Summerfest Has Entered Its Post-Boomer Era

May. 14, 2014
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Summerfest announced its final 2014 Marcus Amphitheater headliner this morning, OneRepublic, a pop band the fits right in on a schedule filled with relatively youthful draws. Other Amphitheater attractions this year include Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Outkast, Dave Matthews Band, Zac Brown Band, Fall Out Boy and Paramore and Usher, playing his only U.S. concert of the summer.

By and large the festival is earning high marks for that lineup. In a well-reported piece for the Journal Sentinel today, Piet Levy spoke with a number of industry professionals who argued that this might be the festival's most commercially relevant Amphitheater roster ever. "It's one of the best lineups I've seen, and I've been in this market for 25 years," Milwaukee's Clear Channel program director Kerry Wolfe told him. Levy's piece credits some lucky tour routing breaks as well as some sharp maneuvering from Summerfest's top brass for the fresh lineup. Both factors certainly played a role, but even more than that this lineup is the result of a conscious shift in Summerfest's guiding philosophy, representing a near-total reversal from the business model that blighted the festival with such stale lineups in the mid to late '00s.

As I've written many times before, it wasn't a coincidence that Summerfest's lineups from that period leaned on graying classic rock acts to the exclusion of youth-leaning pop, alternative and hip-hop. This was CEO Don Smiley's vision for the festival. In 2005, Smiley's first full year at the helm, the festival purged college-age draws from the lineup and stuffed it instead with acts like The Doobie Brothers, Deep Purple, Survivor, David Lee Roth, Steve Winwood, Stevie Nicks, Bret Michaels, The Allman Brothers, Styx, Eddie Money and Whitesnake, effectively recasting the world's largest music festival as something of a super-sized state fair.

He had his reasons. The previous year Summerfest has taken a significant attendance hit, and while most of that was likely due to bad weather, Smiley fixated on the festival's image problem. To a certain aging, suburban subset of the population, the festival was seen as an unruly place, overcrowded and overrun by scary kids. Those kids, as he saw it, were deterring older festivalgoers with more proven spending power. "When it's too crowded, they don't spend as much," he told OnMilwaukee in 2006. "We're trying to walk the fine line of having the right number of people spending the right amount of money." So Smiley stacked the lineup with acts that young people couldn't possibly be interested in, familiar old names meant to reassure skittish baby boomers that they were safe and welcome.

The problem with that boomer-first strategy, of course, is that aside from watering down the reputation of the state's flagship music festival, it banked on a population that was gradually aging out of the festival demographic. In recent years the festival has finally begun to recognize that. In 2010 the festival invested more money in its headliners and grounds stage acts and saw a corresponding spike in attendance; the next year its Marcus Amphitheater lineup included Kanye West, its first marquee rap headliner in years, and younger draws like Katy Perry and The Black Keys.

These days the festival once synonymous with all things classic rock no longer even has a designated classic rock stage. While empty nesters will still be able to enjoy staples like REO Speedwagon and Kansas on this year's side-stage lineup, '70s and '80s rockers have been increasingly supplanted by newcomers like Neon Trees and Walk Off The Earth. And as attendance rises in turn, more and more the festival seems less concerned with appeasing boomers than in simply putting people through the turnstiles, which might explain the festival's blasé response to last year's dangerous opening-weekend bottleneck.

That situation, which led to patrons storming the entrance gates in a chaotic crush, was exactly the kind of nightmare P.R. scenario that Smiley went out of his way to avoid in his first years with the festival—evidence that the festival really was the overcrowded time bomb its detractors painted it as. But at least publicly, the festival seemed completely uninterested in quelling those concerns. A spokesman for the event brushed them off the next day with a simple insistence that the festival's current entrance policies work fine as they are, giving no indication Summerfest would review them. The implication was clear: The festival is done kowtowing to a skittish population that's growing increasingly less likely to attend the event anyway. If boomers stay home, so be it. There are plenty of kids willing to come out.


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