Ashley Capps and Bonnaroo’s ‘Euphoric Sense of Community’*

December 22, 2006 · Print This Article

By Landin King

When most Americans think of Tennessee, they think of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the legendary football fanatics wearing orange and white. But today, when alternative music lovers think of Tennessee, they think of Bonnaroo.

Born in 2002 from the vision of Knoxville-based rock promoter Ashley Capps of A.C. Entertainment, Bonnaroo brings together a beautifully eclectic group of people for three days of camping and music in Manchester, Tennessee. Still known to some as a jam-band epicenter, the festival actually reaches far beyond that patchouli-soaked niche, last year hosting a range of artists from hip-hop’s Jurassic 5 all the way to classic rock’s Tom Petty. When this past June 80,000 lighters illuminated the night sky with a sea of fire and the sounds of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” pulsated through the ears and hearts of every person, Bonnaroo secured its seminal role as an inclusive musical crossroads where “hipster meets hippie” (as the rock media described it).

Superfly Productions and A.C. Entertainment have just announced that the sixth annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival will return to Manchester from June 14-17, 2007. Earlier this fall, Ashley Capps shared his story about the spirit and the business sense behind the scenes, showing how Bonnaroo came to be the internationally-known festival that it is today.

Several years ago, Capps learned of the massive 500 acre farm in Manchester. Along with the New Orleans-based Superfly Productions, Capps and A. C. Entertainment transformed the farm into a massive rock carnival that would sell-out each year and garner international acclaim.

Capps remembered the many steps required just to conjure the vision of a festival this ambitious. Thinking back, he recalled, “I think it went through a lot of different phases, first obviously conceptually dreaming up the idea and then trying to find a site that was actually conducive to the type of experience that we were trying to create.”

Capps and his partners had some experience with similar, smaller festivals, yet still needed a professional corps to ensure success. “There is a real sense of purpose and community that the whole staff has,” he explained.

Cutting through piece after piece of red tape, the team slowly made its dream become a reality. Sam McAllister owned the farm and agreed to allow Capps and his team rent the land for a million dollars per year. Of course, convincing the community of Manchester to accept an event like this would be the next big challenge to overcome. Surprisingly enough, the community accepted the idea with open arms. Capps described his positive relationship with the community like this: “From the beginning, everyone we have had to deal with in an official capacity has been very proactive, and it’s been about a search for solutions and not really about overcoming any serious obstacles.”

But like with any situation, there were those who were not so supportive. Capps joked, “There are a few people in this community [Knoxville] who would rather there not be UT football games. You will never get one-hundred percent consensus on something, but as a whole, there were no major objections to Bonnaroo taking place where it did.”

Agreeing to host Bonnaroo ended up an unbelievable economic move for Manchester. A study by Middle Tennessee State University demonstrated that Bonnaroo brings Coffee County over $14 million in added revenue. Each year, Capps and his team begin speaking with artists about playing the festival very early, and all financial issues are handled up front. This has allowed for security in payment of workers and artists as well as sound and construction equipment needed to put this festival together. Sounding like a businessman as much as a music lover, Capps detailed, “It is an extremely expensive project, and it would probably be impossible to do it without adequate investment on the level that we have done Bonnaroo. It is common with smaller festivals for people to wing it a bit. They feel like it will be up to the ticket sales at the door, and that is definitely the kiss of death. That’s the quickest way to put yourself in a really, really difficult bind. I have seen it literally kill a lot of events.”

But such unsullied money sense was absent at the mother of all modern rock festivals. In 1969, the famous Woodstock music festival sold 180,000 tickets, making it almost undisputedly the festival of all festivals. But it was also a financial disaster. Contrasting Woodstock to Bonnaroo is like comparing a house constructed on sand to a house built on stable ground.

In 2001, with solely Internet advertising, Bonnaroo sold 70,000 tickets. The very next year, the camping areas were expanded to allow an extra 10,000 tickets to be sold. Even so, on the weekend of this glorious event, folks have showed up on the fringes of the festival, desperate music junkies searching for extra tickets. Bonnaroo has somehow managed to hold true to the culture attendees want while professionally avoiding the kinds of disasters that caused Woodstock’s downfall. Even the more skeptical campers have crossed the festival entrance to discover that Bonnaroo was all they anticipated and more. Already taking its place in history, the future of Bonnaroo shows no signs of slowing down.

