Babisch joined Summerfest in 1976 and has booked every imaginable act out there, an impressive list that's far too long to share here, but suffice it to say it includes The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and countless others in every genre and at every level of the business.
Ziel, his replacement, has been working on Babisch's team since 1992, starting out on the festival's smallest stages and advancing to working alongside Babisch booking American Family Insurance Amphitheater shows.
As Babisch prepares to retire after nearly 50 years, leaving the office in Ziel's capable hands, we talked to them both.
OnMilwaukee: So Bob, tell me why now?
Bob Babisch: Well, I've been doing it for a long time. And I'm turning 71. And I felt I wanted to have an opportunity to do some of the other things that you don't get to do in the summer, and maybe perhaps a little more even in the winter.
I like to spend more time out in Arizona in the winter, I like to do some hiking. I want to see my daughter's plays in Oregon, where she's doing theater. I want to play more golf with my wife and my son. I want to fly fish with my son. All those kind of things. And I want to be able to do that before I get too old to really enjoy them.
I want to be able to still walk a golf course and hike a hill before I get too old and I can't enjoy it as much. And I've been watching Mr. Ziel here, doing such an incredible job as he moves forward in his field. And I thought, “it's Scott's time.” I told somebody the other day, "We are just stewards of the festival. And it goes on and it has to be handed to the next person to take as good a care of it as we did." So that's what I'm doing.
Was it difficult for you? I mean did you agonize over it? You've been doing it for so many years.
You wake up in the morning for more than 40 years and it's sort of part of who you are, right?
Bob: Yeah, yeah. That'll be difficult. Also, I'm lucky enough that I'll be able to continue through this year as the Vice President of Entertainment and Scott's the Entertainment Director. And then after that, I'll be able to have a consulting role with the company and be able to be involved in. And every now and then I told Scott, I'll throw a couple stones on his window, outside of his office and he'll look out and I'll be doing, "Hey, what you doing?"
I can always wash his car or something like that, if he needs help.
Have you guys discussed what the consulting role looks like, other than washing Scott's car?
Bob: Well, I think I have some connections in the business that he may not have. He's got plenty of connections, but I may have some others. And if I could help him score a couple of shows, I think that'll go a long way. And he's meeting those connections also through the years. And we have relationships with other companies and he's getting a chance to learn how to do that.
So I think he's way ahead of everything. He's going to do spectacular.
Scott, did you see this coming? Was this a surprise to you or had you guys talked about it? Had you seen him looking wistfully at pictures of Arizona?
Scott Ziel: (Laughs) We've worked together since he hired me seasonally in 1992. I mean he's the person that said, "Hey, you seem to know a lot about bands. You want to make a couple offers?" And so, I made, I remember a year or two into it, he trusted me to make an offer on the free stages. And then maybe, I'm trying to think, Neil Young was the first amphitheater show that I helped book, because of a relationship that I kind of ... and he said, "Here, if you could convince her."
So it's that, the evolution of our relationship has been such that it's been great and strong and we're not only, we work together all the time. We're friends and our families are friends. And so when (Ziel's business) Pursuit Live changed and that kind of ended, Bob picked up the phone and said, "Well, hey. We've been working together, just physically haven't been in house. So why don't you come to work and see if you like it here? I'm not getting any younger, eventually I'm going to need some..."
Bob: Did I say that?
Scott: And I said, "But you're not looking any older."
Nice save. (Laughs)
Scott: So it was always kind of part of the plan and the last couple years in particular where certainly we've been through a lot of crazy stuff. And then you throw in the pandemic and having to book the festival, three, four, five times before it actually played. I knew that we were getting to a place and like Bob said, I mean, what a great place to be in, in terms of having an amazing career and great family and the ability to do some things now. But yeah, this was always, I think, a part of the plan.
Bob: When you work at Summerfest, you're part of a family. I mean, most people are here for quite a long time and it is part of my family. And I love the idea of being able to hand the reins to a Summerfest family member and not have to go outside and train somebody into how it's done here. Because it's always a little different here as it is in a lot of venues.
Scott brought up the pandemic and I can't pass up the chance to talk about it. You both just got a sort of unique experience, didn't you, booking these last couple years of Summerfest?
Bob: Yup. Put it up, tear it down, put it up, tear it down, put it up, tear it down.
Bob, can you remember anything comparable to that in your experience like that?
Bob: No. Absolutely not. You get so excited about having it done and you go, "Okay, this is the one. Now we're done." And then you'd have to, "Oh, it's not the one." Then you have to tear it down.
If some of the acts come with you, on both ground stages and the amphitheater, some of the acts came with us and rerouted with us to save time. And then you get the next one done. You go, "That's a really good lineup. Now we're done." Boom. You tear it down again.
And it's challenging. It's because you need to put as best a line up as you can for what's available at the time. And it can be challenging when you think you've got a great one and you have to tear it down and start all over again. But it's part of the business. I'd say we're not alone out there. Everybody's been in the same situation.
And we're awfully excited to be back doing this event for the people of Wisconsin and Southeastern Wisconsin and Midwest. Again, at our incredible price and putting the magic back out there where we couldn't be more excited.
