In case you missed the memo, Summerfest starts tomorrow.
Milwaukee's 11-day celebration of music, beer, picnic table dancing and fried mozzarella sticks has created a buzz in the community for weeks. The opening concerts by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam will be the biggest shows in the history of the Marcus Amphitheater and a strong side stage lineup could lead to big attendance throughout the entire run at Henry Maier Festival Park.
As the countdown to Summerfest 2006 headed into the final stretch, we sat down with Don Smiley, the festival's president and chief executive officer, and Bob Babisch, the vice president of entertainment, for the following Milwaukee Talks interview:
OnMilwaukee.com: There seems to be a significant buzz about Summerfest this year and I have a theory that I’d like to bounce off you. We’ve generally had warm, pleasant weather this spring. People have been in “summer” mode for a couple of weeks. In other years, when the weather is crappy, it seems like the festival sneaks up on people. It’s like they say, “Oh, yeah, I guess Summerfest starts on Thursday.” This year, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard people talking about it and looking forward to it. Am I crazy, or is the nice weather a factor?
Bob Babisch: I think that might have a little to do with it. But, I think the biggest thing is the way we announced our lineup this year. In the past, in February and March, we’d say “Here is an amphitheater show. Here is another amphitheater show. Here’s another amphitheater show…” We just threw them out as we got them, and people would say “Well, there is no minority show again,” or “This is getting kind of old.”
This year, every time we announced a couple amphitheater shows, we announced some acts on the side stages. “Here is bam, bam, bam, bam on the Summerfest grounds.” We’d say the next week, “Here is Tom Petty and Pearl Jam, but we’ve also got Elvis Costello and this and this and this…” We kept throwing them out at the same time. I think people kept looking and saying “Wow, this is strong.” The names for the smaller stages were out this year earlier than ever before. In the past, we kept them until we had them all done. Then we’d say “OK, here is the Miller Stage, here is the Harley Stage. We’d do it day by day.
“I think people realized, “Hey, there is a lot of stuff coming.” The buzz kept building, because we would announce an amphitheater show and we would put the Wilcos and bands like that out there, too.
Don Smiley: We used to keep all that stuff (about the side stages) a secret. You didn’t get that ramp up to it.
OMC: Do you sense more of a buzz around this year’s festival?
Babisch: There is a good energy. A lot of it is how the holidays fall. I’ve been watching this for 28 years. It’s interesting watching how the cycle goes, when the third and fourth (of July) fall. This year, the Fourth of July is a Tuesday. Everybody is taking off on Monday the third. That means that Sunday and Monday are going to rock for us.
I bet everybody has got off Monday. Actually, me and Don are taking off, too. We’re going fishing that day (laughs).
OMC: I know how crazy things can get at my house in the final hours before a holiday dinner or a backyard barbecue. How crazy are the final hours before you guys open the gates? Is it insane?
Babisch: It’s insane, and it’s the anticipation of rolling into it. You get that anticipation. You’re dying to get it going. Building it up is one thing. You go through April, May and June and it’s OK. By Tuesday or Wednesday, you just want to hear the first band on stage and start to roll.
Smiley: This is a veteran staff here. There is not a lot of… let’s just call it organized confusion. There is not the confusion you’d have with an inexperienced staff. There is not a lot of craziness. It’s more an anticipation, and knowing that you’re going to have 11 days of a lot of people down here with a lot of noise. We make big noise.
Babisch: That should be our motto next year.
Smiley: We make big noise.
OMC: What is your favorite part of this job?
Smiley: One of my favorites is just seeing that amphitheater just fill up.
Smiley: You know you’ve got something special going on when the grounds stages are also full up and rocking.
OMC: Is that the first day of the festival?
Smiley: Given the way Bob booked the amphitheater this year, it will be the first day because Bob booked Tom Petty and Pearl Jam in there and every last seat will be gone.
Bob: There is something about the energy of 23,000 people jumping at the same time and the lights go down. Especially when it’s dark in there. You can feel the hair stand up on the back of your arms. The energy level is as good as it gets.
OMC: Well, that’s the high point. Is there a point in the festival when you hit a wall and start dragging?
Babisch: You’ve got to pace yourself. I always wonder when my nap is coming. Around day four or day five, that couch (in my office) starts getting a workout.
OMC: How much sleep do you guys get during the festival?
Babisch: We get home about 2 or 2:30 in the morning. Then we’re back at it about 8 in the morning. That’s the way it starts out. When you get toward the end of the festival, you’re coming in at 9 a.m., and the phone isn’t ringing like it was. Nobody calls you any more. It’s not as bad as you might think. If we could only stop watching the Weather Channel. I’m addicted to that.
Smiley: Not me.
OMC: Well, you come from running a baseball team in South Florida. The Marlins play 81 games a year and it rains almost every day between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Babisch: (laughing) That’s the first thing he said. Weather never bothered him the first year. The rain never bothered him.
