Piet Levy Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 9:28 p.m. UTC Jun 26, 2018
With the half-century celebration come and gone, Summerfest kicks off its 51st year Wednesday feeling fresher and looking younger than it has in ages.
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Unlike previous years, the festival’s American Family Insurance Amphitheater is dominated by young pop and hip-hop acts. You’ll find plenty of perennials headlining the grounds stages, but also more fresh faces than usual. And the northern end of the grounds look drastically different, with two new stages and a redesigned entrance and community plaza.
“When we think about who are we reaching and who are we preparing this festival for in the future, the goal line keeps moving,” said Don Smiley, CEO of Summerfest’s parent company, Milwaukee World Festival Inc.
It’s still the people’s festival, aspiring to offer something for everyone; the night one headliner lineup spans from 51-year-old prog rock group Jethro Tull to 23-year-old rap sensation Lil Uzi Vert to local cover band the Cougars.
But with millennials numbering around 75.4 million — and eclipsing boomers as the largest age demographic in the country — the festival’s caretakers are paying extra attention to what will be their largest customer base for years to come.
“There is no question that they are definitely in our sweet spot,” Smiley said.
Of the 32 million Americans who attend a festival each year, about 14.7 million are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to music trade publication Billboard.
Generally, more millennial women than men attend festivals. According to a survey by GMR Marketing in New Berlin, about 76 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 go to at least one festival a year, and 49 percent of women in that age group attend three or more.
Millennial-friendly main stage
Summerfest has been courting that age group for years, going so far as to have a Millennial Day on July 4 last year, with twenty-somethings occupying most of the headliner slots.
That “day” isn’t returning for 2018, but comparing the amphitheater lineup to what was there last year, it’s a night-and-day difference.
In 2017, the amp acts included Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul Simon, the Outlaw Music Festival with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, and two nights with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There were two amp shows with young, chart-topping acts.
This year, two of the 11 amphitheater shows are largely for boomers: James Taylor with Bonnie Raitt, and Journey with Def Leppard.
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The amp lineup kicks off with Imagine Dragons and 14-year-old rising pop artist Grace VanderWaal. Three booking coups — R&B artist the Weeknd, pop singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes and rapper J. Cole — play the amphitheater after each releasing Billboard chart-topping albums this spring, and ahead of anticipated tours.
Country-pop crossover duo Florida Georgia Line will perform with pop artist Bebe Rexha, a custom Summerfest booking that likely will mean a rare joint live performance of their new smash hit, “Meant to Be.”
Bob Babisch, Summerfest’s vice president of entertainment, and a talent buyer with the festival for 40 years, also put together a custom amphitheater package with pop star Halsey and rapper Logic.
The hot bookings extend throughout the grounds, whether it’s surging country stars Kane Brown and Brett Young or an eclectic mix of EDM acts, from the pop-charts-ruling Marshmello to the headier Louis the Child. To further lure young EDM lovers, Summerfest even created a special video last year that’s been viewed more than 100,000 times on Facebook.
And just two years after a disappointing hip-hop lineup with a handful of older acts, the talent team booked up-and-comers like Amine, Belly and GoldLink to headline grounds stages.
“We are looking a little outside the box,” Babisch said. “Summerfest is 51 years old, and it’s going to be here long after we’re gone. People get on the Summerfest train, and then they get off when they’re 70. If you want young audiences you’ve got to keep watching the trends.”
Focusing on the experience
In the crowded music festival landscape — where even ticket sales for the Bruno Mars-topping Lollapalooza in Chicago were significantly slower compared to last year — the trends suggest that if you build a great lineup, the people won’t necessarily come.
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According to that GMR Marketing survey, 63 percent of young women surveyed said they go to a festival for the lineup — but 71 percent said they’re drawn to festivals for the social experience.
To make that experience better, Summerfest officials have been focusing on renovations at Maier Festival Park. Including the rebuilt Miller Lite Oasis that opened last year, about $59.5 million will be spent on capital improvements through 2020.
“The uniqueness of our grounds and what it offers to fans versus a camping festival or a temporary site is just tremendous,” Smiley said.
This year, a good chunk of those improvement plans have come to fruition.
Adjacent to a new north entrance is a community plaza that includes interactive musical sculptures and meeting areas.
“That was all done by just taking a real dead spot of urban park and laying that out in different configuration,” Smiley said.
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The new Klement’s Sausage and Beer Garden — which came together, from partnership to construction, this spring — offers a quiet area for a few hundred to see some music, and another permanent Summerfest stage where local artists can play, Babisch said.
But this year’s major overhaul is the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, rebuilt from scratch and boasting a 27-foot LED screen, the largest on the grounds. It now points southwest, to avoid the sound bleed that affected the nearby Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, and can accommodate about 10,000 people, a nearly 30 percent increase from the old stage layout, Babisch said.
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Next year Summerfest will open its fourth stage in three years, with another built-from-scratch upgrade of the Uline Warehouse on the north end of the park.
“It will have a much different look than anything we’ve really built here in the past,” Smiley said. “Fans will have more room than they have now, but it’s not going to be a 10,000-seat area. It’s going to be cozy, but not smaller than what it is now.”
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After Uline, the next overhaul will be one of the festival’s biggest projects in its history: a rebuilt American Family Insurance Amphitheater, with a tentative opening in 2020. Local firm Eppstein Uhen Architects is designing the 23,000-capacity venue, budgeted at $30 million to $35 million.
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“We’re currently meeting with consultants, whether they’re audio engineers or food and beverage consultants,” Smiley said. “One of our points of discussion is possibly raising the roof. It’s at 38 feet now, and Bob and I have had a lengthy discussion about bands we would get a shot at if that roof was 65 feet, where you can actually fit the production for some tours into the building. We’ll have the opportunity to create all the amenities and fan-facing comforts that people expect.”
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