8 Takeaways From a Not-Quite Historic Summerfest 2017

Attendance was up, but did Summerfest live up to its own "50th Edition" hype?

Jul. 13, 2017
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The numbers are in, and Summerfest executives have got to feel good about them, if not quite overjoyed. According to a press release, 831,769 people attended Milwaukee’s signature festival this year, an increase of 3.4% over last year. Chalk some of that increase up to good weather; opening day was the only prohibitively rainy night of the festival.

Of course, those attendance figures are still down a bit from historic highs: In 2011, the festival neared 900,000 attendees, and in the early ’00s the festival surpassed a million people. Given the considerable boast in advertising for the festival’s much-trumpeted “50th Edition” (the actual 50th anniversary is next year), they may have been hoping for a more considerable turnout.

Was it a year to remember? Not quite, but it was still a successful year by any measure. Here are eight takeaways outlining the good, the bad and the frustrating from this year’s 11-day marathon.

This Is What a Solid Summerfest Lineup Looks Like

During the run-up to the festival, the consensus take among local media held that this year’s lineup was nothing all that special. Blame some bad expectations setting for that: The festival’s marketing had strongly hinted that it had something truly special lined up to celebrate the milestone. It didn’t. That being said, though, this was still one of the festival’s strongest lineups in years, especially at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, which offered an impressive mix of legends like Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and relevant newer acts like Future and The Chainsmokers. If you were hoping for much more than that, well, then I’ve got a taxpayer funded multi-million dollar arena to sell you. This is still Summerfest. Drake, Beyonce and Taylor Swift aren’t going to be there.

Summerfest Finally Embraced Rap and EDM

For the most part, the festival has done a solid job in recent years meeting market demand, booking acts that are proven jobs, with two major exceptions: rap and electronic music, two slam-dunk draws that the festival nonetheless has only booked in cursory amounts. This year, however, Summerfest offered an array of both, with Flume, The Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki and Girl Talk on the electronic end and Future, Migos, Big Sean, Ludacris, T-Pain, Kyle, Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, IshDARR, Joey Purp and Ray Nitti highlighting the hip-hop lineup. The myth still persists in some circles that these genres draw nuisance crowds. This year proved they don’t. If Summerfest wants to assert its relevance, these bookings are the way to do it.

There Were Some Odd Scheduling Choices

I don’t envy whoever assembles Summerfest’s daily schedules. Each is a complicated puzzle that requires a lot of research and more than a little guesswork to complete. Nonetheless, there were some odd placements, and crowds seemed more unevenly distributed than usual this year, with overflowing crowds at some stages and miniscule ones at others. Tegan and Sara played show a the Miller Lite Oasis that hardly anybody was at, while many at an almost dangerously overcrowded T-Pain show at the Uline Warehouse wondered how such a big show got booked on such a relatively small stage.

There Were No Major Incidents

That T-Pain show in particular felt like a powder keg on the brink of igniting. But it didn’t. That's how it often is with this festival, especially on busy nights or during popular shows: It can feel wild, chaotic and sometimes almost alarmingly disorganized. But when push comes to shove, things usually work out. Once again this year, there was no major, brand-damaging incident, which is no small feat, given the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through the festival’s turnstiles.

There’s No Reason Some Headliners Can’t Go On Earlier

For its Throwback Thursday promotion, Summerfest experimented with booking headline-caliber acts on its main stages during the afternoon and evening hours. It worked. People came out, including many of the “in bed by 10” types who often feel left out by the festival’s night-heavy schedule. How wonderful would it be if next year the festival booked at least a couple of headliners around 8 or 9 each night.

Those Cigar Tents Are The Absolute Worst

It may take a few years or it may take a decade, but it’s only a matter of time until Summerfest goes smoke-free. That’s just the way the world is trending. In the meantime, though, the festival could show a modicum of respect to its nonsmoking patrons by removing its cigar tents. Cigar smoke is a nuisance under even the best circumstances, but it’s especially intolerable in thick, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, where it has nowhere to go but directly into somebody’s face.

Summerfest and Jimmy Kimmel Are a Bizarre Pairing

Summerfest sought to increase its national brand by announcing its lineup on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this year, though why they partnered with that particular show remains a bit of a mystery to me. Certain festival performances also streamed on JimmyKimmelLiveMusic.com, a half-functional website that Kimmel himself may not be aware exists. There are no figures on how many people streamed them. Maybe next year just stream them on Summerfest.com?

Summerfest is Still Infinitely More Inclusive Than Any Other Music Festival

Summerfest tried this year to market itself as a competitor to all those younger music festivals that have sprung up over the last decade. It was a noble effort, but they weren’t fooling anybody. In truth Summerfest is something far less prestigious but far more valuable than a Coachella or a Lollapalooza: a festival for literally everybody, not just primarily white recent college graduates with disposable incomes. There are no hard numbers, but even more so than usual the festival this year seemed to attract a mix of people of all ages, classes, races and cultural backgrounds. That’s something extraordinarily rare and worth celebrating.


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