Ten years after its inception, Bonnaroo has blossomed into a Tennessee cultural cornerstone 


click to enlarge Before the crowds: Adam Gold interviews Rick Farman on the deserted What Stage

Eric England

Before the crowds: Adam Gold interviews Rick Farman on the deserted What Stage

For the Scene, walking out onto Bonnaroo's What Stage was a much different experience last Thursday than it will be for Radiohead or The Red Hot Chili Peppers this weekend.

Strip away the spotlights, sound towers and the 80,000 screaming fans, and the festival's main stage would look like little more than a flat slab of concrete, were it not for the massive steel poles that extend 60 feet high to the fixed roof overhead. Standing in the stage's center, it's hard to comprehend that this is the same spot where performers like Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder appeared to tens of thousands. Looking out into the vast expanse, it feels as if you can reach out and touch the plywood wall that will separate the sloping field from the tents of concertgoers who, for the 11th straight year, will make Manchester, Tenn., the state's sixth-largest city.

In the distance, forklifts move porta-potties into place, hard-hatted workers are pitching tents, hammering together bleachers and erecting scaffolding, setting the stage — 13 stages, in fact — for this year's installment of what has, over the last decade, become a cultural touchstone for Tennessee and for music in the 21st century.

"We always wanted to be a considered a great, iconic multi-genre festival," says Rick Farman, a co-founder and partner at Superfly Presents who helps host and plan the biggest summer party in the nation. It's truly a national event, Farman says: The festival typically sells more than a thousand tickets apiece in 26 states and has made a profit every year.

Along with Knoxville-based concert promoters AC Entertainment, Superfly created Bonnaroo in 2002 with a generous investment from Dave Matthews Band business manager Coran Capshaw. Relying solely on Internet promotion and word of mouth, the festival's first installment sold out its 70,000-ticket capacity in a jaw-dropping 11 days — and the following years proved the demand wasn't anomalous.

"Three or four years in, we started to realize this thing could go on for a really long time, and we can start investing," Farman tells the Scene. "There wasn't one zeitgeist moment that was like, 'Oh my God, we now know!' It was just kind of a gradual [realization] that this thing's got legs, this is gonna be here for a long time."

In 2006, Bonnaroo grossed $14.7 million in ticket sales alone, and the following year, AC and Superfly acquired 530 of the festival site's 700 acres — dubbed Great Stage Park — for, according to Billboard, $8.7 million. Farman says the purchase allowed him and his colleagues to invest in long-term infrastructure.

"We're thinking this thing's gonna be going on for 30, 40, 50 years," Farman says, "We're allowed to do things that are beneficial to the show and to the fan experience that we couldn't [otherwise] do." A constant work in progress, the site has recently acquired a permanent main stage (built in 2010), nearly two dozen freshwater wells, elaborate grading projects, a new turf for Centeroo — the festival site's main area — with mud- and dust-combating Bermuda grass and permanent art installations like the iconic Centeroo fountain.

When it comes to evolving the festival's programming infrastructure, Farman says his and his colleagues' ideas are inspired by joining in a global community of fellow festival producers who travel the world taking cues from one another. "We've been real students of other events, especially ones in Europe," he says.

Among Bonnaroo's borrowed ideas is its main-stage pit entrance-and-exit procedure — in which crowds of fewer than a thousand are rotated in and out of two barricaded areas with each artist. Denmark's Roskilde Festival — now leaders in crowd control and safety — developed that system in the wake of an infamous 2000 incident in which nine concertgoers were crushed and killed during a Pearl Jam performance. Farman says Bonnaroo purloined the idea for both its Comedy Tent and the festival's ever more-comedic Silent Disco from Holland's long-running Lowlands festival.

Even America's most mythic nonmusic arts festival, Burning Man, influenced Bonnaroo, inspiring festival developments such as group camping, The Code of Bonnaroo — a social contract akin to Burning Man's The Burning Man Principles — a crowd-sourced, rhyming porta-potty communiqué system lovingly known as Pooetry and now a 2012 census for Bonnaroovians, which Farman insists is not for consumer-data gathering or marketing purposes.

After a decade of trial-and-error tweaking and assembling, Bonnaroo's producers have developed an infrastructure that may someday accommodate events other than Bonnaroo itself. "We've thought about it a lot," Farman says of taking on other tenants. "There just hasn't been the right opportunity yet. But we're open for business." And Manchester and Coffee County welcome that business.

Bonnaroo sells out its 80,000 tickets nearly every year and has approximately 10,000 employees. Between the municipal resources it pays for (the festival reimburses all medical, fire and police overtime pay), the commerce it brings in and the temporary jobs it creates, the festival enriches Coffee County to the tune of more than $20 million annually.

