people. A lot of times now, in the concert business what they're doing is they charge incredibly stupid money for the front section of the theater to do a show. Because they say "Well make the money out of the first 4,000 people and that's it." We don't do that.
OMC: That's probably a good strategy, given that Milwaukeeans are generally cheap.
BB: It goes back to being something for the people. But, price is important. We raise our beer prices a quarter and it's like you killed somebody.
OMC: Don, how do you answer some of the critics who argue that you are trying to court the Dockers-wearing, yuppie crowd by raising prices and bringing in acts that appeal to boomers?
DS: Is that what we're saying?
OMC: We've heard that, yes.
BB: I don't want to speak for Don, but when he got here there was a segment of our market that did stop coming down here. Maybe not exactly the Dockers-wearing yuppies, but there was a group that stopped coming. By doing things we've done, by putting the classic rock stage and things like that, we drew that audience back. That doesn't mean we're losing the other audience. We try to be very eclectic in the Amphitheater. You can see anything from Panic! At the Disco and The Fray to Steely Dan. We try to run the gamut.
DS: I thought the perception when I first go there was that it was a giant frat party every night: beer flyin' all over the place; no elbow room. It was tough to do this. It was tough to do that. We reached out to another audience that gave us the opportunity to talk about more elbow room, shorter lines at restrooms, shorter lines at the bars. The whole philosophy or strategy behind that was, in the past they used to announce attendance figures six times a day here. They would release them to the Journal Sentinel.
My first question is "Why do you do that? What could they possibly do with that information? I had a fight on my hands, even internally here. I said we're not going to announce it. They said you've got to announce it. I said, OK, we'll go from six (per day) to three. The next year, I didn't care who fought with me here (in the office). We weren't going to announce anything.
What happened was that if the weather was bad and we didn't draw enough big numbers, the paper wanted to write and the talk shows wanted to talk about "What's wrong with Summerfest?" If the weather was beautiful and there was 100,000 people here, then the stories were "It's way too crowded down there. You couldn't park. You couldn't do this. You couldn't do that."
I said "Wait a minute. We're providing the fuel for someone to start a fire for us here. We're not going to announce attendance at all until after the run. After the run we'll announce the attendance and either it will measure up to what we budgeted, which is public information, or it didn't. If it didn't, fine, there is going to be scrutiny, I'll take that and we'll go from there. But, this benchmark of drawing a million people to define success was misplaced or misguided the way that I look at it.
If you draw 850,000 people -- the difference is 150,000 over 11 days -- that means a lot here service-wise. When you have a million (in attendance), everything is stretched to the limit. Guys our age (40s and 50s), they don't want to get pushed. They don't want to get spilled on. They certainly don't want to be around a fight.
So, we take the emphasis off of the million figure, which is just the opposite of what you do in baseball. This is an 11-day event, not a six-month season you're selling a piece of real estate. You're selling a chair there. Here, we're not. If you'd have fewer people spending more money, don't you have a better event? Those people (who complain) have too much time on their hands. The thinking was, let's get this place thinned out a little bit so people will come back.
BB: There is actually a story. We did Prince one year on opening night at the Amphitheater and it was bitterly cold. I think when he hit the stage, it was 44 or 45 degrees. It had rained for a couple hours. The high temperature for the day was 63 or 64 degrees. The attendance was down 15,000 from opening day the year before and the paper did write "What's wrong with Summerfest?" Why would you want to plant those stories and that being the topic of every story?
OMC: You probably have a unique situation in that your core audience is made of people who attend more than one day during the festival's run and have been to a number of festivals in the past. You have a lot to measure up to in that regard, don't you?
BB: There are a lot of those people who come back. But, there are a lot of people who come here for the first time or the second time. There are people that look at the lineup and say "Here's Panic! At the Disco or here's Plain White T's. " I like them.
DS: There is this whole thing about reaching out nationally that makes sense. If you are the world's largest music festival, people in San Antonio and South Florida and Northern California should know about you. The core customer, I think really comes from the zip codes that you're familiar with and the counties you're familiar with. They start coming young, then all of a sudden they're in college. They start coming back. There is a constant turnover of people coming and going. And, you get new people.
Here is a good example. This guy was buying 150 VIP tickets, which is a nice account for us. These are ostensibly group tickets, instead of $15, they're $12. At the end of his letter, he wrote: "Just a side note. We are an affiliate of a Swiss company. Last June, the worldwide CEO Patrick Winter was here to sign documents for our merger. That evening, we took him to the opening night of Summerfest. He had such a great time that he has decided to spend his vacation at Summerfest (2007). He will arrive June 28 and will be at Summerfest every day until he closes. He told me he has invited some of his Swiss friends to travel with him and attend Summerfest.
That's a home run for us. Here is a guy who has done a merger in Milwaukee. Maybe he does more business in Milwaukee. Maybe he buys a like home on Okauchee (Lake). Who knows where something like that goes? But, he was introduced to it because of Summerfest.
BB: With the Ludacris situation, what they were missing is he's doing a PG(-rated) show. And, all they talked about was Ludacris. They didn't talk about the rest of the package. Chris Brown is an up and coming R&B star. Ciara is an up and coming R&B show. T-Pain has got his own thing going. It's not a hard-core rap show. We wouldn't do a hard-core rap show here. I don't know why Charlie Sykes got on his throne and decided to talk about that.
We try to bring the best talent that's available for all the genres that are working during our time. You'll see here Ne-Yo here for the young, urban R&B kids, or Morris Day and the Time for the old-timers. Or, you'll see B.B. King for the blues fans. We try to do everything in all the genres.
When we're putting the lineup together, we sit back and say "We've got to have some country this day; we've got to have some urban this day; we've got to have some rock this day. Our sponsors will tell you. Harley-Davidson will tell you "We want everybody to buy Harleys. Briggs and Stratton will say "We want everybody to buy lawnmowers." We want people to come to our festival.
OMC: In a way, the debate about whether you guys reflect the city actually does a good job of shining a light on the way a lot of people in town deal with race issues.
DS: What people forget to mention is that Ludacris was here in 2004. Let's just leave it at this: that conversation, that debate will never go away. We're supposed to do it. We want to do it. When we do it, then you get criticized. It's just never going to go away. It's such an old, boring, out-of-date conversation.
We are a music festival. We are the World's Largest Music Festival. We have to provide every genre of music for nearly every musical taste out there. If we don't, we're not living up to our own responsibility. If you sign just the music that Bob Babisch likes to listen to, that's not the right thing to do. If you just sign bands that I like to listen to, that's not the right thing to do. This whole conversation, as it pertains to diversity is dated, non-factual and to us, something that just basically exists and it won't go away. It's just part of the business. For some reason, people like to talk about that. And they believe that it's an issue that inflames other people. For what reason? We have no idea.
The people that criticize like that, I will bet you a dollar to a donut that they are not coming to this festival anyway.
OMC: So, you're not overly concerned about security for that particular night?
DS: Ludacris was here in 2004 and there was not one incident. We shy away from shows that we think are going to be troublesome situations. Anything can happen on any given night. We hope that it doesn't happen on that particular night, because a lot of people will point to it. But, that would not be a fair analysis of what is going on.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.