We’re not gonna lie, we’re big fans of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival — but we’re hardly alone. Every June, thousands upon thousands of music fanatics, all starving for both summer fun and music high jinx, swarm Manchester, TN, all with the hopes of seeing their favorites performers and with the idealized dream that “this is it.” When the festival surfaced in 2002, it seemed to cater to such a niche market, what with acts like Widespread Panic, Govt Mule, and Umphrey’s McGee. But since then, it’s become the most dependable outlet for live music today… and top acts have taken note. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello, The Police to Radiohead have graced the balmy, muddy stages. It’s a promising staple and any modern festival today should thank their lucky stars that this whole fiesta took off.
If you haven’t noticed, Consequence of Sound is pretty obsessed with music festivals. In fact, you might say it’s our “thing.” That’s why we did a little happy dance when Ashley Capps, Bonnaroo’s Co-Founder, wanted to sit down and talk with us. Needless to say, we had a lot of questions floating in our heads — and so did most of you readers. So, with that in mind, you got to hand it to writer Charles Poladian for picking the right ones. The two had quite the lengthy conversation, discussing how the event came to fruition, some memories (and troubles) in the past, and where it’s going for the future. Poladian even managed to squeeze in some time to chat about the “Kanye incident.”
Please, read on…
So, let’s start. Can you tell me a bit about the beginnings of Bonnaroo?
Bonnaroo is, and for me in particular, rooted in my career as a concert promoter, which began pretty informally in the very late 1970’s and into the 80’s. Sometime in the 1990’s I started doing outdoor concerts. We didn’t have an amphitheater, per se, so we were creating our own concerts in a field. Every now and then we started adding a stage or two to those. Those were at the World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville that was a kind of a concert series, not really a festival. But we started thinking in terms of outdoor events and multi-stage events at that point.
In 2000, I staged my first camping event which was in the mountains of North Carolina. It didn’t have the big headliners like Bonnaroo, but it had many bands that would later play Bonnaroo. Like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Leftover Salmon, a bunch of acts like that. It was an enormous success, too much of a success, we had to turn people away. We couldn’t accommodate the number of people trying to come. So, on a personal level, that was leading into the Bonnaroo experience. And of course Phish had established their camping events as special events out there. So what they were doing along with Merle Fest for instance and of course the ultimate legacy of Woodstock, which was extremely influential.
My wife’s European so I travel to Europe a lot where I realized the tradition of these great music festivals had never really, in the United States it had been this kind of stop and go, in Europe it had been this continuing tradition. So all those factors kind of came together, and it was like “Why not try this in the United States?” so we did.
You’re all over the place. You are also a talent buyer for The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina.
We’ve done a lot of work all over the Southeast, in particular Asheville. We were the exclusive talent buyer for the national acts for Be Here Now, which was the first great Asheville club which opened in the early 1990’s and we did that throughout the 1990’s. When The Orange Peel took root, I became friends with Jack and Lesley Groetsch who were the original owners of The Orange Peel. So, we started working with The Orange Peel from day one. We also do a lot of shows in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at the Asheville Civic Center, all throughout the southeast. But yeah, Asheville is a pretty sweet place.
Did you see any errors in how American festivals were run? It seemed as if they would start off stationary and then become a travelling festival and ultimately it would not work out.
We certainly studied the pitfalls that had a negative impact on other festivals and tried to avoid their mistakes. I think from the very beginning, one of the major components of our plan was working really closely with the community, from the very beginning, with all of the leaders in the community, certainly with the police in the community, and really making them our partners in the creation of the event. It’s been very important to us and continues to be important to us have that strong basis in the community. Without the support of the community in which you are in, it is very difficult and ultimately impossible to sustain an event of the magnitude like Bonnaroo.
What role do festivals play in music for you? How do you see Bonnaroo playing into American culture and the music scene?
I think as a music fan myself, the most exciting thing about festivals, and I especially experienced this in Europe, was the extraordinary variety of music that you were able experience in a weekend. I really loved in visiting these festivals, to hear not only my favorite rock band, but sometimes hear fantastic Brazilian music or African music or traditional Gypsy music. A lot of jazz, there was always an incredibly interesting variety to experience. It really, as a music fan, was like being a kid in a candy store.
