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Phishing for a Future: The Strange Evolution of Bonnaroo

on June 13, 2019, 5:04pm
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Growth Spurts

While Bonnaroo has roots in jam band culture, those initial four years really only served as one era of a festival that’s experienced near-constant evolution. In establishing itself as one of the greatest music festivals of its time — we named Bonnaroo the festival of the decade in 2009 — for better or worse, it had to keep pushing itself to grow and not rest on its laurels.

In 2006, the festival took a step forward in challenging its jam band-heavy identity. While Phil Lesh returned to round out the headliners, the top two spots were given to Radiohead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty was a big grab for the event, but the late rocker more or less fell in line with past years’ classic legacy acts. Instead, it was Radiohead who helped largely redefine public perception of the festival in this fifth year.

Capps explained: “When Radiohead played in 2006, first of all, it was the most amazing Radiohead performances ever. And I think the band would agree with that. Certainly Thom [Yorke] said so publicly. But, it was also a real watershed moment for the festival. We were a little frustrated being typecast as a particular type of festival. That year felt like it was breaking open the concept of what Bonnaroo was all about because of what that band represented.”

Radiohead opened Bonnaroo up to a whole new market, broadening its scope to appeal to fans of increasingly popular indie and alt-rock bands. The festival was entering its golden era; each year, the event tapped increasingly high-profile artists as headliners, further solidifying its identity as the music festival of the summer. The following year, The Police’s sole North American festival appearance came during Bonnaroo, and they were joined on the lineup by Tool and The White Stripes. Then, 2008 boasted Pearl Jam, Metallica, and their first-ever hip-hop headliner, Kanye West, and 2009 featured Phish’s inaugural performance alongside Bruce Springsteen and Nine Inch Nails.

Throughout this period of growth, Bonnaroo managed to broaden its fan base while (generally) keeping its original fans happy. Not only were jam and classic rock acts always well represented across the bill, but following Radiohead’s historic performance, the festival continued to tap into the lush indie-rock market of the mid-2000s, offering enough of the genre to draw those fans in, too.

Capps elaborated on the thought process that rules the booking team:

“The representation of different types of music — from the Grand Ol’ Opry to Cardi B — has always defined the breadth and depth of what we would like Bonnaroo to be. There’s definitely an art to making sure that the balance is right. You can’t isolate an artist and have them representing a genre all by themselves. You want everything to have a context. It’s like weaving a tapestry with these different-colored threads. The presence of a particular strand has to be strong enough, otherwise it won’t be noticed in the lineup. It’s a give-and-take process that really emerges after weeks and weeks of pondering what’s possible, what’s actually going to happen, and how it can all work together.”

Throughout the next half-decade, this became Bonnaroo’s modus operandi, and it paid off in spades. The festival thrived, growing its reputation as a place where you could get a little bit of everything. During this time, a new wave of popular electronic music similarly blossomed, and the festival deftly incorporated EDM into its fabric without overly pandering to its fans. Take 2012, which is largely considered Bonnaroo’s zenith, for example. Sure, Skrillex was a top-billed act, but he was one among Phish, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beach Boys, The Avett Brothers, The Shins, and Foster the People, the latter still riding high from their breakthrough pop hit “Pumped Up Kicks”.

Ultimately, Bonnaroo led the modern resurgence of festival culture. In many ways, the recent rise of music festivals in the 21st century mirrors Bonnaroo’s trajectory during its first 10 years. Though the team might not have had many successful examples to draw from (besides those of the ‘60s counterculture and a handful of its predecessors), ‘Roo became an exemplar for the wave of festivals that followed in its wake. From the mid-aughts on, festival culture began to seep into the popular culture at large, with its prevalence hitting a high note by the start of the second decade of the century.

Growing Pains

Bonnaroo 2016

After peaking at 100,000 festivalgoers in 2012, Bonnaroo added its third and most recent stage as they struggled with growing pains following Live Nation’s acquisition in 2015. Though not necessarily related to the buyout, sales took a major hit the following year, with tickets for its 2016 edition hitting an all-time low of 45,000 and The New York Times declining coverage.

Much of the blame has been directed at Live Nation, as its buyout happened to coincide with the start of the festival’s much-hyped stagnation. Undoubtedly, the music mogul’s inclusion on the team led to major infrastructure improvements like running water and better campground experiences. However, it also coincided with some of the more criticized changes. As we outlined last year when we decided not to cover Bonnaroo for the first time in years, a number of shifts turned off longtime fans: the emphasis of non-music experiences, appealing to a younger demographic of fans and chasing trends, and lackluster headliners.