"Bonnaroo is an excellent partner for Coffee County and for Manchester," says Coffee County Mayor David Pennington. "We really appreciate what they've done for our community — that helped us a lot with our schools and our civic organizations, where they used to have all those fundraisers." Now the Rotary Club handles campsite parking and the county's community groups do their fundraising at the festival. "Other than [the traffic] I don't see no drawbacks — all I see is an asset," he says.

Pennington explains that aside from the now-minor inconvenience of first-day and last-day festival traffic, Bonnaroo is self-contained in Great Stage Park. "You don't even know they're out there," he says, "Once they get in, it ain't no different than a UT ball game or anything else. ... It's business as usual."

But it wasn't always that way. Traffic was a nightmare for Bonnaroo's debut. "Logistically, they've got it down pat now," Pennington says. "When [Bonnaroo] first came here in 2002, they told the people that it was gonna be a big deal and everybody was used to that Itchycoo ... and they just sloughed it off, but come to find out that it was a big deal."

Wait ... Itchycoo?

Perhaps Bonnaroo's successes are what concert promoter Brad Baker (known best to Nashville rockers as the hulking soundman at The End) hoped for when he put on the Itchycoo Park Festival at what is now Great Stage in 1999. Itchycoo Park occurred on Aug. 12-15 — three weeks after the ill-fated Woodstock '99 festival — but it boasted a lineup featuring the (arguably) hottest acts of the '60s, '70s and '80s — Rick Springfield, Survivor, Average White Band, Sammy Hagar, The Outfield, Iron Butterfly. Michael W. Smith led a Sunday morning worship service.

Archival Itchycoo footage shows a loosely packed front-of-stage pit before panning out to reveal a yawning chasm of costly open space. With generous estimates of 19,000 tickets sold, the festival was a one-and-done financial disaster that most Tennessee music fans have all but forgotten. Itchycoo went broke by event's end and the security staff deserted post upon learning they wouldn't get paid. Suffice to say, the festival did not have a tangible impact on Manchester — but it did impact Bonnaroo.

"[Itchycoo] was a good thing for Bonnaroo," says Farman. "[Bonnaroo] probably wouldn't have happened here [otherwise]." When scouting sites during Bonnaroo's exploratory phase, Superfly and AC looked at one potential location in East Tennessee, but didn't like it. Then someone from a staging company and someone from a security company told them about Itchycoo.

Farman recalls that in dealing with Manchester and Coffee County, Itchycoo left a brief legacy of uphill battles in communication. "It was kind of annoying that every time we said we were going to do this or that here the first year, everyone would reference Itchycoo," he says. "The funny thing is that afterwards all the city officials and the police, they were all like, 'Well, you ain't gonna be hearin' about Itchycoo anymore.' "

"We weren't prepared to handle the traffic," Pennington admits, "But, in all fairness to them, they told us that it was gonna be huge."

Tye Dye Mary Deprez remembers Itchycoo Park. A celebrated artisan of handcrafted tie-dye attire, Deprez recalls how a vacant field separated the vendors' booths from the main stage. "You know, they were trying," Deprez says. "But it was a little unorganized. ... When I [first] heard about Bonnaroo, because of our experience at Itchycoo, I thought, 'Forget that!' "

By 2004, word of mouth enticed Deprez to give Great Stage Park another go, and she's been back every year since.

"Every year it gets better and better," says Deprez. "[Superfly and AC] listen to our feedback. They ask for feedback after every festival. It's just getting more and more coordinated and streamlined, and we work well with them."

Vending at the festival — where Deprez and daughter Coral Kenies head up an eight-person sales staff — makes for a quarter of her annual income, she says. Such is the case with hundreds of food, crafts and product vendors who pay thousands for temporary real estate in Centeroo, the main stage vicinity and the outer general campgrounds, colloquially known as Tent City.

Not all of the merchants at Bonnaroo (and in Tent City especially) go through the process of filling out vendor applications and paying their 'Roo dues, though. Take Peter, a 33-year-old Manchester native who's attended the festival each year and worked at most of them ... as a drug dealer.

Peter tells the Scene that, though he only attends Bonnaroo as a music fan nowadays, his MO in previous years was something along the lines of cutting an ounce of cocaine with an ounce of creatine (the stuff body builders like) and flipping it on "Shakedown Street." "We used to make a ridiculous amount of money in a day or two without even trying," says Peter. "Five grand just by walkin' around for a couple days."

He says that Shakedown, a thoroughfare leading on-foot festivalgoers to Centeroo's main gate, is essentially an open-air drug market, where marijuana, LSD, Ecstasy and magic mushrooms are top sellers. "It's a free-for-all," says Peter. He claims police intervention is of little concern to his colleagues, and goes on to explain that while patrons of the Bonnaroo drug trade are likely to encounter some unsavory characters in Tent City's festival ghetto, the "lot rats" are on their best behavior in the confines of Great Stage Park. It's an unwritten law that you don't stir the pot. "I've never really seen a fight out there," he says, "You'll see more fights at your typical concert at Bridgestone [Arena] than you will in three days at Bonnaroo."

