The World's Largest Music Festival books over 800 acts a year. Bob Babisch is the man that books them. This is an interview with him.
You can listen to the full interview here.
The interveiw has been edited for content and structure.
Justin Barney: So when did you start booking at Summerfest?
Bob Babisch: I have been here since 1976. This is my 38th festival. This is my 38th year here as the entertainment director.
J: Did you change things when you started?
B: No, you know not really, but change, change it was already coming. When the festival first started out, it was mostly ethnic dance companies and polka bands. And then they started branching off into doing some rock music and becoming more of a rock festival. And then they had a little mini riot one year with Humble Pie and the kids there kind of got crazy and tore up the petting zoo and killed some animals and turned over bars and I’m not even sure why that happened but it did happen.
B: So then they started going back into more of the ethnic dance companies and things like that again. Kind of the safer music if you will, kind of not Broadway but more pop singers and things like that, that were much safer. And then I started getting the opportunity to stretch it a little more, I mean we had a Grateful Dead date in there that got rained out but then we started stretching, you know, giving it a few more chances.
And then there were Brewery stages at that time. There was a Miller stage, a Schlitz Country stage, an Old Style Stage, and they started seeing that, you know, the kids they were listening to the younger music that was selling the beer. I mean, meaning college aged kids like 21 to 30, something like that. So they started asking for more and more of that. I mean Miller at one point was called the Miller Jazz Oasis and they started moving away from Jazz genre because they wanted to get more people down here in the younger age group, so it’s kind of changed with that. And then the amphitheater got built and you have to put shows in there that can fill those kinds of numbers and that became rock bands.
J: What would you say is your booking philosophy?
B: The booking philosophy here is to try to put a little something for everybody because we are, in our minds, we always go back to the fact that we are a people’s festival. And ticket prices are very very inexpensive and we always wanna try to keep it that way. And we always say that if you talk to people in Milwaukee, it’s like my festival, my Summerfest. And we want to keep that vibe. We want people to think of it as theirs. So once again we try to hit every genre we possibly can, and we try to keep the price down as low as we can. And we want everybody to come on down and have a good time, you know, we want everybody that likes every style of music to come in here and have some fun.
J: And I totally think that’s what it is. I’ve gone every year since I was born, you know it’s not like one of those festivals you have to be a certain age to go to.
B: Right. You can walk around and find different things that you want to take a listen to. And who knows, maybe you didn’t like that style, maybe you weren’t into country music but then you watch a band for a while and you go, Sh*t, those guys are good! You know?
J: Yeah! Exactly.
B: …that’s good stuff that I’m hearing here. And same with the guys that like country, they’ll walk by a hip-hop thing and go hey, that was pretty interesting. And it gets everybody a chance to start listening to other genres of music, which makes it very cool.
J: So how do you take that into consideration when you’re booking it?
B: Well we sit down, that’s myself, Scott Ziel, Vic Thomas, David Silbaugh and when we look at it, we have a blank screen up on the wall with all of the different stages and we make a point to say okay, how many genres can we hit today?
You know the amphitheater’s gonna have this style of music, okay let’s make sure that we find a hip-hop guy if we can find one on the grounds for that day, let’s make sure we find a rock show, if we can get an EDM thing let’s get an EDM thing in there. That whole theory you know being 19 dollars, or pretty much you can get in free every single day, that you just wander around and see all of these different styles of music and that’s a process we are cognizant about every single day when we have our music meeting.
J: And I think that really shows in the booking I think that you do a great job of that.
B: Well, thanks! And that’s what makes us so much different from, if you look at the Bonnaroos, you look at the Coachellas, you look at the Lollas even, even those guys are starting to branch off a little more in the classic rock stuff. I mean you see McCartney out there doing dates, or Billy Joel was at Bonnaroo. You’ve got McCartney at Lolla, you’ve got McCartney at Firefly this weekend so you’re starting to see that happen at these other venues also.
J: And how do you consider Milwaukee artists in there?
B: Oh, we are looking for whatever is the best stuff that’s being played right now in Milwaukee, or that the people are listening to in Milwaukee, or that people are going out to see in Milwaukee. There’s a couple acts that, you know, people say sometimes, well you have this and this act in all the time. Well we do because that’s a big draw in town and everybody likes to go and see them so you gotta try and balance everything and also find some of the new stuff that’s also exciting.
I think some of the most fun we have in our music meetings is when somebody brings something in and says you gotta here this! And then we all go, woah that’s cool! And like you discover something knew and that’s what it’s all about! Because you say to somebody, what makes good music? And you don’t know. I mean it’s hard to explain what’s good, you know, it’s hard to explain what makes good music. It’s the one thing when you hear it, it grabs you in the gut, grabs you in the heart and then you go oh, that’s great. That’s just great. Why is it great? I’m not sure, but it’s great, you know?
J: Yeah, that’s it. So this year you booked The Rolling Stones. In Milwaukee, a market that is too small for them, in the Marcus amphitheater, a theatre that is even smaller, how did you get them to agree to do that?
B: You know, we got a call from some people at a company called AEG that we’ve worked with before that have done things in the amphitheater so they know the vibe of the amphitheater, and that vibe is when you’re an artist and you’re standing on a stage even though it holds 23,000, when you’re looking out at the audience it feels like there’s only 10 in the building because it kind of goes straight up where a lot of amphitheaters kind of flat line out if you will, this has a much steeper angle going up into the seating area.
So it’s a cool place to play, and when they started out they wanted to do a couple things different for the band. They wanted to have some places where they’d really have fun doing something other than, you know, you’re traditional stadium that they seem to always do. So I think they had a couple of places worked out but eventually they decided they were going to play more stadiums so they just kept ours in but I mean they told us early on they said, “You know in total transparency you might lose this date,” but they tried to keep us in and they did! So I mean, I thought it was pretty cool.
J: That is! That’s great for Milwaukee, that’s great for music fans you know?
B: Yeah, I think so too! I mean, you don’t know how many times they’re gonna tour and if you haven’t seen them it’s great! And the ticket prices, while the ticket prices might be a little expensive compared to other Summerfest shows, it’s the same ticket price that they’re charging everywhere.
Wait! Before you go, what’re you interested in seeing this year?
J: Oh my God, Kendrick Lamar.
B: Yeah, how bout it, huh? A quick little story. We put that offer in for Kendrick not knowing when that album was even coming out or how big it was going to be. We just knew it was coming out this spring, and we knew the last one was so strong and everybody was talking about what a great poet he was, and we thought, you know we’re gonna bet on this one being successful and man it came out and every critic just fell in love with it. That was great.
You know another guy that I’m interested in seeing is Ed Sheeran.
I mean he’s a great song writer, let’s face it, but you know must of the stuff he does is a solo and it translates! I mean it’s out there, people love it! And he does these big audiences, so I’m pretty excited about that. So we’ll see how it turns out.