Behind the smile

Inside the business of Summerfest

For 11 days in June and July, Henry Maier Festival Park is the beating heart of Milwaukee.

Nestled between the Hoan Bridge and Lake Michigan on the eastern edge of the Historic Third Ward, Summerfest’s 11 permanent stages are sponsored by some of the city’s largest employers and most recognizable brands—Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Briggs & Stratton Corp., MillerCoors LLC, The Marcus Corp., BMO Harris Bank N.A., Johnson Controls Inc. Its dozens of food and beverage stands are packed with local restaurateurs and beer makers.

Don Smiley and Bob Babisch of Summerfest.
Don Smiley and Bob Babisch of Summerfest.

Everything from lights and sound equipment to menus and banners is made or installed by a network of local businesses—large and small—that rely on the festival city’s main event for a sizable mid-summer payday.

For 49 years, Summerfest has been a magnet for artists and entrepreneurs. Hundreds of acts have flocked to Milwaukee’s lakefront in convoys of trucks and tour buses at the end of each June since 1968 for a stretch of gigs that attracts hundreds of thousands of fans and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue.

Summerfest has held the title of the world’s largest music festival since 1999. Its annual attendance far exceeds the Green Bay Packers’ eight games at Lambeau Field and its daily crowds dwarf the seating capacities of the BMO Harris Bradley Center and Miller Park.

But behind the stages, the flashing lights and the enormous crowds, what is perhaps one of the most impressive shows the city has ever hosted is playing out year-round in the Summerfest offices.

In a quiet corner of the Historic Third Ward, the 45 full-time employees of Milwaukee World Festival Inc.—the nonprofit that runs Summerfest—sign bands, secure vendors, negotiate sponsorship deals and manage logistics with the skill and creativity of a jazz ensemble.

“This is a mega-event, just like the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500,” said Don Smiley, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee World Festival. “There’s ticketing issues, there’s parking matters, there’s food and beverage issues, entertainment, sales, marketing, lost and found, anything you can think of, and that’s all behind the fact that almost 850,000 people are showing up to visit over an 11-day stretch.”


Adding to the Big Gig’s planning and coordination challenges are market forces that have dramatically changed the music industry. Bands and performers now rely more heavily on touring and festivals for revenue as record sales fall and it becomes increasingly convenient for consumers to purchase songs one at a time or stream them online.

It’s a trend Summerfest’s leaders see as a double-edged sword—the concert and music festival industry is booming, but as more and more events spring up around the world each year to cash in, signing the best acts becomes an increasingly competitive process.

So how does Summerfest, one of the city’s most complicated and unique cultural assets, come together each year, and how has it been able to last so long in an industry notorious for its high turnover?

Booking the lineup

“We wouldn’t have gotten Paul McCartney if it wasn’t for the (Rolling) Stones and we wouldn’t have gotten the Stones if it wasn’t for Prince,” said Bob Babisch, Milwaukee World Festival’s vice president of entertainment.

Babisch has been booking Summerfest for 39 years. His office at Summerfest’s headquarters at 639 E. Summerfest Place, formerly Polk Street, is modern and large. There are electric guitars on stands near a couch and photographs of various Summerfest acts from years past on the walls.

Hanging on the wall nearest to his desk is a black and white photo of comedian George Carlin performing his infamous “seven words you can never say on television” routine at Summerfest in 1972.

Walk The Moon plays at Summerfest.
Walk The Moon plays at Summerfest.

“We try to use all seven words every day,” he joked.

The desk he sits behind is a big upgrade from the one he started with in the late ’70s, which he said was made from two saw horses and an old door in an office that had to be padlocked shut. That was in the early years of the festival, before the grounds were paved and most of its permanent facilities were built.

Prince headlined the Marcus Amphitheater at Summerfest in 2004. His tour that year was put together by a Los Angeles-based entertainment company called AEG Worldwide.

“They loved the building because it rakes up real fast (in seating steepness) for an amphitheater,” Babisch said. “The selling point is, when you’re onstage and you’re at a sold out show, you feel like the audience is right on top of you. So Prince liked doing it and those guys liked the vibe of the building.”

Last year, AEG was helping out with the Rolling Stones’ 2015 tour.

“The Stones were saying they wanted to do stadiums, but they also wanted to do some odds and ends and (smaller shows), and these guys told them, ‘You should probably look at playing the Marcus Amphitheater on this tour,’” Babisch said.

So they did.

“They had so much fun they added in two songs to the set, because it was a good night,” Babisch said.

