What is it like… To Run the World’s Largest Music Festival?

Vic Thomas ’74 is the associate entertainment director at Summerfest, where he started working in 1974 to earn money for college. Today, he’s responsible for booking acts, negotiating contracts, and coordinating entertainment staff. The annual music festival attracts roughly 800,000 people each year, with more than 800 acts and 1,000 performances on 12 stages.

During the 11 days of Summerfest, I typically wake up between 5 and 6 a.m. and get to the office by 7 or 7:30 a.m. After doing some paperwork and checking emails, I’ll go around to every stage on the grounds, which I try to do at least twice a day. During the run of the festival I’m constantly moving. The grounds cover 76 acres, so it’s a lot of walking.

There’s a team of people at each stage, and I ask them how it’s going, what they need, etc. There usually isn’t a chance for me to watch the bands perform. If I’m lucky I’ll get to watch a song or two. I also do a lot of things with the street performers and the kids’ acts like jugglers, magicians, etc. I like that we have a wide range of entertainers here and I get to work with everyone—from headlining acts in the amphitheater to Timbo the Clown.

Because we have bands going from noon until midnight every day, we supply the lighting and sound equipment to save time between performances. But there are always exceptions. One year we had the Scorpions, who requested additional sound and lighting equipment beyond what we would normally supply. Not only was that an added expense, it required a stage hand call at 6 a.m. to get everything ready for a 10 p.m. show. We always have to make sure that the extra expense is worth it and, in the Scorpions’ case, it was. They’re legends. But I don’t think that’s different from any other business—certain people just have clout.

Of course there are some acts that stand out more than others. I love that James Brown played here, but the two biggest are probably the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. Those are the kinds of highlights that you’d want to hang your career on. I mean, they’re world icons, right? But one of my favorite shows was actually not at Summerfest, it was at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where I saw U2. It was very simple, just four guys on stage. You could hear the bass, you could hear the drums, you could hear Edge on guitar, and you could hear Bono’s voice. The place was filled with maybe 100,000 people, but you could hear a pin drop. It was almost intimate, which wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t have the chops as musicians. Now, of course, their tour is a big, high-tech extravaganza, and I think it’s really good. But there’s a part of me that just likes to see and hear the talent.

Vic Thomas ’74 on…

Booking acts to perform at Summerfest:

At Summerfest there are four of us who work full time booking acts. I tend to book more R&B, reggae, and even classic rock performers. Another guy focuses more on indie rock and contemporary artists. We all have our areas. We develop relationships primarily with agencies, like William Morris Agency, Creative Artists Agency, or ICM Partners, who represent any number of bands. The agency is the entity that sells the date, whereas the manager typically works with just a few clients and is more involved in the business environment of the artist. In January we typically have a round of agencies that we go to, like the ones mentioned above. In terms of the music business, those are the big agencies. But we also have range of smaller agencies who book smaller artists. So in terms of what we book here at Summerfest, we go to a lot of different agencies. You always have to stay on top of up-and-coming artists, who are just starting to get agency or management.

Working for Milwaukee World Festival Inc.:

I love the interaction that I have with all the people who work here. Everyone here has different roles and everybody’s role—from security and food and beverage to the design department, operations, and more—is important. I have two titles: assistant entertainment director and also festival liaison, which means I work with all the ethic festivals, like Milwaukee Irish Fest, German Fest, Festa Italiana, etc., and I also manage most of the single-day events, like the AIDS Walk Wilsconsin, Walk to End Alzheimer’s, Briggs and Al’s Run & Walk, etc. Summerfest is only 11 days but our season runs from May to October. The event calendar keeps expanding on both ends; the only thing that limits us is weather.

The growth of technology in music performance:

Since I got started in the ’70s, one of the biggest differences I’ve seen is the amount of technology used by bands today. When the Beatles toured in the beginning they didn’t have much in terms of equipment, nothing like the sound systems we have today, and they had no concept of monitors. Now, almost everybody has a thing called in-ear monitors, which make the show more streamlined. Especially if you’ve ever seen an arena show where the artist runs and dances and goes all over the stage—artists can do that because everybody is wireless. Even the stages themselves move and have additional set pieces. I just see it as more sophisticated.

Now when bands travel they basically bring in their entire technology package. A lot of bands tour with their own servers—Dave Matthews Band is known for this. They literally travel with their own servers and everybody has their own tablet or device and they basically become their own in-house communication. It allows band members to communicate easily with each other, but it also can include the band’s set list, the tour itinerary, and any other information that somebody who is traveling might need to know. For example, if they need to pick up some guitar strings, it will tell them where the closest music shop is. Before, bands would have to read a road map when they traveled, but now they have GPS and are just that much more knowledgeable.

The cost of a concert:

When a band goes on tour, it’s not a cheap date by any means. When you start talking about what it takes for a tour bus, that’s a major investment. Most people don’t own a tour bus, they rent or lease them, and when you start thinking about someone who’s on a major tour, it is quite an investment they have to make. Not to mention the sound and lighting equipment, the stage, etc. Depending on what level the band is at, a lot of the bands that are out there that are major, their expenses are easily well into a million dollars a week. When you start talking about concert ticket prices, and what they have to do, that’s one of the reasons why concert prices are going up. Everything about it is quite an expensive endeavor.    

Making artists comfortable:

It used to be, when the guys or gals would get off the bus, maybe there would be some hot coffee for them. Now we also have hospitality at every stage. In the amphitheater, they serve a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the artists. In a lot of ways, Summerfest becomes its own little city for 11 days. We have a laundry room, we have our security department, health and medical services—we even have our own bank here.

Bands who start small and come back big:

There’s a band called Greta Van Fleet, who are basically young kids who play Led Zeppelin to the note. They’ve got the look and they’ve got a vocalist who sounds just like Robert Plant. I remember the first time they played here as part of our emerging artist series, I think they were paid like, maybe $200. It was minimal. I just saw their paycheck from the last time they played here and it was closer to the $75,000+ dollar range. So yeah, that’s quite a change in a short amount of time. But they’ve been on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and some other late-night shows, so the nation knows about this band. A lot of what we have to do is follow trends and try to stay on top of them. Usually we don’t create them, but we’ve got to be cognizant of what things are happening. It’s good to be able to say that we got Panic! At The Disco on their way up, but I think it’s even more impressive to be able to say that we got them back when they were really big. Because a lot of people are excited if they can say “Well, we had Beyoncé before anyone knew who she was.” And I just think, well, what did you get out of it? You want to book Beyoncé when she’s Beyoncé, you know?

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