Every year, Bonnaroo has amazed fans most with the overwhelming and magical sense of community. Since safety has been the number one concern in considering festival precautions, Capps and his team placed tents in the middle of all camping areas called pods. These pods were staffed by security staff, medical personnel, and knowledgeable volunteers, so that campers knew they had someone to go to if they needed anything at all. Each of these pods was complimented by huge experimental and environmentally conscious art exhibits.

While there has inevitably been those few who abused the festival’s freedom, the typically pessimistic media may have had an exaggerated and unnecessary take on Bonnaroo. Capps suggested, “There have been a couple situations where I feel there have been a deliberate influence on the negative, which a lot of news organizations just choose to do. It’s like they are trying to stir up trouble, and I think that’s unfortunate because it distorts the reality of what’s going on. It’s as if the coverage of the UT football game focused on the drunk who vomited instead of on the game. It’s not that it didn’t happen, but that’s not what the event was about.”

For three days, campers lived in a huge neighborhood of friends. Accidents have been inevitable, but Bonnaroo’s trained security people keep safety a priority by searching all vehicles for glass, weapons, and narcotics. Guards ride the farm on horseback and in utility vehicles. Not there to infringe on anyone’s privacy, campers have had few problems with the security personnel. Once campers have reached their campsites, they’ve been free to enjoy themselves. The only other time a camper might have made contact with security personnel was on entry to Centeroo, the area with all the main stages and concessions.

(Photo courtesy of Bonnaroo/Jason Merritt)

Inside Centeroo on five main stages was where the magic really happened. 80-plus artists have performed over three days. Smaller shows were scheduled at all different stages and tents throughout the day and were staggered enough that campers could catch at least a portion of everything they want to see. Main acts such as Tom Petty and Radiohead (headliners in 2006) were given multiple hour sets on main stages. During these headlining shows, all other stages were shut down. Then, nearly every Bonnaroo camper could be found in one huge field creating an ineffable energy.

Capps raved, “It’s an incomparable experience. I don’t know anything like it. It’s just so energizing. There is an almost euphoric sense of community during that weekend.” Every person in that audience, no matter how different, was experiencing a once in a lifetime moment. There will always be more shows to attend, but never again would this exact arrangement of people see those particular shows on those particular nights. This is what causes Bonnaroo to continue to sell out tickets year after year.

Capps continued, “At the end of the weekend, I am fifty years-old, and I have gone for several days in a row with about four hours of sleep in a night, which isn’t enough, and on Sunday afternoon, I feel like I never need to sleep again. It’s just such a great experience. And I’m not out there indulging in the things that some people are indulging in. My altered state is strictly from lack of sleep. You know, it’s a special thing. I remember calling my wife one year when she wasn’t there, and she said ‘You sound thirty years younger.’ It’s really got that kind of vibe to it. I know it sounds kind of corny, but it’s true.”

There must be something good going on in Manchester, Tennessee because people keep coming back. Capps and his team have every intention of throwing fuel on the Bonnaroo fire and creating more for music lovers to get so ecstatic about. Capps reassured, “We like to look to the European music festivals as our model, and some of those festivals have been going on for a very long time. One of the greatest is Glastonbury in England.”

Despite persistent rumors, MTV will not be running Bonnaroo next year, nor will Six Flags own the land on which it is held. Capps concluded, “I think we’re going to see events like this become more and more and more the norm, and our goal is to make sure Bonnaroo stays at the top of the list.” While other people in Tennessee will live up to legend and go to their UT football games, the only event of a similar size that attracts the real music lovers is Bonnaroo.

An early-bird presale of discounted tickets for Bonnaroo 2007 began on December 13, 2006, before the lineup was announced. Those tickets sold out in a few days. The initial 2007 lineup and regular tickets will be announced early in 2007. Visit for details.


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