Babisch and his fellow booking agents had been trying to get Paul McCartney to do a show at Summerfest for years, but for various logistical and scheduling reasons, it hadn’t come together. This year, however, Summerfest had an open date at the amphitheater that corresponded with an opening on McCartney’s tour—July 8. They put out the offer.

The man scheduling McCartney’s tour knew the people who worked with the Rolling Stones at AEG and decided to call them up to see if Summerfest was a good idea.

Up to 85,000 people attend the festival each year.
Up to 850,000 people attend the festival each year.

“The AEG people said it was great, it was a great place to play,” Babisch explained. “So he came back and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

Booking the world’s biggest music stars, who at any given time could be touring in Europe or Australia or New York or Los Angeles, is not an easy task and requires years of persistence, painstaking attention to detail and a solid international reputation among agents and tour managers. Babisch has seen many of the same faces at Summerfest over the past four decades and marveled as they matured into bigger and bigger roles in the industry over time—both playing in bands and managing them.

He’s a firm believer in building relationships. Any of the people involved with the more than 700 acts that come through each summer could return a few years later as an amphitheater headliner or a major tour manager.

One agent, whom Babisch wouldn’t name, started out as the road manager of a small band on a small stage and now sells Summerfest and other festivals to some of their biggest headliners. Every time he runs into Babisch, he thanks him for getting him an extra case of beer and a pizza decades ago when he was managing that first band.

“Every time we see him he remembers that—‘You guys, that case of beer and that pizza saved our lives that night,’” he said. “Little stuff like that comes back.”

But securing acts also comes down to timing and money.

And Smiley wants the biggest acts Summerfest can get.

“We compete on a global basis for bands,” Smiley said. “The bands that we’re hiring, if we’re not going to pay them a certain price point, they’re going to play somewhere else. There’s no discount because it’s Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

Over the years, as artists have relied more on touring, the price to book a Marcus Amphitheater headliner capable of selling 23,000 tickets has risen.

In 2014, Milwaukee World Festival shelled out millions to secure its amphitheater headliners, according to the latest tax information filed with the federal government.

Bruno Mars’ performance on June 25 cost $933,929. Country star Luke Bryan’s performance on June 28 cost $841,549. Zac Brown Band’s performance on July 3 cost $835,000. And those were just three of 11 nights at the Marcus Amphitheater.

Timeflies sings to the crowd.
Timeflies sings to the crowd.

In comparison, just five years earlier, the Big Gig paid George Straight $800,410, Kenny Chesney $667,042 and Bon Jovi $565,403.

The price of each performance changes depending on the venue, past performances, the crowd the band is capable of drawing and its value in the market. When bands are hot, or when they’ve attained a certain level of fame, the price can jump dramatically.

In 2013, the Eagles were paid more than $1.4 million for a single performance at Summerfest. The Foo Fighters and Aerosmith each took home $1 million for their performances in 2012. Tom Petty was paid $1.85 million for two performances in 2010, and $992,500 for one show in 2013.

Keep in mind each of these bands or performers is also a company with employees that need to be paid for booking their shows, scheduling their flights, finding their hotels, getting their meals and setting up their equipment.

Amphitheater headliners typically get guarantees against percentage deals. That means the band either gets a certain guaranteed amount regardless of how many people show up or it makes a percentage, say 85 percent, of the show’s gross revenue after approved expenses. Whichever number is bigger is how much the band takes home.

“The window in the Midwest is only so big, and our window is only 11 days,” Babisch said. “It takes probably 50 offers to get 11 days booked at the amphitheater. The other 39 don’t work out for whatever reason—either they want to go to Europe or they’re going to play Lollapalooza and we get blocked out. There’s a number of reasons. But we go fishing early for the amphitheater. The rest of the grounds, that’s our little chess game. The theory of Summerfest is to hit as many genres as we can every single day.”

After the festival ends, the chess game begins for next year.

Babisch and his crew of three booking agents sit in a room three days a week getting ideas from agents and pitching their own. They toss names on a screen and shuffle acts among the stages, careful to hit as many genres as possible while still being mindful of each act’s touring schedule.

“It’s a logistical nightmare,” Babisch said of booking the shows and keeping everything running on time during the festival. “But it works.”

Once they book the amphitheater headliners, they book the headliners at the general admission stages. Then they book the openers.

Local H performs.
Local H performs.

But even when the lineup is set, their job isn’t over—there’s contracting, setting out detailed specifications on each band’s lighting and sound requirements, figuring out how to get bands and their trucks of equipment on and off stage, connecting agents with hotels and setting up transportation.

“Every stage has two managers and then you have a production office, with one dispatcher and probably 15 people working there,” Babisch said.

And overseeing all the headliners each night is a single man making sure every band stays on task.

