By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 21, 2007 at 5:38 AM

Face it, we all have things we love and hate about Milwaukee. But, complaining and focusing on the negative leads nowhere. So, in the latest edition of this column we highlight an issue that we think needs to be addressed, discussed and solved. Every "This Sucks" feature tells you why we think something sucks, offers commentary, opinions, solutions and, of course, gives you the chance to weigh in through our exclusive talkback feature.

What sucks: Milwaukee is a city of armchair Summerfest booking know-it-alls.

Why this sucks: Every year the Summerfest schedule is released to a collective groan. What sucks, according to some, is that the festival is middle of the road and rarely takes the kind of chances that would give Summerfest and Milwaukee a forward-thinking reputation.

But, on the other hand, when we whine about Def Leppard and Styx, don't we realize that those acts are Summerfest's cash cows, earning it the kind of money it needs to continue to also book bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Elvis Costello and Built to Spill -- and to also have some money to pay local bands, too?

What about the simple fact that some bands are booked elsewhere -- often in Europe -- or not touring during Summerfest's 11-day window? Music critics and casual observers have the luxury of ignoring the details and the realities of booking a huge event like Summerfest, says Bruce Sullivan, entertainment and events director at Wisconsin State Fair Park, who knows a little something about the challenges of booking a complex event.

"No matter what you do, every year you will always have the ‘armchair talent buyers’ criticizing every move you make," Sullivan says. "It would be great to have my ‘wish list’ come through every year, but that is not reality. There are many factors involved with booking entertainment, and this year has had its share of challenges with artists not touring, limited availability, late confirmations, unfavorable routing and cost. You are always looking to try to bring in something for everyone and sample each music genre."

Plus, say some local music insiders, Summerfest -- for better or for worse -- has to please the largest swath of the public possible in order to stay in the black.

"Summerfest is a massive operation catering to music fans of all stripes and from all demographics," says producer, musician and songwriter Dan Holter of Burst Collective. "They have to appeal to that fat mid-section of the community at large in order to be viable. I don't see Summerfest as the answer to cool new music or even being necessarily hip or cutting edge. They aren't here to tell us what's cool, they exist to sell beer and maybe T-shirts. I don't think they're doing a disservice at all. I think it's great they are here."

So, perhaps, then, it's financial suicide for Summerfest to say, "All right, no more Asia reunions, we're doing The Decemberists and Placebo from now on!"

"Yes, I think that would be financial suicide," says Holter. "I mean I think it's fantastic when The Pabst and Riverside have a successful run of shows, something cool and current that sells out one night and they need to add a second date, but that's a totally different world from Summerfest."

And maybe that's the crux of the matter. Every year the communal harrumph sends shockwaves all across Milwaukee when the Marcus Amphitheater shows, especially, are announced. Yet, Summerfest attendance remains impressive and it the event seems to get bigger and bigger.

So, who is complaining? It seems like the people who get most upset are the die-hard music fans; the CD junkies.
 
"That's because music fans think Summerfest is a music festival that sells beer. It's a beer festival that sells music. It sells the music of yesteryear to get fans of those acts in the door, to do what? To buy beer and T-shirts," says Holter.

Holter isn't alone in his assessment.

"I, like many other rock and roll wags, have long thought of Summerfest as more of a big beer party with the occasional good band tossed in than a true music festival," says Rich Menninger of Atomic Records. "It's certainly no SXSW or Bumbershoot, nor do I expect it to be. Give the people what they want, you know?"

"It's about beer money and sponsorship money and as long as the sponsors are happy and the people keep coming, it doesn't really matter what we think about the music lineup," says Shank Hall owner Peter Jest.

"Summerfest was created for something for Milwaukee families to do that was inexpensive and for the lineup and as well as the special promotions they run. The one thing people cannot argue with is that it is a good deal. It brings a lot of people to town and it is successful. Milwaukee would not feel right without Summerfest.

"Does it bring in cutting edge music like other festivals? Not really. Do they bring in jazz, blues or other non traditional contemporary music? Not really, but it is music for the masses and it is successful. Every venue and festival has its niche and cannot please everybody."

Jest says that the music on tap each year at Summerfest backs up this assertion.

"It brings a lot of people as tourists, but they're not serious music fans. They want to see Blue Oyster Cult. You don't see Blue Oyster Cult at Coachella," he notes. "(And) if it's really dedicated to music, why isn't there a jazz stage? Because jazz fans don't drink, and no one in their right mind would sponsor a jazz stage. Why isn't there a blues stage? You can't do B.B. King one year and say you have a blues stage."

In trying to be all things to all people, Summerfest rarely gets to focus on any one thing. That means the booking is wide (although some might argue wide within a narrow window) -- skimming an array of genres -- but not deeply exploring any of them. Risks are often eschewed in favor of easy crowd pleasers.

As a music fan, someone like Menninger is sometimes depressed by what the Big Gig has to offer. He points to this year's Big Gig as an example.

"I was disappointed to discover that this year's lineup is, to me, the weakest in memory. I will probably only attend two or three days this year; compared to 2006 when I went five or six times."

Does that mean Summerfest is doing it all wrong? Despite his disappointment, Menninger doesn't think so, and Jest agrees.

"The vast majority of Milwaukeeans just want to drink and dance on picnic tables to some vaguely familiar music," Menning says. "But to the music fan, it can still be a good excuse to hang near the lake, hook up with old friends and enjoy the odd quality act."

Says Jest: "They do an amazing job and they do an amazing amount of people. If ain't broke, don't fix it. (Summerfest VP of Entertainment) Bob Babisch is one of my best friends. We might disagree on music, but he's doing a great job doing what they want him to do. If it works, it works."

Summerfest Marketing & PR Coordinator Kristi Chuckel says that the Big Gig aims to bring a little something for everyone and knows that the result is certain to lead to a variety of opinions about the festival.

"It is obviously impossible to make everyone happy," she says. "Summerfest is truly a music festival that has something for everyone.  While other festivals may focus on new, alternative music, we prefer to offer something for everyone’s musical tastes."

"We try to bring the best talent that’s available for all the genres that are working during our time," Babisch told OnMilwaukee's Drew Olson recently. "We try to do everything in all the genres. We sit back and say we’ve got to have some country this day, we’ve go to have some urban this, day we’ve got to have some rock this day."

In the same interview, Summerfest CEO Don Smiley added, "That conversation, that debate will never go away. ... 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."

State Fair’s Sullivan believes that Bob Babisch and Vic Thomas and their crew ought to be congratulated instead of harangued.

"Summerfest has a very talented staff doing what they can to bring the best entertainment lineup to their venue," he says. "Summerfest was built on innovative and creative musical tastes and their ground stages allow them the freedom to be more cutting edge and experimental with their programming without it being detrimental to the bottom line. That is the exciting part about our job to try new things and attract a new and different audience and help our event grow."

What can you do to make it not suck:
Well, you can quit complaining so much and vote with your feet, if you want it to change. Money talks. Convince your friends to stop shelling out for outdated headliners and attend the performances by the up and comers at the Big Gig instead. When the crowds dwindle for Styx and shoot up for Spoon, things will change. Just like a record label needs a superstar to help pay for the under-selling quality acts, Summerfest needs the big names to allow you to see the great bands, too. And, hey, sometimes the big names and the great bands are one and the same.

Maybe you love what Summerfest books and in that case you should tell them how much you love it by going and having a great time and telling your snooty muso pals to lighten up and dance.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.