5 important (and not-so-important) questions I have after Summerfest's big move
Summerfest got a little less summery on Monday night, as the Big Gig made a big announcement: Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the world's largest music festival will move its dates from its usual last week of June/first week of July slot to three weekends in September.
It's a significant shift that we're still trying to get our already-exhausted heads around. Summerfest ... in September? But now that we've been able to sleep on the expected but still ground-shifting news (or at least, considering the daily headlines, try to sleep), here are five questions I have.
1. Will Summerfest keep the same acts?
Before the world shut down, the Big Gig had most of its headlining acts booked and announced – with only two dates left open after Ozzy Osbourne's unfortunate cancellation. But will all of those acts be able to stay locked into their spots now that the festival's moved to two months later in the year?
Justin Bieber's tour will have him in Canada and out on the East coast those weekends, but that's close enough that he could probably pop back over. Luke Bryan's September is mostly empty, and while Sam Hunt's tour will take him over to Texas and California for much of the month, his Labor Day weekend appears empty. The only headliner act that seems at risk is Dave Matthews Band, who has much of September booked on the West Coast – but that's also just for now. Many of these performers will start rescheduling canceled or postponed shows, so what may look clear now may look very different in a few months. And all of that's not including the hundreds of bands Summerfest was booking for the grounds stages.
I assume the Big Gig was in regular communication with their booked acts, and that they wouldn't move their dates – an unprecedented move – without confidence that they could keep most, if not a large portion, of their performers. And maybe this means they can snag some even bigger music acts; after all, they no longer have Lollapalooza to compete with, and the only other significant festival competition is Riot Fest in Chicago on Sept. 11-13. So while Summerfest may look and feel completely different this year, on stage, it's possible that it may look just about the same – if not better. But we'll see.
2. What will the restructured Big Gig mean for business?
Obviously, Summerfest moving to a whole different month of the year changes a lot – but it's not just the new dates that'll cause a tectonic shift in Milwaukee. It's the new structure of the festival.
What was once almost eleven straight days of musical entertainment, with one off-day, is now just nine days, and instead of a consecutive two-week run, Summerfest is spread exclusively across three weekends, Thursday through Saturday. Will people still camp out and stay in Milwaukee if their Summerfest visit is now just a long weekend? Or will the Big Gig actually benefit from mostly avoiding weekdays – a date that was once a Wednesday, with work all day and then work the next morning keeping folks away, now scheduled for a much more appealing Friday evening? Maybe losing two days won't be such a loss if you've got more weekend dates on your schedule.
Of course, how the new structure and dates affect Summerfest is only part of the equation as well. How will having nine days scattered across three weekends also impact local businesses and hotels around Summerfest? Will you get more hotel bookings because people are willing to stay up in town for each individual weekend instead of doing mere day trips to Milwaukee? Will neighborhood bars do better now that you'll only have three dates – the three Thursdays – where people are thinking about work the next day?
Obviously losing two whole days of Big Gig traffic is going to result in an economic hit – but with the event now locked in on weekends, maybe the hit won't be as brutal? One can hope ...
3. How will this affect other September events?
If PrideFest postponing its annual festival was the first domino, Summerfest moving its dates is definitely the biggest domino when it comes to the Milwaukee summer festival season. We're going to see more postponements and date changes now that the biggest name of the summer has decided to avoid any COVID-19-related risks – or at least as many risks as possible, since we still don't know how long this pandemic may extend. And that means a cluttered late summer/early fall schedule – though perhaps some festivals and events might risk it and pop into that prime Fourth of July vacuum that's now opened up.
Thankfully, the month of September isn't the most bustling when it comes to summer events and most free summer music series end before September, so Summerfest isn't actually stepping on too many toes with this move. However, there are still festivals and events suddenly looking at the World's Largest Music Festival as competition. The Milwaukee Rally, for instance, is currently scheduled for that first Big Gig weekend, and the Bay View Bash is set for that final Saturday. And this is all based on everyone's original dates; with the country set to lose at least most of April – and possibly May, June and increasingly beyond – due to social distancing and quarantining, how many of these music series and festivals will shift back their dates? And how many might consider not doing that now that the Big Gig has three weekends of September booked up as the biggest event in town? They may have no choice but to go with a truncated schedule now.
No matter what, our usual summer festival schedule is going to look and feel completely different by the end of this all – that is, if there even is a summer festival schedule if the pandemic is still raging.
4. What does this mean for the DNC?
The coronavirus cancellations are now starting to dig their way into the summer. PrideFest has postponed, and now Summerfest has shifted to late summer/early fall. And that means all eyes now turn toward the Democratic National Convention, once seemingly the gem of a massive Milwaukee summer showcase that no longer has the Bucks in the playoffs or even Summerfest.
As it stands, the DNC is still scheduled for July 13-16 – but just yesterday, even before the Big Gig move, there were reports of "a range of contingency options" being explored. And how could there not be? There's no guarantee we'll be freed from quarantine by then. There's no guarantee how safe people will feel in a bustling, crowded hall – much less a bustling, crowded hall of important political figures and government representatives. And there's not even a guarantee that the primaries will be complete as states have considered postponing elections due to health concerns and social distancing rules.
Summerfest may just be a light, fun music festival – but again, as with the rest of summer festival season in Milwaukee, it also felt like a major domino.
5. What season is September anyways?
Shortly after the announcement, "Fallfest" began trending on Twitter – but as some people very smugly pointed out that, fall doesn't technically begin until Sept. 22. So thanks to those people for giving me pleasant flashbacks to the John Mulaney stand-up bit about the kid at a sleepover who, after midnight, points out, "Isn't it actually tomorrow now?"
But actually: Do people think September is still the summer? Because ... absolutely not. Sure, the weather is still gorgeous in September, and we still have festivals going on because Milwaukee has just so many festivals. (And we wouldn't want it any other way.) But many kids are back at school, and people are playing football in September. That can't be a summer month. And sure, maybe the calendar says that fall doesn't start until Sept. 22 – but the calendar also says that winter doesn't begin until Dec. 21, and nobody's talking about autumn four days before Christmas.
I know we're all losing our minds a bit from being cooped up inside, thinking about the future and reading just the worst headlines every 15 minutes – but let's not go fully mad and forget when the seasons are.
Because there's been some debate on this topic:— Matthew Mueller (@aManAboutFilm) March 24, 2020
June/July/August – Summer
September/October/November – Fall
December/January/February – Winter
March/April/May – Spring
There, I've settled it.
I rest my very stupid case. Now let's stay healthy, stay social distanced and get excited for Septemberfest.
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