Behind the Scene: Summerfest’s Bob Babisch

Bradley Tucker on July 5, 2016

Bob Babsich is the vice president of entertainment at Milwaukee Summerfest, one of the longest running annual festivals in the country. Summerfest has existed for 49 years, and Babisch has been on staff for 39 of those years, helping to develop what is billed as “The World’s Largest Music Festival.” His team works year round to program 11 days of music, a schedule that is uncommon in the festival world.

Can you talk about your first job in the music business and what led you to that job?

I studied at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and, in 1977, I took a job at a record store in town. The guy who owned the store was also a partner in a promotion company in Milwaukee called Daydream Productions. They had a guy who was a runner, which means you go backstage and set up the deli trays and you drive off to get whatever anybody needs. I had been at the store for about three days and was standing around, trying to learn the record business, when the runner for Sha Na Na’s promoter had his car break down. So they said to me: “Do you want to be a runner tonight? You don’t know the record business yet, and it would really help us out.” I said, “Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ll do that.” So I hopped in my car, took care of Sha Na Na’s people, drove a couple of the guys to the hotel and back to the show, and set up all the deli trays and all that kind of stuff.

The next day, I was talking to the guy who owned the record store and he said, “You didn’t seem too starstruck back there.” I said, “I like that side of the business.” He said, “OK, you keep doing it.” But eventually, the record store needed me more than the promoters did and I got bumped out of the promoter side of it. So I went to someone else who was doing concerts and learned a little bit about the box office, and I learned how to set up backstage things and gradually learned the business.

One day, I got a call from the guy who was booking bands at Summerfest. He said, “We’re all leaving here to start ChicagoFest. They don’t have an entertainment guy here now because we’re all leaving and the festival is in a couple of months. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Sure.”

I interviewed with the CEO and he put a contract in front of me and said, “You’ve got ‘til tomorrow to sign this or I’ll find someone else.” So I signed it, and I’ve been the entertainment director ever since. I’ve seen a lot of bands come and go. I’ve seen the Bon Jovis and the R.E.M.s of the world unloading their own gear out of their vans back in the early days.

What is an early lesson you learned?

Some early lessons for me were integrity and honesty. I learned a long time ago that your word is the most important thing in the concert business. If you say you’re going to do a show, then you do it on a verbal handshake. That’s your word; the show is happening. The reputable agents out there and the reputable managers—that’s what they do. There’s no asking for more money down the line. Your word is your word; you don’t cheat anybody and you try to be as open and transparent as possible in every deal that you do.

How has your job changed from when you started?

When you put an offer in for a show when I started, you used a telex or you sent a telegram with an offer in it. Now, you email an offer to someone and, boom, it’s done. Back in those days, you got contracts in a pouch in the mail. There were no cellphones and there were 10 or 11 stages on the grounds [at Summerfest]. No one could get ahold of you— you just went from stage to stage until somebody said, “They’re looking for you,” and then you’d find out who that was.

The world’s changed dramatically—everything is quicker; everything is now. We have a lot more bands working in the summer now—you have a lot more venues; there’s a lot of people working in the concert business. There was an economic slump 10 years ago, but I think it’s come back and people are happy about going to shows. I do think that tickets have gotten out of hand price-wise for big shows. I never thought we’d see the kind of numbers we see now, but people are willing to pay them.

What’s your best day like and what’s your most stressful day like?

My best day is usually late in the festival—the second or third to last day—because, by that time, all the loose ends from the rest of the run have been put to bed. There’s hopefully a sold-out show in the amphitheater and the weather is perfect—the sun is shining and everybody is pouring into the gates. Everybody is happy and we’re going to have a six-figure day.

The worst days are usually early on in the festival, when you know you’ve got a long run to go and very little sleep coming up. It may be a cloudy day—a rainy day where you know business is going to be bad. No matter what happens at the festival, no matter who’s playing there, a lot of it is dependent on the weather. At a festival like Summerfest, you survive on the ancillaries. We have a very inexpensive ticket. It’s $20 to get into the grounds. You’re getting a lot of advance sales for the amphitheater shows, of course, but not so much for the grounds. So if you have a bad weather day, it’s the difference between having 50,000 people and 100,000 people in a single day. You’re always watching the weather, and the tough ones to get through are when it’s drizzling and you look at all the maps coming in and see it’s going to be like that all day long.