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Interview: Ashley Capps, Co-Founder of Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (Round 2)

on March 12, 2010, 12:01am

In January, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with Ashley Capps, the co-founder of the legendary Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. At the time, we attempted to cover everything, from the festival’s origins and eventual evolution into one of the premiere events in all the world to his favorite memories and the process behind constructing the lineup each and every year. But then the 2010 lineup dropped (or revealed itself over a 16 hour long day) and we thought we’d ask Mr. Capps for another opportunity, this time to discuss his thoughts on the 2010 bill so far, what else may be to come, and ask a few other questions that have long plagued Bonnaroo’ers. (We finally got your answer about Zeppelin!) Mr. Capps obliged and yesterday, CoS Staff Writer Allison Franks rang him up. Here is the result of their discussion.

Let’s talk about this year’s lineup. Were you happy with the result? How would you compare this year’s lineup to past editions?

Absolutely, I’m really excited about this year’s festival. And you know I don’t really compare it in that sense. I think each festival has its own character and the process of booking the festival is always fascinating to me because it’s such a process and it’s very hard when you’re engaged in it to really step back and take a look at the big picture and see what you’re actually creating. Every year after we go through this same process and I’m always proud of the end result. It’s just very difficult to compare one festival lineup to another because they are each unique in their own way, but this one I’m just thrilled with. I think it’s got a tremendous about of variety to it and some of the greatest artists of our time playing. I couldn’t be happier.

Do you find it difficult trying to keep up with the expectations of your fans, and to continue to top yourself year after year?

Well, that’s a head game that I always worry about playing. When it all boils down to it however, we go through the same process every year; which is basically how can we create the most exciting festival that we can possibly imagine. So we are certainly thinking about what the fans want and what they expect and how we’re going to surprise them and excite them with the lineup. But, I don’t think we think about it in terms of ‘oh we’ve gotta out do ourselves every year’. It’s really more about taking the available opportunities that we have, some of which we’ve been in dialogue with artists for several years before they actually play the festival. So it’s really an on-going process and when we began it we never know exactly how it’s going to turn out, but so far, so good. It always seems to produce a really great result.

What, if any, role does your fanbase play in choosing which bands you book for the festival each year?

We listen to them. We’re in constant contact with our fans through email, message boards and various other methods. They share their thoughts with us about who would be great to play the festival and we’re certainly listening to the fans. That’s what it’s all about when it all boils down to it. Without the fans, none of us have a job. So, it’s hard to say that it’s one thing. There are so many factors that go into the booking process and it’s important for us, for instance, that we have a really diverse lineup that features many facets of music and doesn’t just zone in on one particular genre.

Speaking of the fans, it seems like there is a contingent of Bonnaroo fans, particularly the hardcore ones, who post and read the message boards each and everyday, who were perhaps disappointed by this year’s lineup, whether because of the headliners, the hype, or the lineup compared to past years. What’s your reaction to that? Do you feel let down after all the work you’ve put in?

No, not at all. We certainly listen to both the nay-sayers as well as the positive comments that we’ve gotten, but from where I’m sitting the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. To be honest, every year there are many people who express dissatisfaction with the lineup because whatever you do there’s going to be people who feel like you should have done more of this and less of that and so on. Do we listen to those voices? Yes, but at the end of the day we can’t let that dictate the entire process because there are so many other things to consider in booking Bonnaroo and what makes the Bonnaroo music festival what it is. The diversity of music offered is at the heart of what Bonnaroo is all about, which is one of our guiding principles also.

So then, you wouldn’t say negative feedback from your fans greatly affects you?

We listen, but there are a lot of voices to listen to and they don’t all agree.

How did the demise of Rothbury affect this year’s lineup?

Well we were 80 or 90% booked before we knew that Rothbury wasn’t happening. So, it didn’t really impact us that much. We certainly pay attention to what other festivals are doing, but we really try to focus on ourselves and doing the best job that we possibly can within the scope of what Bonnaroo is all about. We don’t let what the other festivals are doing influence us too much one way or the other.

So you wouldn’t say that you strive to one up other major festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza? Do you even feel it’s a competition?

I don’t think we’re really that much competition for one another. Each of those festivals has its own unique character. They are both great events, I like to attend them myself. So is there any gut-spirited competition? Sure. We want to be the festival that everybody is talking about, but we don’t set out saying ‘how can we one up the competition’. That’s not what the booking process is really all about. We’re just focused on trying to create the very best festival that we possibly can. And to focus on trying to out fox the competition or one up the competition would really be a distraction.

Regarding this year’s method of release (the day long unveiling) what were your impressions of that? Would you consider doing something like that again in the future?

I think it got a tremendous amount of attention, don’t you? (laughs) We learned from the experience and I think we might approach it in a slightly different way next time, but overall I think it was an enormous success. We had hoped to do something a little bit different, while creating a lot of buzz about the festival and we were very successful in that regard. Basically any kind of criteria that you would use would show that we had the strongest response to this year’s announcement that we’ve ever had in the history of the festival. So it works really well in that regard. Did it annoy some people? Sure, but then again you can’t keep everyone happy all of the time. Everybody’s got a different opinion. All we were trying to do was create some anticipation about the lineup and build some excitement about what announcement was coming next and we also wanted to offer the artists the opportunity to communicate directly with their fans first. Overall, I would say that it was a great success. We may approach things certain things differently, perhaps, but honestly we’re still analyzing it all. It was definitely fun though.

