Milwaukee's Summerfest confirms 2021 festival will be held over three weekends
It's official: When Summerfest returns in 2021, it'll be over three weekends, vs. its traditional 11-day run.
Milwaukee World Festival Inc. announced Thursday that the 2021 Big Gig will be held June 24-26, July 1-3 and July 8-10.
General-admission tickets will still be $23, and Milwaukee World Festival CEO Don Smiley says fans should get more bang for their buck, with more headliners playing throughout each day from the ground stages.
"We will be eliminating two Sundays, two Wednesdays, and a Tuesday … some of the weak days that were very expensive for us," Smiley told the Journal Sentinel. "People are more apt to go out, more apt to spend money on the weekends versus weekdays."
With the new format, Smiley said the festival, the largest in the United States based on attendance, will be able to allocate more money for headliners. It also gives Summerfest's Vice President of Entertainment Bob Babisch and his talent buying team a better window for bookings, with three weekends to work with instead of two.
Milwaukee World Festival is also planning to partner with Visit Milwaukee on new tourism initiatives timed to the 2021 run dates.
"Our research and the data that we have collected all indicate that our customers want more national bands, and they want them during the day, just like other festivals," Smiley said. "That doesn’t mean that we are going to eliminate the local flavor and the opportunities that we always provide (for local bands)."
'The world has changed'
Smiley wouldn't estimate how many bands and how many headliners will be booked for next year, or say if this new format will be standard for Summerfest beyond 2021.
"This is a departure from the way that this festival has been operated for a long time, but these are really different times. The world has changed," Smiley said. "If you're not flexible and creative and willing to bend and change, then you’re going to get stuck in yesteryear."
When Summerfest first delayed this summer's music festival to fall, it rescheduled the event over three weekends in September. But then, as the coronavirus pandemic persisted — reinforcing the need for social distancing and limiting large crowds, and leading to the postponements of just about every concert tour in the country —Milwaukee World Festival pulled the plug on the 2020 festival altogether.
As a result, the organization announced a $10.4 million loss before depreciation for 2020. Cash balances for the organization are at $5.1 million in 2020 — an all-time low — and are projected to be around $3.8 million in 2021. The organization's current policy is to keep 25% of cash operating expenses in reserve, which would be $14 million, with organizers planning to rebuild reserves over the next several years,
Summerfest is also anticipating making about $1.9 million less in 2021 compared with last year, projecting net operating revenue of $14.5 million next year. World Festival leaders revealed in a board of directors meeting Thursday that they expect to lose sponsorship revenue, but will also be spending more on marketing and entertainment.
A projected 2021 budget was approved by the board Thursday. The budget includes $6.1 million in capital improvements, primarily funded through sponsorships. However, the budget is contingent on live events being able to return next year.
Some encouraging signs
The pandemic has decimated the live music industry, with Pollstar projecting that $8.9 billion would be lost with no tours this year, at this point a near certainty. Michael Rapino, the CEO of Live Nation, told investors this month they expect the concert industry to return to pre-pandemic levels by next summer.
But it's a big question if as many fans will be as eager to flock to festivals, a key reason behind what Smiley has deemed a "conservative" revenue estimate for Summerfest next year. According to a poll from Nielsen Music and MRC Data in March, 21% of respondents said they wouldn't go to a concert for at least five months after the pandemic ends.
But there are some encouraging signs as well. At Thursday's board meeting, Babisch noted that tickets for the Electric Daisy Festival scheduled for Las Vegas next May swiftly sold out after going on sale three weeks ago, and only about 20 to 22% of refunds have been requested for rescheduled Summerfest shows in the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.
"They’re holding onto their tickets," Babisch said at Thursday's meeting. "There’s excitement for people to see live music again. That’s not going away."
Eight Summerfest amphitheater shows planned this year moved to 2021, what will be the 23,000-person-capacity venue's first season following the completion of a $51.3 million renovation. They include:
- Khalid with Jessie Reyez, June 24
- Luke Bryan with Morgan Wallen, June 25
- Justin Bieber, June 26
- Dave Matthews Band, July 1
- Blink-182 with Coheed and Cambria, The Used and Grandson, July 2
- Halsey, July 3
- Chris Stapleton with Sheryl Crow, July 8
- Guns 'N Roses, July 10
That leaves just one amphitheater show for the festival itself to be booked, on July 9. Smiley said the organization is planning for multiple shows at the amphitheater and Maier Festival Park's BMO Harris Pavilion outside of the Big Gig window, from June through September. Five amphitheater shows and one pavilion show have already been rescheduled for next year.
But all of those concerts, and the festival, won't take place if the country is still under siege by the coronavirus.
"We want to do shows but we want to do them safely and we want to make sure that we provide every precaution or safety measure that we need," Smiley said. "No one in this business has a crystal ball. … The only thing we can do is get prepared for 2021 and deal with whatever circumstances come our way."
At Thursday's meeting, the board also approved extending Howard Sosoff's position as chairman to spring 2023, and took a moment of silence in honor of former Milwaukee World Festival Executive Director Elizabeth "Bo" Black, who died last month at 74.
Bill Glauber contributed to this report.