Signing the acts is one piece of the puzzle, but executing is another, and Summerfest relies on outside contractors to take care of other increasingly complex elements of putting on a strong music festival. One of them is production.

A boost to vendors

President and CEO Gregg Brunclik walks between rows of sound systems, kaleidoscopic light fixtures, metal racks, computers and control panels in Clearwing Productions’ 14-bay warehouse.

“Most people wouldn’t think a company like this is sitting in West Allis,” he said.

Within two weeks, the thousands of pieces of equipment stacked in his warehouse at 11101 W. Mitchell St. would be moved 10 miles east to the Summerfest grounds and installed on its stages.

Clearwing Productions president and CEO Gregg Brunclik checks out the capabilities of a new light system and stands before rows of stage equipment at Clearwing’s West Allis warehouse.
Clearwing Productions president and CEO Gregg Brunclik checks out the capabilities of a new light system and stands before rows of stage equipment at Clearwing’s West Allis warehouse.

For years his company, which has more than 100 employees, has taken care of every stage at Summerfest.

In the late 1970s, Brunclik started tinkering with speakers in his dad’s basement and setting up sound systems for Milwaukee bands at different venues around town. Eventually, he started his own production company. Now, Clearwing is one of the larger full-service production players in the country and sets up stages, programs light shows and handles audio for large tours, festivals and even theatrical programs.

“Summerfest is something we grew up to,” he said. “It was always something we aspired to be involved with when the company finally got enough credibility and brand recognition and the skill sets and technical chops to do it.”

Now, some of Clearwing’s other clients include Tomorrow World in Atlanta; Summer Set in Somerset, Wisconsin; Spring Awakening in Illinois; and Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon’s new Eaux Claires Music Festival in Eau Claire. The company has also set up concerts for Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field and is currently handling the Steve Miller Band’s 2016 tour.

Clearwing has a second location in Phoenix that focuses on the performing arts and theatrical tours.

Like Smiley and Babisch, Brunclik has also noticed an uptick in touring and festival action. In the past year, the company has grown by 22 percent.

“Summerfest every year, all the ethnic festivals every year, those are definitely staples of our business that let us know what we can count on,” Brunclik said. “Not to toot our own horn, but in a way it works really well for Summerfest as well, because we are a very big player and therefore, Summerfest gets continuity across all their stages in one vendor and they don’t have to pay for hotel rooms and trucking and flights and all that stuff that would come with using a vendor out of state.

“There’s a nice serendipity that works for both of us with Clearwing being here and the festivals being here,” he continued. “It’s a festival city. It just works well.”

Clearwing Productions president and CEO Gregg Brunclik checks out the capabilities of a new light system and stands before rows of stage equipment at Clearwing’s West Allis warehouse.
Clearwing Productions president and CEO Gregg Brunclik checks out the capabilities of a new light system and stands before rows of stage equipment
at Clearwing’s West Allis warehouse.

One of the best things about Summerfest from Brunclik’s perspective is the exposure his company gets to young bands. Like Babisch, he believes in building relationships—if a band enjoys working with Clearwing at Summerfest, it might give some thought to hiring the company to do tours if it takes off.

“The nice thing about Summerfest is they bring so many acts in through the course of the festival that we get exposure to a lot of people,” Brunclik said.

“Bob Babisch has a great knack for picking the new up-and-comers and the bands that are just about to break, so that really helps us get some good exposure to those folks while they’re on the cusp.”

Among the stacks of equipment in the loading bay, some of Steve Miller’s stage guys tinkered with computers and lights in preparation for his tour this summer.

“Our technology is moving forward so fast, every six weeks there’s something new coming out doing something a previous version didn’t do,” Brunclik said.

A changing industry

To understand how the festival industry and Summerfest are changing, it’s a good idea to take a look at its history.

Compared to other music festivals around the world, Summerfest is unique—it’s likely larger, older and more musically diverse than any other modern pop and rock-oriented festival you’ve visited.

The only older continuously-running music festivals in the country are the Ravinia Festival in highland Park, Illinois (1904-present), the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island (1954-present) and the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Pennsylvania (1962-present).

The Marcus Amphitheater, built in 1987, is nearing the end of its useful life, according to Summerfest CEO Don Smiley. Planning has begun to replace it.
The Marcus Amphitheater, built in 1987, is nearing the end of its useful life, according to Summerfest CEO Don Smiley. Planning has begun to replace it.

None of them come close to matching Summerfest’s scale.

To put into perspective how rare it is for a music festival to last longer than even one year, there were at least nine other rock and pop-oriented music festivals that held their inaugural shows the same year as Summerfest—1968. Summerfest was the only one of them that lasted past 1970.