Smiley: I’m used to 81 nights, pounding our heads against the wall. It isn’t funny about the weather there. They freak out about. It’s certainly not good for concession sales.OMC: Well, the weather is something you can’t control, but it seems to play a key role in the success of your festival.
Babisch: A lot of it is weather-related. If it’s cooler, people don’t mind. If it’s raining all day, you’re toast. We like it to rain at 10 minutes to midnight. Everybody bails out.
OMC: I don’t remember as much discussion about an amphitheater show as the Petty / Pearl Jam dates at the front end of this festival. How does it rate in comparison to other shows?
Bob: This will be the biggest show in the history of the amphitheater. We’ve done other shows -- Pearl Jam has played in the amphitheater before, but weren’t selling all the lawn. This is the biggest ticketed show in the history of the building. Not just Summerfest, but for the whole building.
(Editor’s note: At this point in the discussion, Babisch’s cell phone rings and a Johnny Cash song plays).
Smiley: Turn it off, Mr. High Tech.
Babisch: It’s nothing important.
OMC: Well, Petty and Pearl Jam did give you a jump start, right?
Babisch: What I’m most excited about is that there is a lot of good stuff on the grounds this year. Having Petty and Pearl Jam is nice, but that’s over after the second day. We’ve got a lot of great music this year. You go to the thing with CMT (Country Music Television), with (Lynryd) Skynyrd and Hank (Williams) Jr. and Dierks Bentley. You go to the Classic Rock Stage where we’ve got them all, Foreigner, Styx and REO (Speedwagon). You’ve got Chris Brown, Anthony Hamilton. You’ve got Common.
Smiley: We’ve got the gospel celebration.
OMC: Yes, you’ve got that and Elvis Costello on the Briggs Stage. You’ve got the BoDeans and Wilco on the Miller Stage…
Babisch: We’ve got those shows and one of my favorite bands, Train, is going to be on that stage.
OMC: We did a Milwaukee Talks interview with Steve “Saz” Sazama earlier this year, and he said one of the changes he’s noticed in three decades in the restaurant / bar business is that pricing isn’t as important as it used to be. He said that if his tap beer cost a dime more than the bar down the street, people would head for the bargain. Today, he sees young people with ATM cards who don’t hesitate to spend big money on martinis, mojitos and Jaeger bombs. Do you find a similar attitude, or is price point a bigger deal for you in this business? Is there are point where you can’t raise prices any more?
Babisch: I think that the admission ticket is a bigger trauma for people than beer prices, because you can always not drink a beer. That being said, you can still get into this place for free just about every day.
Smiley: On prices, the baseline was so low given what we do here and the cost of content, there is just no way you can continue to charge what people have come accustomed to over the years. Mathematically, it doesn’t work.
OMC: Yes, an $8 ticket to see Elvis Costello would be pretty absurd.
Bob: An $8 ticket to see any band. These acts on the second stages now are going well over 50 grand a night. If you want to keep the talent up, you’ve got to raise the ticket prices. I think people are fine with that, as long as the shows are good. If you stop bringing that kind of talent in, people say the talent is no good and they won’t want to come.
Smiley: It’s different for us. We don’t have group tickets. We don’t have season tickets to rely on. The only question mark with us is walkup.
Babisch: With us, you hear the buzz. I’ve been doing it so long. You can tell the “on” buzz and the “off” buzz. Last year, I think we got beat up a little bit, I thought, in the paper because of the lineup.
OMC: Yes, I remember some barbs coming your way because Journey was an amphitheater show.
Babisch: Yes. The funny thing about that is that Journey is out with Def Leppard this summer and they’re doing $75 a ticket and they’re selling out everywhere.
OMC: As the population ages, is it tougher to draw people?
Babisch: Well, the 70-year-old people aren’t going to come here. That’s just one of those things. But, I think we’ve done quite well in bringing the 40- and 50-year-olds. It’s the REO’s and Styx’s and Foreigner's they want to see. I don’t think they’re exactly jumping up on tables, but they realize it’s a fun place to hang out. They’ve come back.
Now, that being said, this year, you take the U.S. Celluar Stage and see the lineup for the younger demo(graphic) acts. That’s all the big stuff out (on tour) this summer. We’ve got Keane and Panic! at the Disco and Yellowcard. That’s going to be a huge spot. The Amp (amphitheater) picked some of that up with Nine Inch Nails and Nickelback, even though some people consider those older acts.
Smiley: There is a certain age where people are not going out for anything. It doesn’t matter that we’re the world’s largest music festival. They’re not going to Packers games anymore, either. They’re watching on TV.
Babisch: I watch the Packers games on TV.
Smiley: (laughs) Yeah, but you’re old.
OMC: Has the Downtown condo boom helped in a significant way? Has it hurt?
Babisch: I haven’t seen that.
Smiley: So far, we’ve co-existed pretty well with the neighbors in the Third Ward. We take that very seriously. A lot of them are new this year. We don’t really know what they think yet. I think most people realize that for 11 days, there is going to be traffic and there is going to be noise.
