When Bonnaroo returns this summer at The Farm at Great Stage Park, it’ll be at the same location it’s been held at for the last 16 years. It’ll swarm the same 700 acres of Manchester, Tennessee, just 60 miles south of Nashville. And while each year has its own unique, thrilling lineup and various updates to the festival experience, there’s an underlying spirit to the weekend, a feeling you get the minute you take your first step onto the balmy grounds. It’s an idyllic one, a breakout from reality.
Yet Bonnaroo tends to aim for feelings of hyper-reality, too, acknowledging both the music world and the community, raising money and awareness for both local and international charities. Today, following the announcement of its latest inspired lineup, co-founder Ashley Capps speaks to Associate Editor Lior Phillips about that powerful spirit, in addition to how they were able to secure a juggernaut headliner like U2, who will make their first ever US festival appearance this June.
What has 16 years in the game taught you about music, yourself, and your team?
The take away from Bonnaroo for me over the years, and of course it sounds like a cliche, but it is the power of music to bring people together. The sense of community we feel when people come together down on the Farm during the Bonnaroo weekend is a very tangible thing that we all feel. It’s a powerful thing. As a nation, with all the challenges that we have in the world with regards to getting along with one another, it’s difficult. But for that particular weekend, there is a little bit of utopia amongst everybody at Bonnaroo, and the glue for that utopia is the love of music.
What gap does the festival try to fill in the American festival market?
We certainly focus on the overall experience; that’s been at the core of the Bonnaroo planning process from the very beginning. If there was one motivating principle that we stuck to year after year, it’s envisioning what the most amazing festival would be that we could create and that we would go to ourselves. When you really zone in on that desire, it just works. I want to go after the kind of experience that would turn me on, what would make me and my friends come together for a weekend and have a real magical experience that we will never forget. When you focus on those things, you really start to focus on what is really important for the experience.
How does it feel to act as a sort of ambassador for the Tennessee music scene? Do you feel a responsibility there?
I do think that a strong sense of place and awareness of where you are is the key part of creating that authentic sense of community that is so important to Bonnaroo. We have always made it a point to celebrate the music that is associated with the South. We are an hour from Nashville, and in many ways you start up in one corner of Tennessee in Bristol, you come down through Nashville, through Memphis, and you go down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. And right there you’ve got the birthplace of modern popular music … all of it.
It’s such a strong, powerful tradition that we probably would have to work very hard to avoid it! I’m not sure one could even do that. Certainly being one hour out of Nashville we really tried to capitalize on being at the heart of it all. There is always bluegrass, country, rhythm and blues, and we have always had a strong link to New Orleans musical traditions and Memphis. It is very important for us to celebrate the unique character of the region. Being on a farm in Tennessee also plays into it; it’s all pretty organic and pretty natural in drawing in all of those elements into the Bonnaroo experience.
When it was founded, the festival was known largely as a jam-friendly festival. Can you talk to me about how that has evolved into more diverse lineups over the years?
The most exciting thing about art and music is that it is continually re-inventing itself. The world of music doesn’t stand still; new stars emerge, new types of music emerges almost continually, and it’s one of the characteristics that makes music so vital to people. That provides much of that sense of community you and I were talking about before. Riding the wave and staying on top of new, emerging artists and new, emerging trends in music is something we do naturally. We started doing this because we love music, so the evolution of Bonnaroo is in some ways just the evolution of our own interests in the way that music transforms itself year after year.
The lineup announcement is always a heavily anticipated event. Is waiting for the reactions exciting or stressful?
It’s always exciting for us! We are always interested in what direction we’ll get from fans. At the same time, there is the realization that you can’t make everybody happy all the time. [Laughs] There are inevitably people who will respond negatively to the lineup no matter what it is, whether Bruce Springsteen is on the bill, Paul McCartney or Radiohead. People have their individual interests, so while there are many who embrace it, there are always some who do not.
And they are horrifyingly loud.
