May 10, 2007

JustSayin... Summerfest 2007 Indie Preview

Julee Holcombe - The Messenger (2005)

So, let's chat about the "The World's Largest Music Festival". The annual Milwaukee music spectacle is scheduled to sprawl out on the summer lake shore for ten days of solid songs from June 28th-June 8th. But as previously mentioned by a commenter, the event seems yet again to be a hollow charade of a summer music festival. An aging corporate strategy dressed in a music festival's screen-printed clothing. A beer festival with nostalgic background music. A state fair in a league of national music festivals. And even if you're uncomfortable extending your critique that far, the line-up is just not very exciting.

Marcus Amphitheater
6/29: Def Leppard, Styx, & Foreigner

6/30: Fray & OK Go

7/2: Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd)

7/3: John Mayer & Ben Folds

7/4: Tool

7/5: Bon Jovi

7/8: Toby Keith

It’s difficult to be critical of Summerfest because it’s absolutely a community resource with a rich history - and its efforts are certainly valuable and need to be recognized. Most of us have had great experiences on the grounds and there will be more this year. But when comparing Summerfest with other large summer music festivals… it misses the mark (of the current state of music) year after year.

Other Festival Examples: This year's Coachella Festival includes buzzed headliners Bjork, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, Air, Damien Rice, Hot Chip, Regina Spektor, The Decemberists, etc (too many to mention)... Washington's Sasquatch Festival promises a deep roster including Beastie Boys, Arcade Fire, MIA, Polyphonic Spree, Blackalicious (and tons more)... Chicago's young Pitchfork Music Festival boasts a lineup that includes Of Montreal, New Pornographers, Klaxons, Cat Power, Clipse, Iron & Wine, Grizzly Bear, and Girl Talk... even Tenessee's traditionally jammy Bonnaroo has plenty of diversity to choose from. Plus, ALL of these festivals have a second and third tier of quality independent musicians.

I disagree with the common excuse that Summerfest is just trying to be too many things to too many people (which sounds like a self-attributed job interview weakness that proclaims "Unfortunately, I'm a perfectionist"). Summerfest often seems like only one thing targeted at one type of person: A money-maker targeted at the lazy music consumer. When primary motivations become ticket sales and catering to corporate sponsors – the music (and music lovers) are the first to be compromised. And the consequences are obvious in the lineup... Following are three observations that demonstrate safe choices and an overt de-prioritization of the art of music.

1) The Majority of the Lineup Has Peaked

In order to stay relevant, a festival needs to showcase acts with new ideas who are advancing the current music scene. But the majority of Summerfest’s acts have already peaked - and there is an obvious overemphasis of 80s/90s music.

+ Pre 1970s: Buddy Guy, BB King
+ Late 1970s/1980s: REO Speedwagon, Def Leopard, Styx, Foreigner, Blue Oyster Cult, Lindsey Buckingham, Roger Waters, Heart, Family Stone Experience, The Wailers, WAR, Bon Jovi, Peter Frampton, The New Cars, INXS

1990s: The Goo Goo Dolls, Sister Hazel, Social Distortion, Wierd Al Yankovic, The Black Crowes, Reel Big Fish, Bob Weir & RatDog, Live, G Love & Special Sauce
Four years ago: Papa Roach, Sum 41

2) The Indie Scene is Strangely Absent
Indie music can offer a fresh, thoughtful, underground, and more experimental edge to a festival. Economically, the indies are usually cheaper and come with a strong second and third tier of high quality acts at a lower cost and higher intensity than most bands on the Summerfest bill. This seems to me to be the biggest difference between Summerfest and other large summer music festivals.

+ Some indie exceptions in this year’s lineup: Shiny Toy Guns, Wolfmother, Silversun Pickups, Built to Spill, Lupe Fiasco, Spoon

We can’t forget the "Emerging Artists Series" at the US Cellular Stage. That's right, the indie acts are playing on the US Cellular sponsored stage. And they're just "emerging" artists… they haven't made enough money yet or attracted the attention of the forty-year-old drunks.