In 1969, there were at least 21 brand-new music festivals that never made it to a second year.

Hundreds have come and gone, but Summerfest has remained.

“The staying power of Summerfest is undeniable,” Smiley said.

Part of the reason could be found in the festival’s roots, which reside in a 1931 end-of-Prohibition celebration called Volksfest. According to Milwaukee historian John Gurda in his book “The Making of Milwaukee,” Volksfest was such a good time, the city’s residents decided they wanted to hold a similar celebration annually referred to as Midsummer Festival. The Midsummer Festival ran from 1933 to 1941.

During its later years, former Mayor Daniel Hoan envisioned the festival becoming a national spectacle, similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but the economic hardship of the Great Depression and the country’s involvement in World War II made it difficult to sustain.

The idea of creating an internationally-known festival in Milwaukee lingered, however, and eventually Mayor Henry Maier revived the idea of creating a “Milwaukee World Festival” in the 1960s after visiting Oktoberfest in Germany. He wanted it to be a conglomerate of several smaller festivals dedicated to different styles of music and art.

Summerfest was born.

“You can go to a lot of festivals like the Bonnaroos and the Lollas and the Coachellas, and they’re all great festivals, but they’re all in one genre, or close to one genre, and their tickets are big,” Babisch said. “Our amphitheater tickets are big, too, don’t get me wrong, but there’s still a lot on the grounds for almost free of all different genres. It’s not like a bunch of people came in to try to make a bunch of quick money and then left. This is a festival for the people. We try to never lose that feeling.”

The Marcus Amphitheater can seat 23,000.
The Marcus Amphitheater can seat 23,000.

Babisch, Smiley and Brunclik agreed—the industry is changing. But Summerfest, with its long history, stable base and wide musical variety, is positioned well for the future.

“For a lot of artists, touring and festivals have taken on a whole new importance,” Smiley said. “That’s good for us; However, it’s become very competitive. There’s a lot of festivals out there. Some have come and gone but that does not mean they weren’t your competitors for several years and made offers to bands that we wanted to sign.”

Babisch said he sees more festivals around the country adopting a similar, multi-genre model to Summerfest in the future—mixing up the lineups to stand out so they’re not just duplicating one another.

But he does worry sometimes about the state of the music industry.

“In the old days, the relationship was an act would come up and they’d play a club,” he said. “Then they’d play a bigger club. Then they’d go play a 1,000 seater or a 2,000 seater, then they’d play a 5,000 seater, and work their way up to that big thing. Now it seems that they churn through it so fast. They could have a single out there and social (media) blows you up because of how you look and how your video is—it’s more important than the actual song. And they throw these acts out in front of 20,000 people when they’re not ready for 20,000 people. I don’t know if the longevity of the business holds true there.”

He said the risk and burnout rate makes labels cautions about taking a chance on some young acts.

“There was a past where you fell in love with an act and you listened to it for years and years and years and years and you waited for the next album,” he continued. “That’s starting to thin out, I think. Country music’s still got it. It’s still there. But everything else seems too single-driven or one-song-driven.”

But those are long-term concerns, and as Smiley likes to say: don’t create problems for yourself.

For now, Smiley is focused on putting together Summerfest’s 50th anniversary next year. To make the festival more competitive, he said, major construction and renovation projects are being planned for the grounds, particularly around its middle and northern sections. Though specifics aren’t yet available, he said they will be completed in the next few years.

There are also plans on the table to replace the Marcus Amphitheater, which Smiley said is nearing the end of its useful life. The Amphitheater was built in 1987 at a cost of $12 million.

The organization’s most recent major festival grounds improvement was a two-phase, $35 million project from 2010-’12 to rebuild the South Gate and the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage and to build the BMO Harris Pavilion stage.

Milwaukee World Festival Inc. leases Henry Maier Festival Park from the Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners for around $1.4 million per year. Its current lease extends through 2030.

“You can travel the globe and not find such an attractive festival site on the shores of Lake Michigan, or a Great Lake, or any body of water, for that matter,” Smiley said. “We’re caretakers of that land. That’s why we take it so seriously and are constantly improving it, tearing things down and rebuilding them. That’s what our guests, our customers, the residents of southeastern Wisconsin and the world have come to expect. They expect a higher level at Summerfest.”

Summerfest will be held June 29 through July 10. The grounds will be closed on July 4.

What it costs to book Summerfest headliners

The Eagles (2013)…..$1.4 million

Foo Fighters (2012)…..$1 million

Aerosmith (2012)…..$1 million

Tom Petty (2013)…..$992,500

Bruno Mars (2014)…..$933,929

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Ben Stanley
Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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