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Behind the Music
Summerfest music mastermind Bob Babisch shares his sonic secrets

Photo by Kat Schleicher

Vice president of entertainment. It’s one of those titles that seems fictional, too desirable to actually exist. But it does. And 61-year-old Bob Babisch has it. Over 35 years, he’s seen Summerfest transform from grass and mud (and outlawing rock music!) to a town of permanent stages, including this year’s addition of a mini amphitheater, which boasts 5,000 seats and room for 10,000 more to stand. Babisch is the jolly, fast-talking fellow behind the 11-day lineup, scheduling everything from classic rock in the Marcus to indie pop at 3 p.m. But don’t let the friendly demeanor fool you. He knows more about music than most of us ever will, and he’s got one goal for the Big Gig: One. Big. Party.

People criticize Summerfest all the time.
All the time. We’ve got pretty thick skin.

Why? Is it the mix of bands?
They want their genre of music, and they want to know why some band isn’t here. Sometimes, they’re completely wrong, and that band wouldn’t do enough business to warrant what they want to get paid. But a lot of times, that band just can’t be here for whatever reason. And we get as upset as anybody.

How insane is it to land the lineup?
It’s pretty insane. We start in October and put together a hit list of bands, and we’ll put out maybe 90 offers. Out of those, maybe 30 of them happen. In the amphitheater, we do 11 nights of headliners, and we probably go after 40 bands. We had a band we offered a million dollars to, and they’ll go indoors for half that. So those situations come up, and we fight through that.

What’s the ideal mix?
We try to hit as many genres every day that we can. We try to have a hip-hop thing, a rock thing, some pop thing, a country thing. We try to run the gamut.

Last year was a great lineup – Kanye West, The Black Keys, Florence and the Machine. How do you follow it up?
It’s never easy. For one thing, the younger acts, like The Black Keys, they didn’t want to repeat, and we didn’t want to repeat. But a lot of that stuff goes to Lollapalooza, and Lollapalooza blocks us out. If you’re a headliner there, you can’t play here. They have a clause in their contract.

So how do you compete with Lollapalooza, Coachella, etc.? It seems that there’s a new musical festival popping up every weekend.
I don’t think we’re ever going to be like those guys. They’re a $150 ticket and a three-day event. We’re a $16 ticket or a $9 ticket, and it’s 11 days. Their stage holds 60,000 people in front of it. Ours holds 23,000. But the guys from Coachella told us that they knew our festival before they ever did Coachella. It’s just a different vibe on how they do it. For us, it’s, “Let’s get all the people down here to have a good party.”

What’s been your biggest coup?
The year that Pearl Jam played here for two shows. They canceled a week before because they were having a battle with Ticketron, which became Ticketmaster, about fees. And we convinced them that we were a different animal than a normal concert. Three days before Summerfest, they said, “OK, we’ll come back.” When the show started, we all stood there and went, “Whoa.”

For a while there, it seemed like you were booking the oldies but goodies every year, the Tom Pettys of the world. Was that the intention?
Tom Petty loves Summerfest, and we love him. He sells out every time, so why wouldn’t you have him? But we still want to do shows in the amphitheater that cross everybody. This year, there are a couple of older acts, but those are the acts playing amphitheaters. Kanye’s not working. Jay Z’s not working. Drake is done by the 17th. Rihanna doesn’t want to work. You see how it goes.

How do you stay up to date on who’s out there?
There are three or four of us who listen to everything.

Do you get tired of it?
Never. Are you kidding me? Never. I’m 61 years old, and I listen to all of it. I listen to Tiësto with my 13-year-old son.

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