Has walking through the fire given you the opportunity to kind of rethink Summerfest a little bit in terms of scheduling? Because now you're back in the June, July timeframe, but you're sticking, it looks like, with the weekends only. Which seemed to be maybe where Summerfest wanted to go in the past.
In the end, is it going to be a stronger Summerfest because of that?
Bob: Well we feel it will be, where the proof will be in the pudding because we haven't had a chance to do a three-weekend, three-day event in the summer yet.
But we couldn't be more excited about moving it back into the summer. I mean, it's challenging when kids go back off to school and all the pieces and the weather in the fall, you never know what it's going to be like, even though last year's weather was fantastic.
But there's something about, it's called Summerfest. And there's something about putting it in that warm time of the summer and ... I'm looking forward to it. I don't know about Scott, but I think you are too.
Scott what do you think is the most important thing you've learned from working with Bob all these years?
Scott: He's going to cringe because this is my go-to, and he's heard it 20 times, but a band can say no nine times, but they can say yes on the 10th time. Bob is relentless about not taking no for an answer. You might start making offers for an artist in October, November, and we're still trying to get them in January, February, or March, April, until they're so sick of us or they finally just give in. And part of it too is the persistence.
It's persistence, but it's timing and a little bit of strategy. It's like where you're trying to just say the right thing at the right time, to convince an agent to position it differently or just approach it differently with an artist.
Let's face it. I mean, there's a lot of hacks that say, "I'm not going to tour this summer." And, but then they get the itch in the spring. You never know when the phone's going to ring, the opportunity's going to re-present itself and you just literally have to be prepared for an eight- to almost 10-month ride to make sure that you dust yourself off a bunch of times and you just revisit it and just don't give up. Because the one time that you don't ask again would be the time that they might go for it.
Bob, who's the one act that you can think of from your long career that sticks in your craw that said no, even on the 10th time. Is there one that got away?
Bob: I've got one that said no, 20 times now. But I haven't given up yet. That could still happen. You never know. We keep trying.
You have a show you're most proud of? I mean obviously you've done everybody, right? But is there one that you're just like, "This is a dream."
Bob: Scott will also cringe because I'm telling this story all the time lately. But, last year I was backstage at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, doing something. I forget what. And I looked up at the Wall of Fame. I looked up at all the bands that have played here and are on that Wall of Fame. And I realized I've been involved in all of those shows through the years, which is pretty heady stuff.
And as you look up at them you have a story every time you see an act, "Oh, I remember a story about that. I remember a story about that. I remember a story about that." So each one of them is important. Some are bigger names than others.
But there are plenty of things that we've done that are just those magical nights that you booked them and they've exploded in size. Everybody wants them. They're on a smaller stage. I mean, we had one that we started on the Rock Stage and we ended up moving to this stage, to this stage, to this stage, to this stage, and ended up playing the Miller Stage because the amphitheater was booked already and we couldn't move into the amphitheater.
So those are those magical moments that you have all over the ground. So I can't have just one of the children. I love them all.
With all the stage upgrades that have happened, most notably, most recently, the amphitheater, you're leaving Scott in a pretty darn good position, aren't you?
Bob: Scott's been working on with all those venues now, already. So he's ready to go with it and it's going to be pretty exciting. It's pretty exciting for him. It's going to be pretty exciting for me to watch it all happen too.
Are you going to write a book?
Bob: Me?! Too many people I would write about are still alive. There's actually two books. There's the one that has the dirt. And the clean version. There's some of the stories we just can't tell.
Bob, what's the biggest change been in the business from when you started?
Bob: Yeah. I mean, it's different. Of course the money's much different than what it was back then. I mean, if you paid a major artist, $35,000 to do a show back then ... So the money's kind of stupid right now.
But more than that, the production values of shows, as you see them now. The venues get bigger and the production gets bigger. It's 25 semis full of gear that you're putting up. And one of the things about having ticket prices going up and having them go through the roof, is the artists are paying to put 25 semis full of gear on the road.
And it's gotten awfully expensive to put on these kinds of shows. We feed 120 people in a night, just crew working back there.
So it's gotten to be very, very big business and it's pretty cool. I mean, people go out to see a show now, they go to see a show. Scott. I mean, you know, how many times we talk about very video walls. Started out with every now and then somebody needed a video wall. Now everybody has to have a video wall.
And it seems like as much as tickets go up and up and up in price, and not just Summerfest, I mean, everywhere, just concerts in general, people are paying it, right?
Bob: You've got to remember that there was a time when a lot of the top price tickets, the P1 tickets were a fairly low price. And then people would sell them to the scalpers and scalpers were charged five times what they were worth.
And they were getting it and the band wasn't getting that money.
So now the band looks at it and goes, "Wait a minute. Why am I not taking part of that?" The promoters say, "Why am I not taking part of that?" So it drove the ticket prices up.
Scott, do you have any bucket list shows that are on your career dream list?
Scott: Well, it's probably not that hard to figure out who hasn't played the festival on the superstar level. We still haven't had bands like Coldplay and ...
