Summerfest 2019 lineup is impressive, but here are four things the Milwaukee festival needs to improve
Summerfest, the world's largest music festival, is one of a kind, offering something for everyone for some of the best prices of any festival in the world.
But there are still some things in 2019 it doesn't offer enough of.
That said, we're lucky that something like Summerfest exists, and that it exists in Milwaukee. You may not be a fan of both Summerfest 2019 headliners Foghat and Steve Aoki — or either of them — but there's no other festival that would book both Foghat and Steve Aoki.
That makes Summerfest special — that and the price point. Ticket prices have crept up, but they're still a steal at $15 to $23 a day this year (or free, if you're hip to the promo deals), or $110 for 11 days of action.
General admission may not include the "main event" shows in the 23,000-person-capacity American Family Insurance Amphitheater, which cost more and are priced individually, but even select amphitheater concerts and an 11-day pass cost less than a basic Lollapalooza weekend pass in Chicago.
And unlike Lolla's, Summerfest's music lineup is more diverse, the crowds are less unbearable, and the amenities on the Milwaukee lakefront (including actual restrooms, not port-a-potties) are far nicer.
But there's still room for improvement. And now that we've processed the 133 grounds stage headliners announced April 9 — and the previously announced amphitheater acts — here are four observations about the state of the festival in 2019.
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1. The amphitheater skews older — again
Bob Babisch, Summerfest's vice president of entertainment and a festival talent buyer for 42 years, said the talent team isn't trying to cater more to one demographic or another when planning the amphitheater lineup.
"We go after the best names working during that time period," Babisch said.
But there's a stark difference between last year's amphitheater lineup — which had several millennial-leaning headliners, including Imagine Dragons, Logic, Halsey, Florida Georgia Line, Shawn Mendes and J. Cole — and this year's slate, which includes Lionel Richie and the Outlaw Music Festival, led by Willie Nelson and Grateful Dead co-founder Phil Lesh.
Even Jennifer Lopez — arguably the most famous person playing Summerfest this year, in her first Milwaukee concert ever — hasn't had a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for eight years.
One notable exception is 17-year-old rising pop star Billie Eilish. It may seem like the riskiest booking for the amphitheater — she's performing for only 10,000 people in Chicago at two Aragon Ballroom shows.
"But those sold out in 30 minutes," Babisch said, noting that her debut studio album, "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?," just debuted at the top of the Billboard 200.
"That's a good get for us," Babisch said. "It's exciting. She is just blowing up right now, and it's good to be on the ground floor."
2. Where are the women?
Eilish is an important get for another reason: She's one of only two female headliners in the amphitheater, and one of only five female acts playing Summerfest's largest stage this year. (There could be more: The July 4 show has yet to be booked.)
Of the 133 grounds stage headliners, only 38 are female artists or mixed-gender acts. Combined, 27% of the headliners announced so far for this year's Summerfest feature a woman — up just 1 percentage point from last year, despite increasing demand for festivals that have had male-dominated lineups to close the gender gap.
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"It's one of those situations where we go after a lot of female artists and get turned down from a lot of them that want to be in Europe or don’t want to work in our time-frame," Babisch said. "But if you look at the lineup, we have J. Lo, Brandi Carlile, Alison Krauss, Carly Pearce, Lizzo, Courtney Barnett, Lauren Alaina. There's some great stuff in there."
That's true, but Summerfest can do better.
Other festivals have. Women make up 35% of the Coachella lineup and 48% of the Glastonbury lineup this year. Only 19% of Chicago festival Country LakeShake's lineup were female acts in 2018, but this year, it's 43%, and they even have one day with an all-female lineup.
3. We need more headliners from Wisconsin
One easy solution to No. 2: more headliner slots for more female artists from Wisconsin.
Perhaps Summerfest extended headliner offers to popular home state artists like Abby Jeanne, Reyna, Grace Weber, Monica Martin, Dead Horses, Marielle Allschwang, Zed Kenzo, B~Free, and maybe they all turned them down, but I doubt it.
And I bet we'll see some of those artists get nice slots anyway, but with no disrespect to some of the 2019 headliners lower on the bill, those Wisconsin women likely would draw bigger crowds.
Milwaukee-born GGOOLLDD, fronted by Margaret Butler, will headline a grounds stage, as will local acts Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound and R&B Cadets. And most of the 800 bands that will fill out the schedule will be from Wisconsin. But the world's largest festival would benefit from booking more headliners from its own backyard.
4. The world's most diverse festival needs more diversity
Rock, pop, folk, R&B, EDM — those genres, and so many more, make up the soundtrack for Summerfest 2019, from hot newcomers to acts that have been making music since before Summerfest started 52 years ago.
Country, in particular, has made a comeback from last year — four of the amphitheater shows touch on country this year, including Thomas Rhett, Jason Aldean and Zac Brown Band — and after an inexcusable lack of female country headliners in 2018, there's a day with several of them, including Lauren Alaina, Milwaukee native Nora Collins, and Brandy Clark, one of Nashville's sharpest songwriters.
But at a time where rap is the most consumed genre in the country, Summerfest's hip-hop lineup remains inconsistent. After an exceptional 2018, Summerfest in 2019 has a nice amphitheater package (Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Schoolboy Q), a couple of fresh voices headlining ground stages (A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Vic Mensa), and several repeat players (Atmosphere, Ludacris, the Roots, T-Pain). (Babisch said several coveted rappers opted for Europe and they'll make offers to them again next year.)
Summerfest is also behind the curve recognizing the surge in Latin pop music and reggaeton, something Babisch vows will be part of the mix in the future.
"There's always somebody who says they can't find something in the lineup," Babisch said. "But I'm really happy. It's a festival for everybody."
Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.