By James Rowen for   Published Jul 13, 2004 at 5:14 AM

{image1}Some people in Milwaukee are fretting over a 4 percent drop in attendance during Summerfest's just-completed 11-day run. My advice: Put on a "smiley" face. In important ways, less is more.

Media of all varieties got caught up in its annual Obsession With Summerfest Statistics -- like miles of toilet paper unrolled, 1,722; cups of soda sold, 135,000; gyros consumed, 20,500. But when the festival ended there was mass murmuring over one number -- 37,381 -- the gap in attendance from 2003.

The more modest movement through the Summerfest turnstiles brought some yammering on talk radio programs, where former festival director Bo Black's summer 2003 firing -- by her hand-picked board, no less -- is still considered "The Day The Music Died." Bo was always a sympathetic talker on the AM airwaves, where she sounded off against former Mayor John Norquist and ginned up her myth and self-perpetuating indispensability.

There was some talk that without Bo, Summerfest was headed for trouble even though attendance had also fallen in 2002 and 2003 when she was still in charge. The truth is that Summerfest's successes and stumbles -- and it's not even clear if attendance dips mean Summerfest is doing anything wrong -- have little to do with the person at the helm.

Consider that this year's festival faced some terrible weather, including rain and chilly temperatures. In past years, bad weather -- either excessive heat or pouring rains -- had kept crowds down. This year, it was 49 degrees on June 24, Summerfest's opening day; hardly summer-like, especially since Milwaukeeans know it's even-cooler-down-by-the-lake.

It also rained hard on Saturday, July 3, the night of the city's major lakefront fireworks display, when the festival counts on some fireworks fans also being Summerfest customers.

And remember two of the festival's bigger acts, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, canceled their appearances, putting a damper on the festival's overall buzz. Jessica Simpson pinch-hit for Aguilera, and the BoDeans and Steve Miller Band filled in for Spears: No doubt the substitutes brought their own fans -- the BoDeans always draw well here -- but the stand-ins had not been the festival's first choices this year.

Lost in the water cooler chatter and synthetic angst over Summerfest attendance is the fact that 867,000 people -- about 80,000 people a day -- did come to listen, eat, drink, shop, parade around, dance on tables and hang out over 11 days. There was more than one story on local TV news in which festival-goers said they liked the less-congested scene because they could actually see, hear and appreciate the music.

There's nothing better than being able to walk across the Summerfest grounds without having a baby stroller ground into your heels or being pinned in a crowd between the shirtless cruiser-weights who finished 1-2 in The Big Backhair Contest.

Third Ward residents said they liked the smaller attendance. It meant there were fewer acts of vandalism, public urination and late-night rowdyism that keeps Third Warders inside and wide awake when Summerfest is rocking and rolling in their back yard.

Remember that even the smaller crowds are like having a Badgers or Packers football crowd walking, driving, celebrating and sometimes misbehaving in a residential neighborhood. For 11 straight days and nights.

Having 4 percent fewer customers cut down on serious misbehaving. Milwaukee police reported that arrests were down at Summerfest by more than 25 percent, from 459 to 329. Seems like there's a definite upside to lower attendance.

In past years, media obsessed about whether Summerfest would draw a million patrons, as if success was simply hitting a big number with a lot of zeros. There wasn't as much examination of whether drawing a million fans, or an ever-expanding total, necessarily meant that the festival, or the city, or the same attendees, were better off.

Extra fans mean additional revenue, but they also mean a larger drain on law enforcement, the neighbors' nerves and all the festival-goers' pleasure.

With three straight years of attendance declines, Summerfest is probably settling into its niche in a marketplace that includes new downtown theaters and rebounding professional baseball and basketball teams. That's a lot of fresh competition for entertainment dollars. And at $12 per admission, Summerfest tickets -- even with freebies and discounts galore -- are a challenge for many workers and families in a still-wobbly job market.

Summerfest has too much going for it to be in serious trouble. It has the ideal location, a stable long-term lease, a solid fan base and decades of tradition. Attendance depends on which artists are on tour and how the weather goes, both of which are beyond Summerfest's control.

If Bo Black had run this year's show -- and it was put together by her veteran staff, not newcomer Donald Smiley -- and faced the same crummy weather and two big-name no-shows, the attendance most likely would have been the same. So put on your Summerfest smiley face.

James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who used to work for former Mayor John Norquist.

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