Behind the Scenes at Bonnaroo 2011
Founder Ashley Capps discusses how the festival has evolved and what this year has in store
In less than six weeks, tens of thousands of people will flock to Manchester, Tennessee for the 10th annual Bonnaroo Music Festival, which runs from June 9th through 12th. What started as a jam band festival has grown into a huge annual event, with everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Radiohead and Metallica having headlined. This year’s lineup features Lil Wayne, Eminem, Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, My Morning Jacket and a reunited Buffalo Springfield.
Rolling Stone spoke with Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps about booking this year’s show, how he landed the Buffalo Springfield reunion and his dream of bringing Led Zeppelin to Bonnaroo.
You have a really diverse line-up this year. Back in the day people thought of Bonnaroo more as a jam band festival.
There was a reason for that. We certainly look to the jam bands and their audience as a great core constituency to build our festival around because jam band fans are passionate music fans. They have a history of following their bands and going to see them multiple times over the course of a year. Many members of that audience had demonstrated that they were interested in the idea of a camping festival and spending a weekend in the community listening to the music that they loved.
It seems like every year you try and book one of the huge jam bands, whether it’s Phish or the Dead or Widespread Panic.
We certainly always look to acknowledge that part of the Bonnaroo audience.
The festival is just six weeks away. What kind of things are you doing right now to prepare?
The bulk of my work is booking, marketing and ticketing. The booking, of course, has been done for a while ”“ but we’re still processing contracts and going over some of the details of the artist requirements and production issues that emerge and so on. We’re close to selling out, so we’re just dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s on the final phases of our marketing plan.
At this point, it’s more messaging to the fans than anything else. We’ve got a new ticketing system this year. We’re going with wristbands instead of paper tickets. The wristbands include RFID [Radio Frequency Identification] technology, so right now we’re communicating with the fans to tell them all the advantages in using them.
You’re obviously doing that to insure that nobody sneaks in.
It’s really to protect everyone. Counterfeit tickets and counterfeit wristbands drive up the expenses and the costs for everyone. They’re a factor in ticket prices and so on. It can negatively impact people’s experience at the festival because if you have people who aren’t supposed to be there, it makes it unnecessarily crowded and pushes the envelope on all the various services.
One of the names on this year’s line-up that really jumped out to me was Buffalo Springfield. They haven’t toured since 1968. Were you surprised to discover that booking them was even an option?
Well, I was thrilled to death. It’s funny, I listened toÂ Buffalo Springfield Again last night. It’s one of my favorite records of all time and I’m old enough to remember when it first came out. I listened to it in my very early youth when I was really starting to develop my own musical taste, so it’s a very special booking for me.
I had no idea that a Buffalo Springfield reunion was even possible. It started out as a conversation with Neil Young and his manager and agent. Neil Young and Crazy Horse played Bonnaroo in 2003, and to me that is still one of the highlights of the festival. We’ve talked to him about coming back in some configuration on several occasions. So this year, it really started with the conversation of, “What can we do? What would Neil be into doing?” We started talking almost a year ago. Back in October he did the Buffalo Springfield reunion at the Bridge School Benefit and I think that experience went so well and he was so happy with the results that he focused on bringing Buffalo Springfield back to Bonnaroo. I’m still pinching myself that it’s happening. We’re really honored. It’s a very special thing for us.
I’m sure every year you think real big in terms of booking ”“ like getting Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin.
Well, of course. We’re all big music fans and certainly we do think big, like, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have these artists come to our festival?” Sometimes those conversations are years in the planning before it actually manifests itself. But we also love some of the smaller ideas. It’s really about the entire meal, and not just the main course.
Pink Floyd is obviously never going to happen, but Zeppelin did play an entire set in London in 2007. Are they on the top of your fantasy list?
Well, you know, based on that I’ve been told for awhile now, it’s not possible. So, I don’t spend a lot of time fantasizing about things that I’m pretty convinced are not going happen. But I would certainly love to be wrong in that case.
When you started in 2002 there were very few other American rock festivals. Now they are everywhere. Does that complicate things?
I think there’s plenty of room in the festival space. Is it competitive? Of course. I actually think it’s a positive thing because it helps people to embrace festival culture. I think the challenge for any festival these days is to create its own character and have a unique experience that really allows it to stand apart from the other festivals.
A lot of big festivals were announced with great fanfare, booked huge acts and then disappeared a year or two later.
It’s difficult. I think that the big mistake is thinking that it’s just about putting a bunch of bands on a few stages. I think that there’s a subtle chemistry and synergy that emerges that really sets the great festivals apart from everyone else.
I live in New York and there are very few festivals nearby. You guys tried a few years ago with Bonnaroo Northeast, but that obviously was a disaster. Do you ever think about expanding again to this part of the country?
That was an interesting experience and we learned a couple of things from it. Never say never, but I don’t think you will see us trying to stage an event again called Bonnaroo anyplace other than Manchester, Tennessee. We learned that Bonnaroo was this place and this experience and we didn’t want to replicate that anywhere else.
I also think that New Yorkers are in the luxurious position getting to see any type of music that they want several times a year. So, on the one hand it’s the biggest market in the world and it’s kind of a no-brainer because the support that New York offers to arts and culture period is over the top. But I think that there’s so much of it, and it’s very hard for an event to get traction and really stand out in the midst of what’s just day-to-day life in New York.
Eminem is a pretty great get for this year. He hasn’t toured in years, and he’s done very few gigs anywhere recently.
I’ve never seen Eminem live, but everything I’ve heard is fantastic. Great live performers are what we try to present at Bonnaroo, and I always look forward to that big show. There’s an energy between 80,000 people in the crowd and the artist onstage. It just lends itself to an extraordinary experience. Radiohead played a few years ago and Thom Yorke was quote as saying that it was his “favorite show for ever and ever and ever.”
Are you guys booking acts for next year’s Bonnaroo?
We are definitely thinking about the 2012 Bonnaroo and there has been some discussion and some movement, but nothing for certain yet.