Bob Babisch is the name most associated with talent buying at Summerfest. He's been the head honcho there for years and books all the prominent positions at the Big Gig.
But no one man can book 11 days of music on roughly a dozen stages alone. That's where the likes of Vic Thomas, Scott Ziel and others come in. As the whole city gears up for the 41st edition of the event that bills itself, "The World's Biggest Music Festival," we talked to Thomas, who is himself nearly a 35-year veteran of Summerfest.
We asked Thomas about himself and his work helping to create the one week every year when there's more music in Milwaukee than at any other time. Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks.
OMC: Let's start by talking about you. Did you grow up in Milwaukee?
VT: Yes, I did. Born and raised here in Milwaukee. I first attended Summerfest in when I was in the 9th grade, 1971. Later had my first "date" at Summerfest. I was attracted to Summerfest from the start. I started working at the Fest in 1974, as a nice summer job. Attended College at Oberlin, from ‘74 to‘78, was in the USAF from 1979 to 1983, a salesman with Abbott Labs in California from ‘83 to ‘85 and then returned to Milwaukee in 1986. During this time I continued to work at Summerfest as much as I could, on military leaves, summer vacations, etc. Whatever it took to continue my relationship with Summerfest.
OMC: A job as talent buyer at Summerfest is presumably not an easy job to get.
VT: I worked my way up the food chain at Summerfest. (I) started on the grounds crew in 1974. A lucky break occurred and I started working backstage as an aide / go-fer. In those days, everybody did everything -- security, ticket-taking, grounds crew, food and beverage, etc.
For years I handled the backstage -- Main Stage -- hospitality. As matter a fact, I always thought that I should be a stage manager, not the food dog. What I realize now is that I could never have gotten all the experience that I have now if I was only a stage manager.
OMC: What makes buying for the festival different than, say, a theater or club?
VT: I think the difference with a festival buyer versus other buyers is that you have to be aware of the all the things that make up a festival. From port-a-potties to crowd control, beer per caps, weather, grounds layouts, design, great soft ticket bands, what's happening at other festivals, etc.
OMC: How long have you been doing it?
VT: I have been buying acts, since the late ‘80s. I started on the full-time staff as of 1990.
OMC: Are you a musician, too?
VT: I went to Oberlin College and had hopes of becoming a studio / symphonic percussionist. Alas, my ambition was greater than my talent. After college I didn't play at all for 20 years. Then someone invited me to sit in and I realized that I loved being on stage and performing. So, I try to play for fun now in the off season, October to February.
OMC: Let's talk Big Gig. What's the best part of the job?
VT: Number one, the people that I work with. No. 2, the fact that I can say that I work at the World's Largest Music Festival year-round. No. 3, that I get paid to do this!
OMC: The next question is obvious: what's the worst part of the job?
VT: Saying NO to some great bands and artists! Most people don't understand that it is not personal, but usually due to financial and / or schedule constraints that we can't book your band. Also, the fact that most bands don't understand that playing at Summerfest once is not a lifetime pass to play at Summerfest.
VT: Prove me wrong! If I don't book your band / act then show me that I was wrong. Have the numbers, critical acclaim or the press to show me (and) Summerfest that we should book your act or style of music.
OMC: Is there anything to the criticisms in your mind? That is, is there something that people complain about that you also wish could change?
VT: Well, I wish that funds were unlimited and that we ran year-round. And that we could book all of the deserving bands, all of the new and up and comers, all of the great classic bands that are out there. I wish we could do it all. But we can't and we only have 11 days, x amount of stages and only x amount of money.
OMC: What did you book this year that your most excited to see?
VT: Among the nationals, Stevie Wonder, They Might Be Giants, Marcia Ball / Terrance Simien, Michael Franti, A Tribute to James Brown, Otis Taylor, Zappa Plays Zappa, Willie Colon, Javier Garcia, Rodrigo and Gabriella, and EWF, The New Orleans day on June 29 -- Bryan Lee, Trombone Shorty, Bonerama, Galactic. Of the early headliners, Drive By Truckers, Paul Thorn, Alejandro Escovedo, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks and Susan Tesdechi, Matisyahu.
Of non-nationals, Soul Food, T-Man and the Young Guns, Freddie Lee, Rumbrava f/ Mrs. Fun, De La Buena, Spanglish, Madisalsa, Growing Nation, Chick Singer Night, Lucky Diop Kassumai Project.
OMC: Did anything you really wanted to bring to Summerfest this year just not happen?
VT: Citizen Cope, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Anthony Hamilton, George Clinton.
OMC: Why is it that things you want sometimes don't come through?
VT: The question can be taken a few different levels. If you’re asking why things that I want personally don’t happen, well I have a boss like everyone else and the Entertainment Director (Bob Babisch) is the final say on all bookings that happen at Summerfest.
If you’re asking in the collective, regarding Summerfest booking, then we have to deal with a whole bunch of factors. Summerfest is 11 days, the last Thursday in June until the second Sunday in July. So if a particular artist is not touring this time, then we are SOL. Our time frame, is an extremely popular time for booking / festivals across the U.S. and in Europe. So, many of the signature artists that we may be looking for are being courted by many festivals.
Then we have to deal with budgets. We have a budget for each stage area. Bottom line, we have to provide 11 days of headliners on each stage and we have to make hard decisions like anyone else who has a budget and provide the best line-up that we can within the budget provided. Finally, we have to look at the diversity of our line-up. Rock and all of its permutations are important to us, along with R&B / urban / hip-hop, Latin, country, world beat / reggae, blues / roots, etc.
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.