Is Summerfest getting too big for its own good?
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While most Milwaukeeans and members of Loverboy work for the weekend, Summerfest works for Monday. Yes, today is Summerfest’s day off, a time to re-stock, reconvene, and renegotiate terms with hometown favorite Pre-Recorded Music. So while the Big Gig spends the day getting its shit together, it’s a good time for the rest of us to ask yet another time-honored Summerfest question: Is Summerfest getting too big for its own good?
In case you didn’t make it to Henry Maier Festival Park this past weekend—or you haven’t read this, this, or this—Saturday night was batshit insane. A massive, 20,000+ crowd for Imagine Dragons and Pretty Lights—both scheduled to perform at the same time at the Miller Lite Oasis and Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, respectively—showed up for what some are calling Summerfest’s craziest night. Complicating the matter, a lot of people didn’t have tickets, creating an unprecedented sea of sweaty, drunken humanity at the main gate ticket booths. How crazy was it? Summerfest made (or, as some claim, was forced to make) an extraordinary decision to let people through the gates for free for about 15 minutes, all in hopes of alleviating the massive lines. But free admission or not, the night was, by many accounts, a dangerous, near-riot disaster.
Over on the Milwaukee Reddit, folks have been having a field day with Summerfest’s semi-infamous Saturday night, calling it “dangerous” and “a nightmare.” Evan Rytlewski of the Shepherd Express takes those reports to heart in a piece that blasts the local media for going “soft” on Summerfest, and accuses the fest itself of sugar-coating a dangerous situation. In our own recap of the evening, Cal Roach mostly avoided the insanity (the crowd for Meat Puppets was pretty chill, apparently), though he did note that the “swarm of humanity…was absolutely absurd.”
So which was it: the worst night in the 46-year history of the fest, or just another ridiculous Saturday night? I wasn’t there, but I tend to believe a little bit of both. On one hand, it seems that a number of factors came together to create a perfect storm of (potentially dangerous) nuttiness. The weather was gorgeous, and Milwaukee has been jonesing for a warm, pregnant-with-trouble weekend for months. Then there’s the matter of having two hot-shit bands playing on grounds stages at the same time. I’m not sure how early the festival books its big acts, but it’s safe to say that it didn’t realize Imagine Dragons and Pretty Lights were such a huge deal. Last year at this time, Imagine Dragons drew only a respectable crowd at the Rock The Green festival, taking a way-way-back seat to headliners Third Eye Blind. (That may say more about Rock The Green—which was cancelled this year—than Imagine Dragons; the group sold out The Rave back in March.) As for Evan’s argument that Summerfest gets a free pass when it comes to situations like these, I tend to agree.
On the other hand, it was likely, as Cal suggests, just another Summerfest on a Saturday night. Again, I wasn’t there, but Summerfest always gets crazy on the weekends. Those adverse to huge crowds may have been spoiled by last year’s sparse, sweltering-weather attendance, but let’s not forget that a lot of people show up for this thing, especially on Saturday nights.
Still, a dangerous situation is a dangerous situation. Want to avoid these overcrowded near-disasters, Summerfest? Here are a few suggestions:
• Stop selling tickets at the gates at 9 p.m. If you have a physical ticket, great; if you’re showing up at 11 p.m. with no ticket in hand, you’ll have to hang with the ukulele-playing buskers outside the north gate instead. Want to go further? Stop admitting people, period, at 9 or 10 p.m.
• Remove the permanent restaurants from the middle of the park. The three main stages in the middle of the park—Miller, Harley, and the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard—all face the main thoroughfare, and always create an insane and impassable sea of people that butt up against the string of restaurants. Take these stands out, give the crowds more room to push out towards the lake, and keep the food on the north and south ends of the park.
• Direct more people to the south gate. Seriously, there’s never a crowd at the south gate.
Have any ideas of your own? Horror stories from Saturday night? Let us know, and remember: Loverboy plays Sunday, July 7.