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How Summerfest booked its most difficult lineup ever

This year's Summerfest will mark a number of firsts for Milwaukee's signature festival. It will be the first time Summerfest is spread across three weekends, a change that organizers say is permanent. It'll also be the festival's first (and most likely only) September installment. And, of course, it will be the first Summerfest since the outbreak of Covid-19, which forced the cancellation of last year's festival.

And yet for all the uncertainty and do-overs the festival had to navigate over the last 15 months, its lineup hasn't suffered any. This September's lineup is one of its strongest in recent memory, with grounds stage performers including Run The Jewels, Wilco, Black Pumas, Diplo, Bleachers and Charlie Wilson, as well as Megan Thee Stallion, Chance the Rapper, Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers and Dave Matthews Band among the amphitheater headliners. As a surprise the festival even tossed in three Wednesday night "weekend kickoff" concerts at the amphitheater.

Summerfest's Associate Booking Director Scott Ziel talked with Radio Milwaukee about how the festival went about booking this unusual year. Read the interview below.

I was surprised by how early you were able to announce this year's lineup, especially given all the uncertainty you were working around. What was the process of putting together this year's lineup like?

It's been really interesting. We obviously rescheduled what was supposed to be a 2020 festival, first from June 2020 to September of 2020, and now to September of 2021. I think the hardest part was there were a lot of the artists that we booked initially that we wanted to keep as a part of the lineup. A lot of them would carry over when we approached them with new festival dates, but we lost some in the process. And then of course, every time we did a different time frame, we felt like, “Well, we've lost some artists, so let's pick up some new names.” A great group of artists carried through the whole way, but you know how the music business is; you've got to keep it fresh. You have to keep some room for what is going to be the next hot thing come September. So striking that balance I think was the hardest part. And I'm hoping that we achieved that.

When you rescheduled the festival for September, what sort of confidence did you have that live music would be back by then?

I think we really just looked at the predictions based on when they were rolling out the vaccines in January and February. You know, we've been working with a lot of different health officials and I've submersed myself in everything -- vaccines and testing and verifications and all this stuff -- for months and months.

Experts' predictions were that by summer there should be enough people vaccinated to have the numbers come down drastically. So our thoughts were that by September we should be good. And obviously nobody has the crystal ball. Everybody has been wrong before. But it feels like that has been a good decision.

You know, we network with a lot of the other festivals, and everybody was basically doing the same thing. They were moving to the fall. So we felt like, “Here's a way to give bands an option of picking up some festivals dates in a row.” At this point we feel really good about September. We obviously wouldn't have announced the lineup if we didn't. It just kind of felt like our timing is kind of a reflection of what we're seeing with other promoters in Milwaukee booking some fall shows and what we're seeing on a national level.

Summerfest | Photo credit: Adam Sonnett

Were you surprised by how many artists are committed to being back on the road? I was expecting more of a gradual drip of maybe some artists touring, with some continuing to postpone, but it really feels like the whole concert industry flipped a switch and almost everybody's back on the road.

Yeah, I would agree with that. I will say there's still probably some folks that have just said like, “Hey, we're just going to be ultra conservative and let's push everything to 2022.” You've seen My Chemical Romance, which was confirmed for Riot Fest in September right around us, they made the decision to push things to 2022. And honestly, I would be remiss in saying that the entire lineup is completely booked as of today. By design we're waiting, cause the phone could ring tomorrow and somebody who has been saying that they don't want a tour might change their minds because of all of the news and all the progress.

I was also surprised by frankly how good the lineup is. I thought there might've been a temptation to maybe cut a few corners on this year's lineup, just to mitigate your risk a little bit – maybe save a little bit of money on bookings, because who knows what September is going to look like and what the appetite for going out to a festival will be. Was that something Summerfest ever considered?

Honestly, the feeling has been like all along and when it comes back, it's going to be massive. You don't really see people that much during a pandemic, but there was one week where I went to went to my doctor's office for an annual physical, and I got new glasses. So I was kind of running into people that I don't normally see. And resoundingly, anytime that I ran into anybody who knew what I do, they were like, “Hey man, you know, I love going to Lambeau Field to see a Packers game. I love going to see the Brewers and the Bucks, but the one thing that we miss the most is Summerfest and just live music in general, and that's what I'm most excited about seeing come back.” There's been this outpouring. So our thoughts have been like when it's time, you know, the floodgates are going to open up and we want to deliver the best that we can. So we didn't want to cut any corners.

