Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How Baby Boomers Conquered Summerfest

By Evan Rytlewski
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Summerfest began announcing its side-stage line-ups this week, which means the perennial complaints from disappointed music fans can't be far behind. Let me try to stave off a few of them, though, with this reminder: If you're complaining about the Summerfest line-up, you're probably not in Summerfest's target demographic, anyway.

Though at various points in its existence Summerfest has fancied itself a cutting-edge music festival, that stopped being the case a half decade ago, when the festival dramatically re-branded itself in an effort to attract some of the baby-boomers that had defected over the years. Compare, for instance, the following line-ups from the 2004 and 2005 Summerfests (I've bolded all the Marcus Amphitheater headliners, and included an admittedly skewed but still fairly representative sampling of side-stage headliners):

Summerfest 2004:

Prince, The Darkness, Seether, Liz Phair, The Big Wu, Kid Rock, Guster, Chevelle, Ben Folds, moe., Kenny Chesney, Live, O.A.R, Big Boi of Outkast with Ludacris and Twista, Jason Mraz, Blink-182, Dark Star Orchestra, Jessica Simpson, Nickelback, Britney Spears, Paul Oakenfold, John Mayer w/ Maroon 5, Talib Kweli, Trapt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, 311, Shinedown, Medeski Martin and Wood, The Roots, Tim McGraw, Fuel, Indigo Girls, Jet

Summer 2005:

John Mellencamp, Doobie Brothers, Neville Brothers, Deep Purple, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Rusted Root, Survivor, Kenny Chesney, Hall and Oates, David Lee Roth, Santana, Steve Winwood, Stevie Nicks, Bret Michaels, John Waite, The Allman Brothers, Styx, Journey, Eddie Money, Ohio Players, Weezer and The Pixies, Skid Row, BoDeans, Whitesnake, Tim McGraw, .38 Special, Dickie Betts, James Taylor

The 2004 line-up is rich with college-friendly acts, alternative rock bands, pop starlets, Top 40 songwriters and a decent sprinkling of hip-hop. The much grayer 2005 schedule, by comparison, purged Top 40 and hip-hop almost entirely, making room for classic-rock luminaries and '80s-rock survivors (including but not limited to Survivor themselves).

The economics behind the shift were obvious. Summerfest attendance declined severely in 2004, and though that may have been in large part because of inopportune weather, local media (and in particular certain talk radio hosts who continue to cry bloody murder whenever Summerfest books urban acts) had fueled the inaccurate perception that the Summerfest grounds had become an unwelcoming place for adults, a wasteland overrun by teens and gang members. The severe 2005 line-up was meant not only to lure baby boomers but also to reassure them that they were safe, since there were no unsavory rap acts to draw undesirables to the grounds. Attendance and revenues spoke for themselves, shooting up considerably (although the good weather that year certainly helped), and Summerfest has stuck to its boomers-first strategy ever since, turning one of the world's largest music festivals into a glorified, 11-day state fair.

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