Summerfest post-mortem: How important is music to this thing anyway?
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Summerfest released its 2010 attendance figures Friday afternoon, and as many expected, the numbers were up from 2009, clocking in at 856,254 over last year’s 835,679. The positive spin of the festival’s press release has been essentially repeated verbatim by local media reports, which have neglected to point out that The Big Gig’s numbers are still relatively sluggish compared to the business it was doing in the early and mid ’00s, when Summerfest was drawing in the 900,000 to 1 million range. Of course, an increase is an increase, and the 2010 numbers are comparable to what the festival drew back in 2006, when 864,866 people attended. But Summerfest is still only about 25,000 people removed from its 15-year low in 2008, and spending for side-stage talent had to be increased 3.5 percent in order to get a 2.5 percent attendance spike.
While Summerfest officials say they’re pleased with the numbers, maintaining that they fall in the range of people they were budgeted for, I wonder what’s in store for the future of Milwaukee’s highest-profile entertainment event. Clearly, Summerfest is still a very popular festival, contributing tens of millions of dollars to the local economy every year. But as a showcase for music, it seems less important than ever. Milwaukee is no longer a city that has to wait until late June and early July in order to see first-rate touring bands; local venues are now doing it more often, and frequently better, than Summerfest, which still relies heavily on cover bands and C-list talent to fill out side stages before the 10 p.m. headliners. Whether you’re a fan of Passion Pit or The Moody Blues, Colbie Caillat or Sound Tribe Sector 9, or many of the other marquee Summerfest performers this year, there’s a good chance you’ve been able to see these artists recently in more optimal conditions at a local club or theater.
All of which makes me wonder: How important is music to Summerfest anyway? Personally speaking, I tend to like Summerfest more when I'm not there to see a particular artist, but rather just free to wander around eating and drinking and people-watching. When I show up to see a band I like, it just ends up being aggravating, both because of the unpalatable set-up (especially those horrible benches that turn concert-watching into a precarious balancing act) and the simple fact that a lot of Summerfest attendees are not primarily concerned with watching music.
Summerfest prides itself on being the world’s largest music festival, but it’s not really a magnet for music fans, who have plenty of other options in the region catering to specific genres and constituencies, whether it’s Pitchfork and Lollapalooza in Chicago, Country USA in Oshkosh, or dozens of smaller annual events. Perhaps instead of spending more money on bands, Summerfest would be better off putting that cash toward making the grounds more scenic, offering a wider array of food and drink items, and making The Big Gig less music-centric and more of a massive lakefront bash, which is what it really is anyway. The citywide party is what makes Summerfest unique and attractive to most people; the music just seems stale by comparison.