The Scene recently had the opportunity to chat with Bonnaroo founder and AC Entertainment head Ashley Capps about Bonnaroo X:
First of all, congrats on the 10th Bonnaroo.
Well thank you. Who knew?
So obviously a lot has changed with Bonnaroo itself and with the music landscape at large since your first year in 2002. How has the way music is now disseminated and shared and talked about changed the way the festival itself is laid out, and what made you decide on taking it from a jam band-oriented sort of festival to a more all-encompassing, across-the-board type of lineup?
Well, we never set out with the intention of creating a jam band festival. From the very beginning, what we imagined was creating the most exciting music festival that we could imagine, and we certainly turned to the jam band audience to build the festival concept around for several reasons. ... You know, it's really a very large umbrella, whatever you consider a jam band to be. But musically, they draw from a lot of different musical influences and you have jam bands that are heavily bluegrass-oriented or jazz-oriented or funk-oriented or rock-oriented or incorporate the elements of world music. So there is a real melting pot of different musical styles that jam bands are known for playing, so that gave us an opportunity programmatically to explore a lot of those tangents as we built the festival and the various acts that played around it. It's like there were really almost an infinite number of tangents to explore, and that was one of the key concepts of the festival from the beginning.
The other element of that was that the jam band audience is very passionate about the music that they love. And we knew that we could count on that audience to come to where their band — their favorite artist — was performing. And they were a little more predisposed to the community concept of living together, camping and being part of this weekend experience than perhaps some other audiences were. So we certainly knew from The Grateful Dead ethos and from the Phish festivals that had been created and Woodstock and other events that that was an audience that was a great core audience to build our festival around.
Right, kind of open to growth.
Exactly. And another influence that was part of it is the jam-band audience had in many ways pioneered Internet marketing and the direct artist-to-fan relationship. And that was something that we were very attracted to, very interested in, one of the ways in which we saw the business already significantly changing. So we were very influenced by that direct artist-to-fan model and the Internet fan clubs that they had established and the way they were communicating directly with their fans.
Sure, 'cause I suppose in 2002 that was kind of a new angle to take.
Well yeah, it was. It was revolutionary and it was also a bit under the radar screen. I think people were starting to get an inkling for what was possible there, but really with Bonnaroo, we tapped into that and the power of that in a way that we had not even imagined that first year, because we ended up selling out 70,000 tickets with no advertising whatsoever. And it was completely due to that network of fans — the artists communicating directly with their fans, the fans communicating directly with one another.
Have you guys ever given any thought to using the grounds for concerts or other events at any point throughout the rest of the year? Since Starwood closed, Middle Tennessee is kind of in need of a large-sized shed.
Sure. We've thought about different ways of using the site for other events. We certainly believe that one Bonnaroo is appropriate for the site, but we've had a lot of discussions — both internally and with some other potential outside partners — for staging other types of events. The key with the Bonnaroo site is that it's a destination location. It's an hour from Nashville, it's a solid hour from Chattanooga, and it really has to be the right event in order to work. So we haven't rushed into anything, but we've been exploring concepts and we continue to do so. I think before long it's likely that something else will be happening out there.
So do you get the chance to attend the other big festivals? Redding and Coachella and all that?
Absolutely. I go to every festival that I possibly can just to have a good time and see how many great ideas I can steal from them.
That actually leads into something else I wanted to ask you about. Do you have a relationship with the other organizers and reps of other festivals?
Yeah, we all know each other. We attend each other's events. There's a certain competitiveness there, but there's also a certain camaraderie there. We share a lot of information, and we're proprietary about some of the information. But it's really overall a good and productive working relationship, and we've all learned a lot from one another.
What is your personal Bonnaroo experience like?
I mean, the people working Bonnaroo during the Bonnaroo weekend are as good as it gets. It's an amazing team, and in many ways much of my work is done by the team the Bonnaroo weekend takes place. Except for certain things that crop up that have to be dealt with, certainly. But I am lucky enough to be able to enjoy a good bit of the weekend as well. ... I go explore every nook and cranny of the site over the course of the weekend. I love to get out there in the thick of it and mingle with all of the people who are attending the festival and hear what they have to say and what kind of experience they're having. Really see what's going on out there. I mean, that's a huge part of the festival for me. I love the music, I love the bands onstage, but it's also the community that comes together out there for the weekend that really sets Bonnaroo apart and makes it such a special experience for everyone.
That's kind of like the other element: what the people themselves bring to it.
Absolutely. And it's an important element. I think everyone who comes to Bonnaroo — they all leave with great experiences of seeing fantastic music on stages, but I think the overarching thing that we all leave with is this extraordinary sense of community that comes together. Everyone living together for a weekend with the shared purpose of enjoying music and one another. So it's kind of incomparable in that way.
Well, it's good to know that you don't just sit up in an ivory tower and watch everyone. You get down there with the people and enjoy it.
Yeah, we haven't built any ivory towers out there yet, so I have not had that luxury. But I wouldn't want it. ... I like to watch the music actually even from the front of the stage and often out in the crowds, and all because, to me, that is the experience. Every now and then I watch things from the side of the stage, but music wasn't intended to be appreciated from the side of the stage. You're supposed to watch it from the front of the stage. And I'm still a big fan, and so I want to have that fan experience myself.
What's your average year like in terms of planning the following year's Bonnaroo. Is it sort of an eternal cycle?
Well, it is an eternal cycle, but there's a certain ebb and flow to it. I mean, we're all involved in other events, and certainly those events will take precedence at various points over Bonnaroo. But in some way or another, I would go so far to say that the planning and execution of Bonnaroo is a 365-day-a-year experience. And we're already thinking very hard about 2012 — talking to artists and moving forward with that. So it's a continual process.
Well, I'm sure you've at least heard that this is going to be the year of the cicadas. Have you given any thought to how that's going to affect the festival?
We're certainly trying to plan for it as best we can. And we'll see how that impacts us. ... Yeah, we'll see what happens.
Do you guys have anything special planned for the 10th? Any surprises up your sleeve or anything like that?
Well, there are a number of surprises. I think there are going to be a lot of really great artistic collaborations, and it's gonna be fantastic. But it wouldn't be a surprise if I told you about it.
Well, I had to give it a shot, right?