Last week, you added Umphrey’s McGee, Ween, and Gossip among others to the lineup and earlier this morning you also unveiled that Conan would be appearing this year as well. Can we expect any other major additions to this year’s lineup or will the rest be for the comedy tent and smaller stages?

Well, like you mentioned we just announced the comedy tent today and Conan O’Brien will be there. So yeah, there will be some additional lineup announcements. We have a Latin tent that we’re doing this year and we still haven’t announced the artists that are performing in that, but all of the major artist announcements outside of that have been made.

Has there been anyone in particular that you’ve wanted to book for this year that you were unable to?

There are always things that don’t work out because of an artist’s schedule or because of other commitments that they might have. That’s why sometimes the booking process like I say can take two or three years or longer of discussions before it ultimately works out so that an artist can play the festival. We always have certain situations that we had hoped to make happen this year that didn’t work out for whatever reason and you know, maybe they will next year.

Just curious: going back to the Led Zeppelin rumor of 2008, was there ever any truth behind that and if so, how close was that to actually becoming a reality?

(laughs) That was sheer speculation generated by fans. Obviously, if Led Zeppelin had chosen to perform more dates outside of the O2 there’s nothing we would have loved more than to have had them at Bonnaroo. But there was never a serious discussion about it because it was never clear whether they were going to play again or not. That was strictly the rumor mill, (laughs) but we decided to have a little fun with it though when we booked Lez Zeppelin.

What has sparked the festival’s interest in widening itself from a jam-oriented event to one that nearly encompasses nearly every style of music out there?

To us from the very beginning we never set out to be a jam-band festival. We did set out with the obvious intention of being a camping festival and I think for our first year in particular it made a tremendous amount of sense to reach out to the jam-band audience because that’s an audience that has traditionally shown they were willing camp and would really embrace this type of musical festival. Our intention though from the very beginning was to be a pretty diverse music festival. We never sat around saying ‘gee, we’re going to be a jam-band festival’ and then suddenly changed our minds. We just wanted to be a music festival and for us, again, the lineup comes about because we have discussions and we’re thinking to ourselves ‘what would be an amazing lineup for the coming year’ or ‘what would we like to see happen’? And it’s really about trying to keep it fresh and exciting and really vital each year. That’s the spirit behind the booking. And the so called jam-band audience is obviously very important to us and this year we actually pursued a couple of those artists but it just didn’t work out in that regard. It just didn’t fit their schedule for them to play at the festival in early June, so again the complexion of the lineup just changes. When we got Metallica and Radiohead and Tool back then there was a lot of talk about us changing from being a jam-band festival, but last year we had Phish, you know. So, it’s not as if we are consciously trying to transform what the festival is all about. It’s really more about the focus on creating the very best music festival, period.

Why aren’t there any late night sets at What stage, after the main evening’s headliner?

Well this year actually there is going to be one. Jay-Z is going to be doing a late night thing on the main stage. And again, there are a lot of different things that go into organizing that and unlike many other festivals we don’t have many other events going on when the headliner is on the main stage. But after that happens, we really want to transform back into the festival vibe and therefore have a variety of shows going on simultaneously rather than try to focus everyone’s attention on what’s going on at the main stage. So, that’s definitely part of it. It’s really just having multiple events going on rather than a focus on a single stage and for the large stage to work it really needs a huge artist that will draw a lot of people. We feel that it’s better for the festival diversity overall to not continue focusing on that stage too much late at night, but we could change our minds in the future, who knows.

ashley capps t200 Interview: Ashley Capps, Co Founder of Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (Round 2)Has there been a reason for not including a mini headliner on Thursday?

Because at some point you’ve just gotta decide you’re not going to do some things. All of a sudden your festival lasts a week instead of three days and originally the Thursday night thing evolved because it was just local acts and regional acts and we didn’t even announce who was playing. It was intended just to give the people who came to the festival early some music that they could enjoy before the actual festival kicked in big time. And it was our opportunity to surprise people with new artists that they probably didn’t know, but that we thought they’d really like. Then it became more and more popular and more people kept coming to the festival earlier and earlier so we turned it up a notch and started booking bigger up and coming acts. It’s still generally focused on relatively new artists to their scene but have a considerable buzz gathering around their music, but we really don’t want to program the big stages that early in the weekend. It’s enough to stay focused on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

So then, in the future incorporating a Thursday headliner to the mix is something you wouldn’t be interested in?

Never say never but it’s not part of the plans for right now.

Do you have anything special planned for the 10th anniversary of Bonnaroo in 2011?

We’re talking about a lot of stuff definitely. That’s all I’m going to say. It’s too early to say what we will and will not do. Certainly though the 10th anniversary is something that we are very proud of and very excited about. We want it to be special, as we do every year.

When can we expect to see this year’s poster?

I don’t know the exact date of that off the top of my head, but there are already some posters out there. And we’ve got the fan contests and all, so I’m sure as is usually the case the poster will emerge over the course of the next two or three months. Usually, there are several official posters for Bonnaroo each year.

What happens to all the confiscated contraband?

(laughs) You mean like drugs? Well, it depends on what the items are. Any contraband is confiscated by the police and they dispose of it. I hope nothing else happens, it’s not supposed to anyway.

Photo of Mr. Capps via Celebrity Access.

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