Summerfest in Milwaukee reports lowest attendance in at least 25 years

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The world's largest music festival had its smallest attendance in at least a quarter-century this year.

Milwaukee's Summerfest reported Friday that 766,192 people went through the turnstiles at Maier Festival Park in 2018. That's a nearly 8 percent drop from last year's attendance of 831,769, and the lowest attendance since at least 1993. 

Fest-goers make their way down the main drag at Summerfest.

Considering the 2017 edition was the festival's heavily hyped 50th edition, an attendance drop-off was likely. During the Big Gig's run this year from June 27 to July 8 (with a day off July 2), there were excessive heat index warnings of over 100 degrees for three days. It also rained two days. 

Nevertheless, Summerfest has faced major obstacles before. In 2015, the festival's previously lowest-attended edition since the '90s, Summerfest had to contend with road closures, a three-day Milwaukee County District bus strike and chilly temperatures, and attendance was still higher than this year, at 772,652 people. (Festival attendance peaked at more than 1 million patrons in 2001 and 2002, with fest officials after that aspiring for a range of 800,000 to 900,000 patrons annually.) 

This year's attendance drop is also occurring as the saturated music festival industry is experiencing a slowdown. 

RELATED:Has the music festival bubble burst? Here's what some fests are doing to survive.

It took eight days for Lollapalooza in Chicago, one of the world's premier music festivals, to sell out of four-day passes this year; in 2017, it took only 2½ hours. 

Wisconsin festivals Summer Set and Country on the River canceled their 2018 editions, and Country USA in Oshkosh announced it would scale back from five days to three in 2019.

And reports suggest attendance dropped for the 2018 Eaux Claires, the hipster-friendly festival in Eau Claire County co-founded and co-curated by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. The festival received mixed reviews for keeping its lineup a secret until the festival began July 6, with several repeat players like the National and Francis and the Lights on the bill, and no big names like past headliners Chance the Rapper, Paul Simon, Erykah Badu, or even Bon Iver. 

RELATED:Eaux Claires recap: The best and worst of the indie festival in its 4th year

In a press release, Summerfest officials were bullish about the festival's success this year. The lineup included several first-time performers, including the Weeknd, Janelle Monáe, Kesha and Marshmello, and the 23,000-capacity American Family Insurance Amphitheater featured more shows for millennials than any previous Summerfest. 

RELATED:Summerfest 2018 recap: The best and worst moments from the world's largest music festival

RELATED:As Summerfest in Milwaukee gets older, the 51-year-old festival is feeling younger

The Big Gig added nine sponsors, including a new stage presented by new sponsor Klement's Sausage. There also was a built-from-scratch redo of the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, and the northern entrance was redesigned. 

Those projects were part of a series of renovations collectively costing more than $100 million, and continuing for the next couple of years. A redesigned Uline Warehouse will open next year, and a rebuilt American Family Insurance Amphitheater is tentatively scheduled to open in 2020. Costs for the amphitheater will exceed initial projections of $30 million to $35 million, Sarah Smith-Pancheri, vice president of sales and marketing for Summerfest's parent company Milwaukee World Festival Inc., told the Journal Sentinel Friday. A final figure has yet to be determined.

“In 2018, Summerfest delivered on its promise to offer one of the most diverse lineups in the industry which appealed to our entire community," Don Smiley, CEO of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., said in a statement. "Despite the rain and heat, our organization provided 11 great days of music, food and fun and contributed significantly to our local economy." 

Summerfest also provided a series of stats for this year's festival, including:

  • 106,294 people attended the festival through a promotion, nearly 14% of all visitors
  • 2,144 seasonal workers were hired
  • 380 volunteers contributed a combined 3,500 hours of service
  • 56,480 pounds of food were collected for the Hunger Task Force
  • 98,000 one-way rides were taken on the skyglider
  • 17,151 rides were taken on the Wheel in the Sky ferris wheel
  • 15,999 attempts were made at the Hole in One Contest. There was no winner.

Summerfest did not report sales figures Friday.

More on Summerfest 

For reviews, photos and more from the Big Gig, visit


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