It led me to discover a lot of music and to explore even further my interest in music. I think certainly that aspect of Bonnaroo, the multi-faceted music and all the different things you can experience in a single weekend are very much influenced by that experience. I think it’s something that I would like to see us evolve over the years. This year we are going to have a Latin tent, last year we had an African tent. This year the African acts will be there but it will be more into the context of the regular festival. We certainly always have a lot of Bluegrass and now we are trying to showcase that in a slightly different way.
The variety of offerings and then the overall festival experience, you know? If you go to the festivals in Europe, it’s not like somebody just popped up a few stages, put a fence around something and brought in a bunch of generators and started selling some beers and off you go. It’s an experience. There are circuses, and all sorts of things to entertain you that you don’t expect. Some great food, there is a lot of attention given to the overall experience even beyond the music and that is also one of the driving forces behind Bonnaroo; making that weekend the most amazing, unforgettable experience we can for people.
When did you realize Bonnaroo was going to succeed, be something special and ultimately become this sort of European style festival?
Well, the first I time we realized that we were on to something was, quite simply, when we got the response we did that very first year; when we put tickets on sale. It was an overwhelming response, we had done no advertising. We were working with the bands to reach out directly, to their fans, via the internet. Which was a fairly new concept in 2002, it was very early in 2002 that we did that. The bands had really started developing these fan clubs online for a few years, but they hadn’t been mobilized in the way we did that first year. We ended up selling an extraordinary number of tickets, like 60,000 tickets. We had to stop because we hadn’t even really done our organizational work yet for the site yet to be comfortable with how many people we could accommodate. So we initially stopped when we sold 60,000 tickets in less than three weeks, which at that particular point in festival world was unheard of in the United States. People would typically wait until the last minute to buy a festival ticket.
That experience caught all of us by surprise, and was very exhilarating. That was when knew we tapped into something that people were really looking for.
What do you attribute to the long standing success of Bonnaroo, and making it be the destination fest for America?
Well, I’m happy to hear you call it that. I really think, when it all boils down to it, what makes Bonnaroo a success is that everyone behind this festival is a fan themselves. We approach the festival every year with, basically, the same goal. Which is “How can we make this the most amazing weekend that anyone has ever experienced?”
As music fans that means maintaining an allegiance to a certain core, if you will. I think there is a programming thread that runs through our festival, but also staying true to our own interests which are continuing to evolve and true to the ever-changing interests of fans, so that each year, the festival is fresh, exciting and new in terms of its offers. Beyond on that, we are always trying to look to improve that experience out there that people have for the weekends. It’s a challenging situation for a lot people, camping for a weekend. Each year we try to make improvements that make that experience fantastic and special and also to provide people with unexpectedly fun things to do that really bring that “wow” factor to the weekend.
One of the questions we were getting from our Twitter followers was “when will the Which Stage get screens?” So, is there any news on that?
We’re constantly talking about that sort of thing and I will bring it up in our next meeting. It’s certainly been discussed but there is also an aesthetic at work here where we don’t want the What Stage and the Which Stage to be the same experience for people. One of the key parts of what makes Bonnaroo Bonnaroo is that the experiences change all the time. How you experience a band on one stage you experience them differently on the other stage. That’s also part of the Bonnaroo experience. I can’t say that we haven’t discussed it, we certainly have and we weighed the pros and cons of doing it and it may happen in the near future.
One of the things that make Bonnaroo Bonnaroo is the incredible variety and that’s not just only n types of music but the type of experience. You got the huge experience in front of the What Stage and you got a much more intimate experience at the Sonic Stage.
And then the Tent Stages as well.
And all points in between.
When did you begin the process of Bonnaroo 2010? For example, booking it, setting it up, and thinking about it.
In a way it never ends. We even have discussions going on now about 2011. It’s really a 365 day a year experience. We have meetings going on throughout the year where we always review what happened at the festival before; everybody’s taking notes about what do we need to do differently next year, where can we improve the experience. Sometimes, you know, you are walking through the field an a light bulb goes off on an idea. It may or may not be a good one, it may or may not be feasible and we bring all these ideas together and weigh them against reality. Sometimes it even takes years for them to develop.
Sometimes our booking of artists, the initial inquiry to the artist, or the artist to us, can even begin years before they actually play the festival. There are so many different factors going in but generally speaking we start booking the festival shortly after; we’ll start 2011, in some ways already, but definitely in July.