On one hand, being one of the first of its kind was a giant factor in Bonnaroo’s initial success. On the other, leading this century’s festival resurgence contributed to its downswing. With the oversaturation of festivals, the long-running event became just one more stop in major artists’ summer plans, and they struggled to stand out among the dozens of major festivals across the country.

Plus, after more than a decade, Bonnaroo’s first fans were aging and inevitably were replaced by a new, younger wave of attendees, and the festival wrestled to find a happy medium. Institutions like the eclectic Other Tent morphed into an all-EDM stage. The traditional Sunday classic-rock or jam closer was abandoned in favor of acts like The Weeknd, who by all accounts put on a good show, but highlighted a change in the booking (though Capps insists this was a product of a scheduling conflict rather than a larger shift in mentality). Lukins explained, “They have had to keep up with the times. We’re not a jam-band music scene anymore, so they’ve changed and developed depending on what kids like to listen to.”

Keep on Keepin’ On

The success of this year coincides with AC Entertainment’s return to the lead role in booking over the more collaborative process with Live Nation in the past. But Capps is quick to stress that the acquisition wasn’t a major factor in causing the recent criticisms:

“When Live Nation became our partner on Bonnaroo, it was like any other relationship. You spend a lot of time getting to know one another. It takes a while to understand what makes each other tick, what their strengths are, how we can best and most effectively work together. I would say that early on there was maybe a little bit of too many cooks in the kitchen. Not in a negative way, but in that everyone’s excited, everybody’s trying to make the most of an opportunity, and everybody’s trying to get to know one another and make sure that the festival continues to be as successful as it has been historically. As we’ve gotten to know each other, everyone has settled into roles that capitalize on their strengths. The determination was made that it’d be good for us to step into a leading role in the booking, but it’s still very collaborative, very cooperative. We talk to one another, we get ideas, and go back and forth. Ultimately, we’re all playing to each other’s strengths, and I think the fact that the festival is going to sell out again is a testament to our success in ultimately doing that.”

He continued:

“I don’t think that ticket sales plunged — if you want to call it that — because of Live Nation by any stretch of the imagination or because there were too many cooks in the kitchen. We are at the mercy of artists who are touring, what their schedule is like, whether they’re going to be in the country at that particular time of year. There are so many factors that come into play at any given time. Any business that’s two decades old is going to have its ups and downs. It’s not always going to be at a certain level. Maybe there were a little bit of growing pains in there that had a little bit of an impact on it, but for the most part, it’s really hard to point and say, ‘That was the reason sales were a little bit lighter this year.’ Ultimately, it’s all driven by the lineup and what else is going on out there in festival world and what’s distracting people and so on.”

In addressing recent changes, Capps also emphasized the booking continuity that can be seen from the production side behind the scenes. The process for booking headliners can happen years in advance, with some of its most lauded moments coming to fruition years after an artist was first approached. He elaborated, “Radiohead wasn’t something we suddenly decided to do in 2006. We’d been talking with them for a couple of years or more before that show actually came to fruition. That’s the case with many artists. I think we first approached Paul McCartney about playing the festival back in 2006 or 2007, and we thought he might play it either later that year or the next year. It ended up being seven years later or something.”

And for his part, Capps is relatively non-plussed about any criticisms that befall the event.

“I’m a little jaded about this I suppose because people have been telling us that we’ve been screwing up the festival since 2003 or 2004. In all fairness, every year, there are people who say that you’re ruining it, you know? I chalk a certain amount of that up to just people are resistant to change, and some people are more resistant to change than others. Depending on your taste, of course, some years are more exciting than other years might be.

I don’t think anybody is going to like everything they see at Bonnaroo. That’s really not the point. This is like a feast of plenty, and you don’t have to like everything on the table to still have an amazing meal. Generally speaking, the focus of Bonnaroo booking is the same as it was in 2002, which is that we want the most exciting live performers of our time playing our festival. That still is ultimately the guiding principle. I think we’ve got that this year in spades, and I’m excited about the conversation that we have for next year. As long as we stay focused on that, I think the festival will maintain its vitality in the cultural landscape.”

Now, if this year is any indication, Bonnaroo’s evolution continues. Entering (hopefully) a fourth era, the festival has learned from the good and bad over the past 17 years. Like the integration of genres during its diverse golden years, the event has struck a balance weaving pop music into its fabric, while still leaving space for the plethora of other genres for which it’s known.

As far as we can tell, Bonnaroo is back. Long may it reign.

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