Do not make the mistake of thinking of Summerfest as a music festival. In its early days, it was more of a community festival; but when it moved down to the lakefront, and needed corporate sponsorship, local breweries were the go-to entities. The stages were named after Miller, Old Style, Pabst… billed as a Family Festival, ticket prices were intentionally kept low. This is no Coachella or Lollapalooza; even this year, tickets were 17 bucks a day, and an eleven day pass was only $60. Also, the music has always been all around the dial; country and rock and folk and punk, even… all cheek and jowl with everyone else. But the music has always been the draw to get people on the grounds; as with a carny, then they have to separate you from you money.
So, yes, the rent (so to speak) is paid by moving cups. So much so that the early days were legendary for beery debauchery, people passing out or barfing or smoking pot down by the lakefront. In fact, the band Squeeze released a live album that included their tour schedule, and they remembered the festival as Beerfest.
Which makes for a bit of conflict these days. They still keep the ticket prices relatively low, and there are free entry gimmicks almost every day. So they still have to move a lot of cups; but they can’t afford the image of a boozy bacchanal.
Some of the solution has been to refine the hardscape of the grounds; portapotties have been replaced with actual toilet buildings; concealed areas have been mostly eliminated; the security presence is pretty visible (and we have spent several fest days trying to figure out which people were the plainclothes dudes) and the larger crowds have allowed them to push shuttle and transit options to avoid the drunk driving.
But the core conflict remains: the beer sponsors need to sell a lot of beer to justify the money they spend on stages; but they can’t sell a lot of beer to individual people.
So, they have kind of worked incrementally. One year, they made the cups smaller, and the fest-goers were appalled. So the final solution has been to slowly ratchet the prices up, and the portions down.
I call it Black Line Fascism. Even though the cup sizes haven’t changed, The beer pourers are instructed to not fill above the black line; below is a pour from last year, versus one from this year.
I had been convinced that they had also lowered the black line this year, but those photos show otherwise. Perhaps the black line had moved a year or two prior.
There are a couple of ways to work around this. Pre-gaming is one, and there are plenty who do that; the local bars offer shuttles, and they always smell like liquor on the way DOWN to the Fest. Moderation is also a tactic, but being Wisconsin, not a familiar one. Another try is to make sure the pourers get tipped better when the line is ignored — and by the 10th day, they are responding like the whole Fest is a Skinner box.
The first day, one of the things I start doing is determining which pour stands are fighting against the Black Line Fascists. This year, the hands down winner has been the Water Street Brewery’s east end pourers (and yes, it does help to wear a Bassoon t-shirt).
The worst fascists are at the Lakefront Brewery stand. I think it’s at least partially because of it’s prominence. Additionally, it is the most backed up, often with beer dilettantes who can’t figure out which one of the beers they should try. Look, if you haven’t tried Lakefront brews before making it to Summerfest, just stick with Miller Lite.
Don’t get me wrong, for not being a Music Festival, there’s a helluva lot of music around, and the bands are a mix of locals, old has-beens, newer has-beens and current bands. And if you love music of any kind, you WILL find something to like here. But you can expect to spend about a hundred bucks in a day, depending, between food and drink. More if you go for swag (I usually snag a few CDs from young bands myself — got one from a New Yawk band called Pigpen Theater Company yesterday, in fact). It’s still way cheaper than more strictly music festivals such as Lolla or Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Plus, the grounds are permanent and you don’t have to pee in a plastic box.
So, even at $5.50 a cup for barely-filled, still cheaper than any others I’ve heard of, and cleaner, and less obnoxious. Gosh now I am hungry and thirsty and I need to hear some music and the sun is out and there’s a nice breeze, so I am pretty much out of here.