So it must have been even more daunting when Vegoose was running along with Bonnaroo?
We put Vegoose on hold for the last couple of years. There’s a lot to be said for focusing here and there.
One of the best things about Bonnaroo is the fact you own the property. Can you talk a little about that and future plans for the property, either for Bonnaroo or different events?
The great thing about owning the property is, quite simply, it gives us control to start developing the infrastructure. For the first eight years of the festival, we had to bring in generators for every single bit of electricity that we use. Between the 2008 festival and 2009 festival we actually were able to put in power to the site especially for the main venue and everything. So we no longer have to use generators, which use fuel, which are loud. We still have to use them in some of the peripheral areas, a little bit, but not like we had to in the past. We wouldn’t be able to do something like that without control of the land. It enables us to start to develop that infrastructure so that we can create a better experience over the long term. So that in a nut shell is the value to Bonnaroo.
We’re certainly discussing doing other events on the site. There’s absolutely no question about that. I don’t know when we will. There have been a lot of ideas discussed over the years. Putting on a festival of any kind of magnitude is very challenging. There are a lot of new festivals out there so we haven’t been in a huge hurry to do it. We got a lot of discussions and when the right thing comes along; we’ll probably see a very different type of event from Bonnaroo. We’ll see the site used for some other things.
What’s the day to day procedure like for Bonnaroo? The job’s not over for you when Bonnaroo begins. Is it a 24/7 kind of thing?
Not literally 24/7, although it seems like it. There’s definitely an adrenaline rush to Bonnaroo, and you don’t want to miss out on too much. I probably survive on three to six hours of sleep a night for about four nights in a row. I’m in my 50’s so that’s pretty good.
What’s your best unseen Bonnaroo memory?
There have been a lot of those. It’s hard to even think of it like that. One of the things I really enjoy about the festival a lot, is I have a lot of friends in the business. People who are big music fans just like I am that come to Bonnaroo to have a great time. Some of them are kind of working, either they are in a band or work with a band in some type of capacity. The people we work with to create the festival and then the people who come to visit, there is a real family feel to the whole thing. It can be like a really fantastic reunion. It’s so much fun to see everyone and see all of this great music and have this fantastic weekend together. That kind of camaraderie is really, ultimately, what I leave Bonnaroo remembering most because it’s a really special experience and there’s a real community feeling to the whole thing. It’s been a very important part of my life for the last 10 years.
So any dream artists yet to play that would you love to have?
Oh dream artists, sure. I have all sorts of Bonnaroo related ideas that I would love to see come to fruition but I’m not going to jinx any of it by sharing it out loud. Some of it has to do with artists that I would love to see playing the festival, some of it has to do with different kinds of experiences that I would like to see created at the festival. Kind of what I’m talking about in that realm, I love the visual and experiential arts aspects of the fest. So we got these amazing sculptors who do these kind of Burning Man-esque kind of art in one of our areas that we call the Artist Such and Such. I loved the Cabaret experience which we haven’t had in the last couple of years but we are talking about reviving. Some of the more offbeat things that, again, really make Bonnaroo that experience you can’t forget. Continuing to work on that realm of things is what really keeps me going.
One of the defining features of Bonnaroo is the fountain at Centeroo. Where did that come from?
We built that. We work with a guy named Russ Bennett, who also worked on the Phish festivals and Russ is actually an architect and that’s what he does for his real life. He is responsible for most of the visual design that you see at the festival. He designed the archway, the fountain; he designed the bobbleheads and got them made. All those little things that are eye candy at the festival, Russ usually had some sort of hand in.
As much as it is usually about headliners, I love the lower tier of the lineup and all the up and coming bands. How do you go about selecting these younger bands?
Again, it’s kind of a never ending process. There is so much more that we would like to do than we are able to do. There are so many great bands, especially these up and coming bands that we would love to have at the festival. It can sometimes be a painful decision making process because, even though we are choosing great ones we’re also having to say no sometimes to great ones that we would love to have out there. In any given year, we can only do a small percentage of what people ask us to do but also what we would like to do.