"Percentage-wise, we're very low on arrests," Pennington adds. "Obviously there's drug use at NASCAR or at any other large event, but we don't have that big of an issue with it."

"I don't think anybody in Manchester is oblivious to any drug thing," Peter says. "Because there is a large meth problem there, the last worry on their minds is kids eating acid and Molly [the drug MDMA] and going to shows."

A lot of the drugs sold out in Tent City are fake anyway, Peter adds. "There's probably an unspoken 'buyer beware' rule. You know, you're at Bonnaroo, what do you expect? Especially when Phish is there." He says that by broadening its lineup the past six years, Bonnaroo has put a dent in drug activity at the festival. "I'd say that the drug scene has gone down. It's not a jam-band festival anymore. You go to a Phish show and most people are gonna be on drugs. Red Hot Chili Peppers, not so much."

The festival's most noticeable evolution is demonstrated by its lineup. What started out as a Southern post-Y2K Woodstock dominated by general jam-band fare (Widespread Panic, The Dead, et al.) has gone on to host headliners like Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Kanye West, The Police and Eminem. Last year one of the festival's tent stages even featured crass California pop-punk troupe NOFX, who once penned a song celebrating the death of Jerry Garcia. In between Phish and their aesthetic adversaries in NOFX, there is a music-lover's mosaic of genres encompassing dubstep, reggae, heavy metal, bluegrass, country and hip-hop.

"It was a calculated natural evolution," Farman says. "We wanted to continue to program the festival for the audience that embraced it right off the bat, but we also wanted to continually bring in new people." That evolution was transparent, though. And naturally it was met with some unrest in Bonnaroo's core community. "When we [booked] Radiohead in 2006, there were certainly people who thought we were heretics," Farman recalls. "It's kind of funny to look back on it now because they're almost, like, the perfect act for Bonnaroo."

Peter says some in the jam-band community have turned on Bonnaroo because of "hippie nonsense." "Every year you hear, 'I heard MTV bought it.' It's like an ongoing joke. Your real fans who really love Phish, love the Dead — they love music in general. And so they love Bonnaroo regardless, because it is so eclectic."

Inarguably, Nashville's CMA Music Festival (see story on p. 61) is a less eclectic affair. Nevertheless, the 40-year-running, multi-venue country music marathon will bring over 400 artists and crowds of 75,000-85,000 to downtown Nashville this weekend. As Bonnaroo is to Manchester, CMA Fest is a massive boon to the local economy. Last year the event reeled in an estimated 30,000-40,000 tourists — tourists who booked 120,000 room nights at local hotels, according Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau head Butch Spyridon.

But what does that have to do with Bonnaroo?

"[CMA] gobbles up most of the hotel rooms and airline seats," Spyridon tells the Scene. "So we're not able to maximize the benefits from Bonnaroo. ... A lot more could come out of Nashville if it wasn't already tied up, both in materials and manpower."

Just ask Ed Dilks, production coordinator at SIR's Nashville location, where — when he spoke with the Scene a week ago — the hallway was already full of Bonnaroo-bound equipment. Dilks says the facility's role as Bonnaroo's primary gear provider drastically limits its ability to meet any CMA demands.

"Bonnaroo is our baby," he says. "We do bits and pieces of [CMA], small invoices. ... [And] we don't understand why all these festivals have to happen at the same time, because, man, it makes it nerve-wracking on our end."

Such is not the case for CMA Festival itself. "[Bonnaroo] doesn't affect us at all," Country Music Association CEO Steve Moore tells the Scene. "It's a totally, completely different group of fans that come from across the United States, as ours do. So it's really a non-event to us. ... But I think the state officials wouldn't mind it being a different time."

He's right.

One of the first orders of business on Mayor Karl Dean's recently revamped Music City Music Council's agenda was to push to stagger CMA and Bonnaroo on separate consecutive weekends. Spyridon says the council has begun talks with the festivals to keep them separated. While a permanent solution is yet to be met, Spyridon says that next year, "by good fortune," the two festivals will transpire on different dates — with CMA happening June 6-9 and Bonnaroo slated for June 13-16. It's a change he'd like to make permanent.

While Farman says that to his knowledge, Bonnaroo hasn't made any firm decisions on timing for next year's festival, he's open to the separation. "In general, there's a friendly relationship with the CMA people," he says. "If it's advantageous for everybody to do it on different weekends then [we'll consider it]."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

Check out our Bonnaroo picks here.

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