Bob: Don't give away too many secrets though.
Scott: I think, that there's two parts to what we do. In terms of on the bigger level, is one, we have acts that have never played here, that we want to get. But there's also, I think what we pride ourselves in are finding the next big thing as they're becoming the next big thing.
It was awesome the year that we booked Lizzo, then she blew up. It was awesome that we were able to get Billy Eilish as she started to explode. So I would say, answering your question, I'd like to catch the next big fish as it's getting big.
And we clearly are something for everyone. We're not one style of music. So we have the ability to kind of really look at different, emerging styles of music and try to stay ahead of the curve. So that they're right there as things happen.
Obviously you like to book who you want to see yourself, but that's not exactly how it works. You need people to come and pay tickets, to buy tickets.
Bob: I've said many times, if we only book the things we like, we'd be out of business by now. Have a festival for the people. A little something for everybody.
Scott: That's what makes it kind of gratifying too. There are styles of music that as a music lover I don't listen to all the time. But for my job, I do. And I find that I like certain things that I never thought I would like. Or you're humbled by the fact, that especially now with streaming and how music is consumed and marketed, you think you know a lot about music and then you go, "Oh dude, there's 20 bands that my brother's high school kid just told me about." And I don't even know who they are.
And then you see ... "Oh, they have 20 million people following them on Spotify. What's going on here." So it keeps it really kind of exciting in that way.
For me, that having kids was what made that happen. I thought I knew a lot about music and then I had kids and all the artists they know about, I've never heard of. I'm like, "Wait, where have I been?"
Scott: That's it.
Bob: You've got to not grow up. Don't you?
Scott: When, Benny, Bob's son entered his early teens, I think that's when all the DJs, all the EDM-X started to really blow up. Bob comes in and he is like, "We got to look at this guy. Whatever, Kygo. Or we got to look at this Steve Aoki. We got to look at all these." And we were like, "Okay. Hmm, yeah. Mm-hmm, yeah. Okay. Don't know who." But then, yeah, once you figure it out.
But that's got to be a challenge of your job, doesn't it? Because we're all aging, and it's hard to stay on top of absolutely everything that's going on and what's popular and of the moment. But you don't have the luxury of saying, "I can't keep up." You have to keep up, right?
Bob: But what's interesting is the kids out there, call them anywhere up to probably (age) 25 or 30 these days. They didn't get into the formula style radio that we all did. They kind of listen to everybody, you know.
You can have a 14-year-old kid sitting at home, that's all over the DJs and all over hip-hop and the next minute they're listening to Led Zeppelin or Journey or something. Because they heard it somewhere and kind of liked it.
So, you'll see more and more of that as you do some of the classic rock things. You see a younger audience coming in to watch them too. So, it's good to see.
I think that the internet age and the age of social has changed it a bit on what's popular.
What has the division of labor looked like the last couple years and what's it going to look like this year? Have you guys been sharing the amphitheater and the stage headliners? Or is it a little more free form than that? How does that work?
Bob: Yeah, we do share. I mean, we work together on ideas for either the ground stages or the amphitheater. And even for the last few years I wasn't going to put something in here without Scott and I having a conversation about them. Likewise, he wasn't going to put something in and without us having a conversation about it.
So, that's worked great. It's been a great relationship. We don't believe in having separate offices and walls. We're hearing each other talk to agents on the phone and yelling back and forth on what's going on. Or we walk in and listen, if I'm on a phone with an agent, I go, "Scotty," and the two of us talk to that person. And it's been that way for a couple years now. No, that's nothing new.
So Scott, when, I know I said that was my last question. But, so when you move into Bob's office, if not, literally...
Bob: You kidding me? He had my stuff packed the other day already. Just kidding. Just kidding.
Who moves into Scott's office? Is there somebody that you're kind of grooming to be next?
So we've had a staff with Vic Thomas, with David Silbaugh. Whit Lehnberg does our contracts and also offers input into the process, and production. We did hire another person. His name is Sean McDonough. If you know that name, Sean worked for Joe Shanahan for 14 years at Metro (in Chicago), and was out in New York, working for Live Nation, came back to Chicago, worked for House of Blues. He's been a great addition to our team.
We're just a big team. It's like buying stocks or something, right? You're sitting around trying to build a case and getting the best information on what you think is going to sell the most tickets and appeal to the largest audience.
So we're all on the phone, talking to agents, we're talking to other. We've done a really big push the last four or five years to network with all of the other major music festivals in United States and in Canada, we're sharing ideas, stories.
There were a couple of bookings this past year, acts that we probably would not have pulled the trigger on if it wasn't for the fact that – when you're on the fence, you've got two or three choices – that another festival person said, "Hey, we booked this person, and we announced this person with all these other big acts, and this was the act that had the strongest response." And you're like, "Oh, whoa. Okay."
So I think we're all contributing all the time. We're all on the phone, and then we just sit down in the war room and make decisions. The ones that we feel the strongest about, or the best about as a team. And that process will continue forever. That's how we've been able to build the lineups the way that we've had.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.