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Summerfest's attendance doesn't tell the story: This year's festival was a success

If the past is any precedent, at some point this week Summerfest will put out a press release revealing how many people attended this year. Those numbers are almost certain to be eye-popping. The festival's attendance has been dipping for years now -- in 2019 it posted its lowest attendance in more than 30 years -- but even those recent numbers are bound to look enormous compared to the ones we're likely to see from 2021.

Summerfest's organizers had hoped that pent-up demand for live music after the pandemic would turn out crowds in droves this year. That didn't happen. Just weeks before Summerfest's return, Covid-19 cases began to surge, scaring away some attendees. The festival implemented some minor Covid-19 precautions, like requiring either proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test, that alienated others. A few acts canceled their tours due to Covid-19 fears before the festival. Several others -- including Yola, Indigo Girls and Natasha Bedingfield -- canceled due to cases of Covid-19 during the festival. The festival's divisive new three-weekend structure didn't help attendance either, nor did the uncanniness of holding the festival in September.

And so the attendance numbers that Summerfest is likely to release this week will be low -- very, very low. That's heartbreaking not only for festival organizers, but for the vendors who'd been hoping for big business after suffering through Covid-19.

Photo credit: Kenny Perez

But those numbers don't tell the full story of this year's festival. Despite all the uncertainty, organizers managed to deliver one of the most enjoyable Summerfests in years, along with arguably the festival's strongest lineup in a decade. For three beautiful September weekends, Summerfest put the city's lakefront to use and gave us something to do before the cold weather sends us indoors. It gave us the chance to see Megan Thee Stallion, Dave Chappelle, Miley Cyrus and Run The Jewels. It gave dozens of local acts the opportunity to play some of the biggest stages of their career. It booked two damn Spin Doctors shows on the same day, because the show must go on.

And, despite the inherent risks of the pandemic, it offered a relatively safe outdoor experience for fans -- and even showed leadership by adopting Covid-19 protocols that have since become standard before nearly any other Milwaukee music or arts organizations had. The festival never asked to get drawn into an ugly public policy debate, but it handled the situation responsibly and with grace.

And while I don't have much nice to say about the festival's confounding new three-weekend format -- our friend Piet Levy at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel likes it; I think it dulls the excitement of the festival and robs us of some prime days -- I hope the organizers don't over-learn any lessons from this year. Summerfest's big experiment with more major 4 p.m. headliners, for instance, was mostly a bust this year, with some worthwhile names drawing very lackluster crowds. But that doesn't mean the festival shouldn't try again next year. I loved having destination acts playing earlier in the day.

Despite rotten circumstances, Summerfest went above and beyond this year. We were lucky to have it back.