As the leader of the music production team of Summerfest producer Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., Bob Babisch keeps busy year-round. Babisch’s team was responsible for booking bands for a 2020 summer festival that was postponed and later canceled due to COVID-19, followed by this year’s festival, which was also pushed back and ultimately held under a new three-weekend format in September. A 43-year veteran of the Big Gig, Babisch recently reflected on the challenges of the past two years and some of his biggest gets during a Q&A with BizTimes editor Andrew Weiland at a Summerfest Business Alliance event.
What’s it like to be responsible for, and take public criticism about, the Summerfest lineup every year?
“I’ve been called a lot of things, believe me, on social (media) over the years. You kind of get thick skin, you don’t read what people are saying about you. You try to do what’s best for the festival and for the people who come to the festival. Our whole theory here is we’re the most eclectic festival. … You can go on the Summerfest grounds any time and you can see a pop show and a country show and a hard rock show and a hip-hop show, and we try to do something for everybody on every stage on every day. … It’s kind of a chess match.”
How challenging is it to get the lineup that you put together every year?
“The main competition for us in June/July is Europe. Because, in America, a lot of the festivals come before us and a lot of festivals come after us. In Europe, it all starts with a big festival called Glastonbury, which is in the third week of June. So, a lot of American bands will stay here, do Bonnaroo, do Firefly a couple months before us, and then instead of playing for us, they’ll go over to Europe, and they’ll stay in Europe all the way until August, and then they’ll come back for Lollapalooza. … The process starts now. You’re calling every major agency. We actually have four shows booked for the amphitheater already for 2022, but I can’t announce them yet.”
How do financials work for the amphitheater? Is it Summerfest providing a revenue guarantee or does the band get a cut for every ticket sold?
“When you do a show in an amphitheater setting, what you’re basically doing is guaranteeing the band X amount of money. And you discuss what the ticket price is going to be, you set that ticket price, and then it’s a percentage after expenses. So, sometimes it will be 95/5, with the band getting 95% of the money left over after expenses, and us only getting 5% back. But you make the money on fees, you make your money on parking, you make your money on food and drinks, that’s how you make your money on big concerts.”
What band or act is your biggest white whale? Who are your dream gets?
“I never talk about them. I never do because I think one of these days I’m going to get them. … We waited forever for the Stones. The same (management) company did the Stones for years, and they did (only stadium shows). … But eventually it turned out they were putting together a 25-date Stones tour, and they were all stadiums, but they wanted to put them in one place where they thought they would have fun. And the reason we got that date was because the guys who were promoting that Stones tour years before promoted Prince. … And the only reason we got that first Prince date was because we heard (where) he was going to have a birthday party in Minneapolis and we cold-called like 45 times until somebody would pick up the phone and they said ‘I’ll ask.’ … He came and played the old amphitheater and had the time of his life, left, came back a couple years later and did it again.”
How did you keep your wits about you during all the disruption of COVID?
“A lot of the headliners that we had kind of moved with us because they were changing their schedules also. … We kept a lot of those acts for that two-year time period. And then when we got around to the fall, there were a lot of bands saying, ‘Well, we couldn’t work for the last year and a half, we know we’re going to be able to work in the fall.’ That’s when we got the Jonas Brothers date, the Guns ‘N Roses date, the Hella Mega date. … We picked up some, and we lost some as we went. Janelle Monae all the sudden got a movie, things like that, so we lost a few acts.”
Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. 639 E. Summerfest Place, Milwaukee Employees: 45 full-time; more than 2,000 seasonal staff