3) The Stale Repetition of Acts
It's impossible for me to accept that the Summerfest can't book any fresh acts and needs to book the same bands every year. Yet, most of the bands in the lineup have already played Summerfest before and many just last year! With Summerfest's built-in crowd and automatic draw of drinking debauchery, it could be great opportunity to surprise crowds with good new music instead of relying entirely on the same safe 90s hits.

+ 2007 artists who played Summerfest just last year: The Goo Goo Dolls, Guster, REO Speedwagon, Styx, Foreigner, Blue Oyster Cult, Blue October, All American Rejects, Phil Vassar, The Fray, Violent Femmes, & Jack’s Mannequin. Ben Folds (as great as he is) not only plays Summerfest every year, but performs nearly the SAME SHOW.

Maybe when Milwaukee asserts Summerfest as the “World’s Largest Music Festival”, it really does mean its physical size. But if the music is ever going to live up to the grandiosity of this moniker, it needs to be organized less like a safe downtown revitalization project and more like a music festival. With art it's not enough to aim at comfortably pleasing the masses, it's necessary to take risks to impress them.

2007 Summerfest Lineup (so-far):

June 28: Violent Femmes, Say Anything, Jack's Mannequin, Wolfmother, REO Speedwagon, Phil Vassar
June 29: Def Leppard, Styx, & Foreigner, OAR, Shiny Toy Guns, Silversun Pickups, Sugarland, Blue Oyster Cult, Sum 41
June 30th: The Fray & OK Go, The Goo Goo Dolls, Rise Against, Sara Evans, Lindsey Buckingham
July 1st: Sister Hazel, Built to Spill, Big & Rich
July 2nd: Roger Waters, Heart, Social Distortion, Ne-Yo, Family Stone Experience, Femi Kuti, The Wailers
July 3rd: John Mayer, Ben Folds, Brett Dennen, Buddy Guy, AFI, Wierd Al Yankovic, WAR
July 4th: Tool, The Black Crowes, Plain White Ts, Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, All Four Original Members of Asia
July 5th: Bon Jovi, The All American Rejects, Spoon, Umphreys McGee, BB King, Bob Weir & RatDog
July 6th: Augustana, Chevelle, Morris Day & The Time, Peter Frampton, Dashboard Confessional
July 7th: Live, Papa Roach, El Gran Combo, The New Cars, Guster
July 8th: Toby Keith, Lupe Fiasco, Blue October, G Love & Special Sauce, INXS, Brian McKnight


At Saturday, May 12, 2007, Blogger Mike said...

You say things so much more eloquently than I do.

You're right about the emerging artist series at the unfortunately-placed US-Celluluar Stage (formerly Leinie Lodge, formerly Piggly Wiggly something-or-other). I remember Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos playing that last year but having a job prevented me from seeing them.

And keep track of late announcements - the Dresden Dolls played a little-known 8pm set right before whatever pop/punk band-of-the-moment was. It's hard to get close to the stage, and harder to hear a fantastic group play to an unappreciative audience, but at least they showed up.

Another point needs to be made, too. Not only are music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza fantastically successful (drawing national don't see the New York Times sending anyone to cover Summerfest), but the most successful music venues IN TOWN are bringing a lot of these same artists in. The Pabst Theater seems to be doing very well by catering to the very audiences that Summerfest shuns. The same people took control of the failed Riverside (the previous owners claimed to be pushed under by the Milwaukee Theater), applied the same philosophy, and made that into a great venue, too.

Here's an idea: let's see a major sponsor partner with WMSE/Atomic Records/Rushmore Records people and see how that turns out.

At Saturday, May 12, 2007, Blogger Mike said...

Femi Kuti could be pretty fantastic, too.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a local musician, i wholly understand some of the things you've said.. but what's repeatadly left unmentioned is the public demand for these artists.. Summerfest wouldn't book several of these guys if (a) they didn't know the stage areas would be packed in the first place, (b) they didn't rip the place up (even ben folds).

