Is Summerfest in Milwaukee really the world’s largest music festival? Here’s how it stacks up against Coachella, Lollapalooza, and others

Isaac Yu

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Summerfest’s declaration of being the world’s largest music festival might surprise those not from the Midwest who are used to bigger names like Coachella or Lollapalooza.

But yes, Summerfest, which runs for three consecutive weekends this summer beginning June 23, was named the “World’s Largest Music Festival” by Guinness World Records in 1999.

It hadn’t been seeking the nomination; a staffer happened upon the listing by chance. But the festival happily accepted and now owns the trademark for “WORLD’S LARGEST MUSIC FESTIVAL®.” 

And the festival still holds its own, particularly in its wide array of performers. But is Milwaukee’s cornerstone summer celebration actually the world’s largest music festival? We set out to look into that as part of What the Wisconsin? — a feature in which we answer questions large and small about our city and our state.

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Here’s the backstory on Summerfest’s claim to the title, and where it stands now.

How Guinness World Records chose Summerfest as the World’s Largest Music Festival in 1999

Summerfest didn’t even apply to be recognized by Guinness World Records, according to what its then-communications manager Dana Hartenstein told The Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, in 2000. But Guinness officials identified Summerfest as the world’s largest music festival.

“I would hate to lose faith in Guinness,’ Hartenstein said then. ‘Guinness says you’re the largest outdoor music festival — why question it?'”

That year’s festival boasted nearly a million patrons crossing through the turnstiles. This is the criteria that won the nomination, Guinness World Book’s marketing director said at the time.

“Summerfest is known as the World’s Largest Festival, a distinction that was made by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1999 and we are proud to say, still holds true today — hosting over 1,000 performances on 12 stages throughout the festival,” a representative from Milwaukee World Festival Inc. wrote to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in June. 

A Guinness spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel that the organization does not currently monitor the title of “largest music festival.” 

The most similar title, she added, is “largest attendance of a music festival (one location).”

So, is Summerfest still the reigning champion?

How Summerfest’s attendance stacks up to other festivals

In the early 2000s, attendance topped 1 million over the span of 11 days.

Attendance has slowly dropped over the last two decades, generally hovering around 800,000. In 2019, 718,144 people attended, the lowest since 1986.

The festival was canceled in 2020, and saw just 409,386 attendees in 2021. Organizers blamed lingering pandemic issues plus the festival’s unusual September dates and damp weather. 

Even if the festival bounces back to pre-pandemic levels, Summerfest won’t be able to claim to be the world’s largest festival in terms of attendees: Mawazine, held in the Moroccan capital Rabat, topped 2.75 million attendees in 2019, according to Moroccan World News

Donauinselfest, held in Austria, has also long eclipsed Summerfest. In fact, it holds that similar Guinness World Record for “largest attendance at a music festival (one location)” for its attendance of 3.3 million at its 2015 Vienna festival.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival beats out Summerfest, attracting more than 2 million visitors annually, according to USA Today

Summerfest has, however, consistently drawn more fans than any other American music festival. That could change for the first time this year: Coachella brought in a record 750,000, which may top Summerfest, if the downward trend continues.

So, Summerfest may no longer be the world’s largest based on the original criteria of attendance. Here’s a look at a few other ways it could still keep its crown.

Summerfest’s nine-day run puts it ahead of Coachella, many other festivals

Summerfest is being held this year over nine days across three weekends: June 23-25, June 30-July 2, and July 7-9. 

The nine-day format is new. Historically, the festival has spanned 11 days across two weeks, but switched to three weekends for the first time in 2021.

The loss of two days was partly to blame for last year’s attendance woes, some theorized. Still, organizers are testing the new format again, this time in the summer rather than the fall.  

Summerfest’s nine days ties it with the Moroccan Mawazine and puts it ahead of most major festivals, including Coachella (six days) and Donauinselfest (three days).

The Montreal International Jazz Festival runs for 11 days, however. And Gem Fest, an electronic music festival held in Eastern Europe, ran for a whopping 32 days in 2017 (iterations in other years have been far shorter). 

Summerfest’s many, many bands keep it in first place

Summerfest will have nearly 270 headlining artists and bands this year. There are 800 total acts and more than 1,000 performances, though not all of them will be strictly musical. 

This is where Summerfest shines. No other large festival comes close in terms of artists: Mawazine at 90 acts, Coachella at 150, Lollapalooza at 170, Donauinselfest at 100. 

That means Summerfest has a much smaller fans-to-performance ratio than the other festivals. Audiences of all ages have a far more expansive selection and an opportunity to test their palates across genres

“Summerfest has (continued) to deliver on its nonprofit mission of bringing the community together through music and special events, while remaining one of the world’s most affordable music festivals,” the Summerfest representative wrote.

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