And you know, the festival's format has gone from an 11 day festival to three weekends, nine days, Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays. So one of the extra added kind of things that we're doing is having more national acts earlier in the day. If it's a Thursday or Friday or Saturday, you know, let's give people more of a reason to come down early and spend the day with us. So when we get into the stage by stage and the actual assigning the times to all the bands, you're going to see at four o'clock on most of the stages, there will be some national band playing earlier in the day than normal. We wanted to deliver the biggest, the best, the most quality and entertainment value we could.

I feel like that was something Summerfest started playing with a few years ago with those Throwback Thursdays, where at 3 or 4 p.m. there would be some pretty big names that might usually be playing at 10 p.m. And it showed in the turnout. There were a lot of people there right after work to see those acts.

Marc Solheim from the Pabst/Riverside Theater and I have been friends forever, and he was telling me the same thing, first after the first year we did the throwback day and then the following year, where we added another day like that but didn't call it anything. He was like, ”Dude, This is great, man, because I'm old. I can come down and see some bands I want to see at 4 and 6 and 8 o'clock and then, if I want to stick around for the headliner I can, but if I don't I've had my fun and can get home." So yeah, just seeing the attendance and seeing the positive feedback to that, that started that whole process.

At what point did you decide to add those bonus Wednesday night concerts?

That really was just a function of when you have limited days, very specific days, you try to convince an artist to take one of the dates that you have. And there were two shows this year, the Dave Matthews show and the Jonas Brothers, where the only days that they could do were Wednesdays. So basically said, "Well, we're not going to say no."

And we turned it into our Wednesday kickoff concerts, going back to the whole idea of just like giving people as much as we can and not cutting corners. We were like, “This will be great. It's a kickoff show to start the weekends.” You go buy tickets that day, and then you get a free ticket to go back to the festival any other day.

There's still some amphitheater slots that have yet to be booked. I imagine that you'll have a lot of options as the months go by and as more artists go on the road. Was that your thinking with those?

It is. I will say you're going to see some more announcements soon, a couple of things we had to put in the to the To Be Announced category that we'll announce soon < EDITOR'S NOTE: Megan Thee Stallion, Guns N' Roses and the Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer concerts were announced shortly after this interview>. But also going back to my whole story about picking up the phone and somebody who said no before might say yes, that gives us a little bit to work with, too. Sometimes when you're going so fast and you're booking, booking, booking, booking, booking, it's good to take a deep breath and just go, “what are we missing?” It gives us a chance to just look at the totality of what we're booking and make sure we're not missing certain styles of music or certain things.

Run The Jewels | Via Flickr

Are there any bookings this year that you're especially proud of?

I would be lying if I didn't say that Run The Jewels is probably like the one that we tried very hard for. We'd gotten very close to a couple of times, but it had never worked out before. Also a long, long time ago, Wilco used to play Summerfest a lot, but we just haven't had them for a long time. This time it worked out perfectly. So having them come back to the festival is really super fun for me. And then everybody talks about going to the Back Room of Colectivo to see the Black Pumas with 200 friends. And then they went on to the Grammys, so for them to be a headliner for us, we're very excited about that one.

Right now the Covid numbers are headed in the right direction. This would be a good problem to have, but since so many festivals have already canceled this summer, there's a real possibility that there's going to be a lot of demand for outdoor gatherings this summer and not much to fill it. Has Summerfest had any conversations about possibly filling some of those empty July or August weekends that are all over the city's summer calendar right now?

I wouldn't be surprised if some shows popped up in July or August, stand-alone concerts that would be at the BMO Pavilion outside of Summerfest or the American Family Insurance Amphitheater. I wouldn't be surprised about those. I think that those have the ability to be pretty nimble and quick in terms of going from, “Hey, let's hold some dates” to announcing it and going on sale. So we'll see how it unfolds. Once we get into the warmer weather we saw what happened last year, just in general people started going outside more. We just want to make sure it's a safe situation that everybody feels really good about.