Babisch: Big noise.
Smiley: (laughs) We make big noise. That’s our theme for next year.
OMC: You mentioned traffic. Other than weather, is that your biggest potential problem? You draw people from all over that aren’t necessarily familiar with Downtown and the Third Ward.
Babisch: We’ve been talking about the shuttles. There are going to be some headaches.
Smiley: The people from around here, I think they know what’s going on with the Marquette Interchange and they know how to get around. The people from Illinois and Madison and Green Bay who aren’t used to it might have to leave a little earlier.
Babisch: Really, if you’re going west, the freeway goes out that way. If you live to the south, you can take the Hoan Bridge to Layton and swing your way back (to I-94). If you’re going north, it’s going to be tougher.
Smiley: The whole key is knowing when to come here and knowing when to leave. If you’re waiting until every last note is played, then you’re leaving with everyone else.
OMC: It seems like you’ve been staggering the start / finish times of shows. Is that by design to help traffic flow?
Babisch: We do that during the week. We start some headliners at 8:30 or so and they’re finishing by 11 or 11:15. We try to stagger it so people can find their way out.
OMC: OK, so what is new this year?
Smiley: The Miller Stage is new. We’ve got the CMT deal, which is huge for us. That gives us national exposure in 80 million homes. That will help us down the road with corporate sponsorships from other areas of the country that want to be involved with the world’s largest music festival. That’s something we take very seriously. It’s very expensive on their end and our end, to make that happen. That was one of our goals, to try to get more exposure nationally.
Babisch: That’s an ongoing thing. I’ll be honest: I just don’t think we’re getting the respect nationally and in other markets that we should. Rolling Stone.com just came out with a story about the top music festivals you can’t miss this summer (a similar article in the New York Times in May also included no mention of Summerfest) and we weren’t mentioned. I don’t understand that.
OMC: That’s stunning.
Smiley: Why don’t you call them? Maybe that’s worth a story. Here is one we missed.
OMC: Bob, did you have any chance to book Springsteen on his recent tour with the Seeger Sessions Band?
Babisch: We went back and forth and back and forth. I wanted to put that in. It had to do with the timing. I wanted him to be here at that time period of the month and he couldn’t stretch it out. You miss things like that all the time in this business. That’s the way it works. I tell you what: I still love the amphitheater lineup we have, but I really love the secondary stages. We’re going to have some great nights.
OMC: OK, Don what is your all-time favorite Summerfest moment?
Smiley: Do you mean working here, or Summerfest, per se?
OMC: Either. Or, both.
Smiley: I think coming to work with all these folks who have done this for so long. They have so much heart and dedication to the event. It makes my job pretty easy. I can focus on other things, rather than every minute detail. I can really trust that it’s going to get done. That’s a good time. That’s one of my favorite things about this position. I can focus on other ideas.
OMC: What about as a fan?
Babisch: I can tell you one of yours, Don.
Babisch: The first time you saw (Kenny) Chesney’s set, when it hit. You said “Look at that.” It was huge, with all the video screens. That look in your eyes was “Wow!”
Smiley: That was great. I’ll tell you my favorite moment every year. After the opening ceremonies, when you know it’s started. We start at noon and the opening ceremonies are at 5 p.m. At 5:35, it’s game on. That’s my favorite moment. My second most favorite moment is closing on the last night.
OMC: I imagine the withdrawal is pretty harsh afterward.
Babisch: You spend so much time leading into it and agonizing over it. Then, during the run, you beat yourself up pretty well. When it’s over, you’re sitting at home on Monday or Tuesday and you say “something is wrong. I should be somewhere.”
Smiley: Luckily we’ve got things going on the grounds, with Festa (Italiana), Germanfest and concerts. This thing is physically a tough job. You’re on your feet a lot. You’re moving around a lot. You’re up a lot of hours. You’re making decisions. It can be draining. That’s why Bob bought a boat. He’s got a lake now. I’m going to use it.
OMC: Before I let you go, I have to ask about attendance. In the past, it seemed like there was a fixation from inside or outside your offices about drawing a million people. Is there a target for attendance? Is it 1 million?
Smiley: We’ve got to have enough people here to make this thing work economically. That’s as many people as we need.
OMC: OK, how many is that?
Smiley: We don’t know, because we don’t know what they’re going to spend. It’s not a million, I’ll tell you that.
OMC: Is there a point where the festival can be too crowded? Do big crowds bring diminishing returns?
Smiley: When it’s too crowded, they don’t spend as much. We’re trying to walk the fine line of having the right number of people spending the right amount of money to where we can be a profitable venture where we can continue to reinvest in the business.
OMC: That could be your next slogan. That and the big noise.
Smiley: If you ask me if there was this magic number out there of a million, I’d say that’s not what this thing is about. If you draw a million people and they’re uncomfortable and you don’t make any money, were you successful? I don’t think so.
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.