Exactly! And that’s why we try to stay focused creating the best musical experience that we possibly can. I think Bonnaroo is noted and remembered for its breadth, depth, and variety surrounding the cornucopia of music out there. That is what really drives us in terms of the programming: what’s new and exciting but also how all the elements come together to create this incredibly rich musical feast.
Why did you choose U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd, The xx, and Lorde as headliners? What does each of them bring to the festival other than their obvious gigantic star status? Who are you most excited about?
All of these artists are some of the most exciting artists making music right now. Lorde and The xx both have new records coming out. The Weeknd is one of the hottest young acts out there right now. The xx have played the festival before and had an amazing show when they were at Bonnaroo the last time. So it’s a combination of who has new records out, who is on tour, who has played the festivals before and creating a story around that. It’s almost like a feast where you don’t want too much of the same thing. You want variety. You want the different flavors of this feast to work well together, so it’s a very non-scientific process.
And also understanding that this lineup signifies and symbolizes the entire year in music for you.
Totally. In order to stay fresh and vital, you have to stay true to the moment.
Photo by Philip Cosores
How did the U2 booking come about? How long had you been talking to them in order to convince them to play? It’s pretty amazing that it matches with The Joshua Tree tour. Will that be their approach to this appearance as well?
Finally, after years of talking about it, here we are. It’s definitely a coup. It’s certainly an honor for U2 to play our festival. They’ve never played a festival in the United States at all before, and their festival appearances have been rare. We are blown away that they’re playing Bonnaroo this year. It’s also something that we have contemplated for many years. We reached out to them countless times before! As is often the case, especially for the major headliners at a festival, there is a certain process that things have to line up around so that it all can come together makes sense.
What sold them on appearing?
I would like to think that it is what they heard about the festival and the unique experience of the festival that made them finally decide to join us. Their friends have played Bonnaroo before. It is a very enthusiastic, attentive, and receptive audience that gives a lot back to the musical performers, and I think that synergy between artist and audience at Bonnaroo has some magic to it, and U2 believe in that. Now they are ready to deliver some magic themselves. I’m excited that Lorde is playing Bonnaroo finally, too. We wanted her to play on her first record when she was starting out, but the stars didn’t align. There is also a really great singer out of Nashville that we are very excited about called Margo Price.
When is the moment where you buckle down and actually start booking the acts?
You know, it starts earlier every year it seems. Sometimes we get started before the festival has even started; we start thinking about the next year before this year’s festival has ever happened. And I’m sure that will be the case this year. It really goes full throttle starting August, September, and October. Usually by the time the end of October rolls around, we have a pretty clear picture of what is going to come together. Some of the conversations could start any day now for 2018.
The crux is that you have to be a music lover. There is no way you can be out of tune for the job that you do.
That’s true, and that part of it is not work because we love staying on top of what’s going on in the world of music. We go to concerts all the time; it’s not just about a job by any stretch of the imagination — we also have our passions. Some of these acts take time, and so you start a dialogue. Something that may not have come together one year comes together the next year, so it’s really a never-ending process.
Though the lineup ranges in genre from the dance party that is Major Lazer to the buoyantly fun R&B of D.R.A.M. to the funky sing-along of Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it seems there’s a decidedly fun, party-like atmosphere being cultivated in the lineup thus far. Is there a reason that might be the case? I know all festivals are a party in a sense, but this one seems extra bright and shiny so far.
I’m happy to hear you say that because I think this year is definitely going to have a really fun vibe to it. We didn’t exactly sit down and say, “This is what we’re going to do,” but I would say that that is certainly a fair characterization of Bonnaroo right now.
Photo by Philip Cosores
I’m particularly struck by an inclusion like Marshmello. Though it might not be the same genre as the jammier lineups of your early days, he has a similar freak-out approach (and a food-based name!). How exciting is it to have a man who wears a marshmallow head when he DJs?
[Laughs] Yup. It’s part of the good fun, isn’t it?
Were there other festival experiences last year that inspired you?