Though i can agree that a lot of bands sort of flop, it IS very, VERY hard to get the bands that could rock even more, to summerfest.. first off, there's the booking package required of such a festival. it's like movie theatres back in the day.. a place would book one movie, but they'd have to take one or two more from the same company.
same thing applies here.
getting more than one band together is hard enough- i know. getting major label signed bands together is extremely hard and needs to be planned months in advance.. then there's the money issue.. if the money's not good enough, the band just doesn't come- and it's not cuz they don't want to, usually it's the label and/or booking agency at work.

when you look at these three major issues, you might be able to see how hard it is for Meier Park to get scads of gold selling bands here.. not enough time, not enough budget, not enough support, not enough choice.

i say, even though they have their off years, Summerfest is still a great festival with its roots deep and a huge love for music..

They MUST love music, they're having US back!!
vocals, 9mm SOLUTION

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Blogger Kyle said...

Hobbes - Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for rearticulating the value of Summerfest. I agree it's a great resource, which is why I'm interested in discussing how to make it even better.

About it being harder for Summerfest to attract artists than other festivals, I'm not sure why it's different. I can't help but think we're stuck because of a stagnant track record and a safe vision, not lack of options (I certainly know that better isn't necessarily more expensive). But I'd like to know more about which Summerfest logistics are turning acts off. Remember last years Hedgpeth Fest in little Twin Lakes WI (

About relying soley on mass public demand to choose artists, this was my point about using the built-in-crowd as an opportunity to surprise and impress people. Or using headliners to expose a second and third tier of edgier artists. People don't know what they'll like if they never are exposed to it. This is exactly the reason why radio and 2007 politics suck, let me expand... Radio constantly repeats songs that it knows will please the general, casual listener. In doing this, it has actually become a negative force in music by holding low expectations for the listener and consisteny under-challenging them. In politics, the same 100% focus is put on trying to be moderate and please the general, casual voter. Sometimes I just want someone to stand up on stage, rock out, and offend some people.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Blogger Mike said...

I'd like to continue beating a dead horse.

This article was published in the NY Times 2 days ago:
The article gives a brief summary of 33 pop and jazz festivals across the nation this summer. Guess what's not on there?

Summerfest is unique in that it's kind of in between two typical festival formats: the 3-day all-in-one Coachella-type festival, and the SXSW-type city-wide festival with dozens of venues. It's great, because you don't have to invest in a 3-day weekend but you have the benefits of skipping around to several stages packed in the same location for one ticket. But they're not bringing in of-the-moment groups, so they don't get any attention.

I'm not asking for Bjork and Rage Against the Machine to headline at the amphitheater, but check out how many indie groups make these festival circuits and consider what Summerfest is missing by not booking more groups like Regina Spektor, The Shins and TV on the Radio...all of which could easily pack a side stage.

And all this time we're crying about the lack of indie bands....consider how many rap, hip-hop, and R&B groups have EVER been booked at Summerfest? But that's another whole argument.

I think that if Summerfest continues to fail to book new and diverse acts in appreciable numbers, we're going to see declining attendance and fewer stages.

At Thursday, June 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is dumb, the Marcus line ups always suck, if you knew anything you would know that there are hundreds of kick ass bands at the dozens of free stages. Believe me, the Marcus always sucks, and that you have to pay extra for. The bands that are worth it are at the free stages. And if we keep missing the mark, why is it that the biggest names in music keep signing on?

At Thursday, June 07, 2007, Blogger Kyle said...

I think your comment implies that you work with Summerfest. If that is true, thank you for your efforts. This post was written to open discussion about extending Summerfest's reach, not to devalue it in any way. I'm not sure why you've accepted that "the Marcus always sucks". But I am sure you enjoy the kick-ass bands that play. I was just wondering about the kick-ass bands that don't seem to be attracted to or included in Summerfest for some reason. Maybe "if [I] knew anything [I}" would be able to answer these questions, but I honestly don't know why the World's Biggest Music Festival didn't make it on the aforementioned New York Times list of music festivals. It would be great if Summerfest would be known as not only the World's Biggest but the World's Best Music Festival. Do you think we're there? I'd be interested to continue this discussion (esp if you have more information about the innerworkings).


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