Sometimes it’s not up to us, it doesn’t fit the bands schedule, or they can’t get to Tennessee. There could be a million different factors involved. When it all boils down to it, we’ve only got X number of slots, we may be choosing 50 bands but we probably got 150 that we would like to have out there. It’s like going to your favorite restaurant; you can’t eat everything on the menu in one visit.
It’s not just about who we want, but it’s also about creating that kind of multi-faceted balance of different types of music. So that really the festival does have this incredible variety to it. The variety is very important to us and that’s also a factor in the decision making. If we find that we’re really heavy on a certain genre of music, then that can also impact the decision because we’re just like “We’ve got a lot of that but what we really need is some great blues, or what we really need is this”. That influences the decision too. Ultimately you’re trying to piece together this fantastic experience and you want to make sure that you got all the different elements in place.
In a festival, there are fears that the unique headliner pool is shrinking. What are your opinions on this?
I think there is a certain reality that cannot be denied that it’s not just impacting the music business but a lot of businesses out there which is, everything is becoming more and more niche orientated. The pool is shrinking when it just comes to how many acts can fill up a 20,000 seat arena. The number of acts that can do that are becoming fewer and fewer because there are so many more bands and the fan base is fractionalized a little bit, a lot actually. When I was growing up, people were either into The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and everything else was second tier. Then there was The Who, and then there was Hendrix. For me, in high school, there were maybe like, 15 or 20 records over the course of the year that we all listened to. There was this common currency of interest and it was really sort of cultural glue too. Almost everyone was into Led Zeppelin, or Sabbath, or Hendrix, or Janis Joplin or whatever it might be.
These days, number one, the records themselves don’t have that kind of longevity. You don’t have people listening, for the most part, to something like Dark Side of the Moon for three years. You’re lucky if they’re listening to it for three weeks. There are many more bands to choose from because also in those days there was only one way to get a record; you had to go to your local record store. Your local record store only had so many records, they didn’t have everything. Even if they did have everything, there were basically a few dozen releases to choose from at any given moment. It’s out of control right now, you know? The number of records now being released is completely creating all of these niches but it’s making it harder and harder for one artist to dominate the scene as a headliner. There are still a few obviously. U2, Springsteen, and Dave Matthews, there are still huge bands out there and I think there are some up and coming acts that certainly have the potential to achieve that.
It’s definitely true that the pool of headliners have shrunk. We’re going to have a headliner this year that wasn’t around 10 years ago. There are new headliners emerging, it’s not that they are completely going away, they are just fewer and further between on that mega level.
Some of the very greatest music doesn’t necessarily have that huge fan base and that’s one of the things that makes Bonnaroo such a fantastic experience is that we are able to bring in these bands who maybe have these smaller fan bases but when people have a chance to hear them they’re like “Wow, I didn’t know this was my favorite band, but they are”. I think one of those great things about the Bonnaroo experience is people leaving Bonnaroo with a new favorite band that they maybe didn’t know existed when they came to the festival.
Any predictions on potential headliners?
My lips are sealed on that. No secrets to be revealed.
So I guess no hints about the lineups?
No, no hints about the lineup. I would love to give you hints about the lineup, but there are little people that come out of the closet and smack me around when I do stuff like that.
How do you feel about this year’s lineup?
I think it’s an awesome lineup. Every year I wonder how we’re going to out-do ourselves. We got all of our headliners booked, and it’s going to be an amazing festival again. I could not be happier with the lineup.
Now a lot of people want to know about Kanye West.
That was definitely a famous incident in Bonnaroo history. It’s unfortunate, there were a lot of breakdowns in communication that led to that going down the way it did. There were situations that were misread and frankly, if Kanye had stuck to the original game plan he would have had an amazing festival experience, and put on an amazing show and the audience would have been blown away. All the last minute machinations that ended up moving it to an impossible slot and creating all of this unfortunate drama and everything, it just took a really, really great opportunity and kind of blew it up for everybody, which was too bad.
So no ill will, no hard feelings?
Life’s too short for hard feelings. It is what it is and it’s gone, in the rearview mirror. I try to drive while looking through the front windshield.
Where do you see Bonnaroo in 10 years?
My vision is that it continues to become an extraordinary experience and builds each year. Like Glastonbury in England and so many other festivals that it becomes something of a rite of a passage for music fans throughout the country. I’m optimistic that we can continue to keep it fresh and exciting and a really special experience for those that attend. I think we got a great future in front of us.