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Bonnaroo: Kick out the jams

Fest grows from improv-based event to eclectic showcase

Lollapalooza may be the oldest rock fest still in business, and Coachella may be the most publicized, but Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival has proven to be a case study in how a major music gathering can evolve beyond its roots.

Now in its ninth year, Bonnaroo convenes June 10-13 at 700-acre Great Stage Park in rural Manchester, Tenn., 60 miles outside Nashville. Its eclectic bill runs the gamut from headliners Jay-Z, Kings of Leon and Stevie Wonder to Norah Jones, Jimmy Cliff and the Zac Brown Band.

The bill reflects a policy of year-to-year reinvention, for Bonnaroo began in 2002 as an outdoor gathering catering to hirsute fans of improv-based music; talent included Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.

“It started out as a jam-band festival, really, and they have broadened the musical reach,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of concert tracking site Pollstar. “They keep jam-band music a significant part of it, because that’s all about the live music experience, and that’s going to bring your most hardcore live music fans out. But they’ve broadened it to include the more popular boomer acts as well as the hottest new genres, plus comedy and other things. It’s got something for everybody.”

Bongiovanni notes that the growing diversity has helped at the gate. While producers Superfly Productions and A.C. Entertainment have not reported grosses since 2006, that year’s fest, headlined by Radiohead and Tom Petty, grossed $14.7 million and sold 80,000 tickets priced at $170-$185. For the ’10 festival, tickets run from $235 for general admission to VIP ducats of $1,350, with a sky’s-the-limit “total access” package that includes its own tour bus.

Superfly’s Rick Farman — who is partnered with Kerry Black, Richard Goodstone and Jonathan Mayers in the venture — says his firm has always harbored grand ambitions for the fest. Like others, he draws a parallel to the long-running Glastonbury Festival, which draws close to 200,000 people to its rustic site in southwest England.

“Our goal really was to evolve into becoming a great American rock festival like some of the great European festivals, like a Glastonbury or (Denmark’s) Roskilde,” says Farman. “As the festival matured, we continued to broaden out the programming and challenge our audience and ourselves a bit to expand what Bonnaroo was all about.”

Looking back, Farman sees several booking milestones that altered the direction of the festival and widened its audience.

“When we had Neil Young in year two, that was a pretty big booking,” Farman recalls. “Although it was still pretty core, it started to open up the festival to bigger and bigger acts. With Radiohead in ’06, at the time, it was looked at as a bit risky for our audience, and it was one of the best performances we’ve ever had out there. There was no doubt that it opened up the brand even further to what we’re able to book today.”

Acts with long histories at Bonnaroo have been able to watch the fest mutate over the years.

Primus’ Les Claypool, a 2010 performer whose first appearance dates back to the fest’s ’02 bow, says, “Where can you go to see the Flaming Lips doing ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ along with Ozomatli and Kris Kristofferson and the Melvins? I think they’ve looked beyond what the normally perceived jam formula would have been back in the day, and have really helped nurture the scene to become more of what it is now. … It’s almost as if the sky’s the limit with these guys.”

Nathan Followill of Nashville’s Kings of Leon — who have graduated from playing a tent in 2004 to headlining the main stage this year — draws a direct parallel between Bonnaroo and the European festivals that have embraced his band.

“I’d say it’s close to Glastonbury, as far as the whole camping-out culture,” Followill says. “You get there on Thursday, pitch a tent and you’re set for the rest of the weekend. Glastonbury is definitely a festival fan’s festival. Sometimes you’ve got to tough it out, if it’s raining or muddy, but those kids are prepared for that. Bonnaroo’s kind of the same.”

The organizers of Bonnaroo are moving carefully to spread their identity. Comedy has had a large presence at the fest in recent years — Conan O’Brien is appearing this year — and Superfly and A.C. have mounted a campus tour that began in early April. “With something like comedy, where we’re taking a different angle on that scene,” says Farman, “it does make sense for us.”

He adds that the company is mainly focusing on expanding its marketing efforts in the digital realm: “We feel like Bonnaroo really has the opportunity to become a fairly far-reaching lifestyle brand,” he says. “If you look at brands in the music space that have launched in the last 10 years, there’s not that many that have the kind of voice and recognition and trust with an audience that Bonnaroo does.”

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