Last year, for some personal reasons and other reasons, I didn’t really go to quite as many festivals as I have some years. Over the years, I have tried to visit virtually every major festival in North America and Europe and then a lot of smaller festivals, too. Sometimes some of the greatest ideas come from the smaller boutique festivals that are out there. They create really unique, special experiences as well, so that too is an ongoing process. We love to go to music festivals and we love to share ideas; it’s a time-honored tradition among all of festival creatives, and it’s just such an open pallet of creativity to delve into and borrow from and use different ideas in different ways that suit your offering. You can never really get tired of looking for new and exciting ways to engage people and entertain them and create these unforgettable experiences.
The festival has been held at the same farm since its induction. What sort of changes have been the most important in allowing the festival to expand and grow?
This year, there aren’t any major changes. A lot of what has allowed Bonnaroo to grow is simply trying to keep it fresh, exciting, and alive. It’s easy to get focused on repeating patterns and the past. That is the biggest trap: trying to do the same thing over and over again. The main thing that has kept Bonnaroo vital, growing, and exciting is just being open to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Not resting on our laurels. From a basic infrastructure point of view over the years, not just last year, we certainly made behind-the-scenes investments. Sometimes visible investments like the main stage that we built a few years ago. Last year, we put in running water and now have showers and bathrooms, so we are always also focused on taking the steps to improve the basic infrastructure and the foundation of the livability of the weekend, if you will. And trying to keep people comfortable and safe.
Another big challenge the festival scene has faced lately has been drug-related deaths and assault. What sort of approach has Bonnaroo taken to face those tragic realities of today?
From the very beginning, the safety of our patrons has been our number-one concern. Whether that’s making sure that people have adequate access to clean water or making sure that people don’t hurt themselves and don’t hurt one another — which certainly includes drug use. One of the things that we’ve worked hard to create is a genuine sense of community amongst the fans. The one thing that characterizes the festival is how the fans really try to take care of one another. Everybody is living together in this environment for four or five days, so we try to do things to help strengthen and sustain that sense of community so that people are really looking after one another and taking care of one another.
If problems arise, they are bringing it to people’s attention, so it can be addressed early on and doesn’t actually become a major problem. Beyond that, we work very closely with the community, the police, and all of the community leaders, the medical services, and so on. We have top-notch people who are trained at the highest levels helping us. We also make sure that we have got the infrastructure in place so that we can deal with situations as they arise as quickly, effectively, and efficiently as possible. We have a behavioral code to instill in one another, and that code is rooted in a willingness to stay together and take care of each other.
Can you tell me a bit about the charitable contributions that Bonnaroo makes each year? It seems you do a lot of work for the underprivileged and the environment. Has that always been an important part of your approach to the festival?
Well, thank you for noticing that. It is something that is very, very important to us, and initially, where we always looked for ways to give back to the community, early on we did it in a somewhat informal manner. But a few years into it, we decided to create the Bonnaroo Works Fund, a 501c3 foundation. We contribute money from tickets sales and also raise money through various programs for that fund so that we can do whatever we possibly can to have a positive impact on the community around us. We have a special focus on the immediate region of Bonnaroo, Coffee County, and the region around Coffee County. We also look to communities beyond that that are impacted by Bonnaroo. It’s very important to give back to the communities that make Bonnaroo so successful.
Will there be any exciting mashups? Bruce Springsteen joined Phish on stage in 2009, cranking out “Mustang Sally”, “Bobby Jean”, and “Glory Days”.
Well, we certainly try to curate certain experiences like that. We love to put artists together to create something at Bonnaroo that happens in no other place. A lot of this happens pretty spontaneously, and it’s the artists wanting to collaborate with one another. Some of those moments are unexpected, even by us, that really set the Bonnaroo experience apart. Again, I think it gets back to, and I’m using this word a lot, the spirit and community of Bonnaroo. In many cases, it inspires them to take some risk and operate out of the box and collaborate with one another.
Is there anyone that you are quite shocked to have included? Anyone people might not have associated with Bonnaroo before?
Bonnaroo has become such a broad thing, that there isn’t really. There’s nothing on the lineup that really surprises me in that sense because the breadth and depth at Bonnaroo is established already. It’s already hard to imagine anything much broader. I feel like, at the right moment, almost any great artist is a wonderful fit.