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Some recent headlines about Bonnaroo:
“Cellist biking to Bonnaroo” from the State-Journal in Frankfort, Ky., about cellist Ben Sollee’s bike trip through Kentucky and Tennessee to the festival, where he’s performing.
“5 open-air music festivals aim to outdo Bonnaroo, Coachella” from Newsweek, about up-and-coming festivals around the country.
“Bonnaroo weather forecast includes thunderstorms, mudfights” from theSequiter.com, an online magazine based in Florida.
“Bonnaroo 2009 Countdown” and “Whole Foods in Green Hills to Give Away Bonnaroo Tickets” from the Nashville Scene’s music blog.
Those are all from early June, a week before the festival starts. Nobody’s lacking for anything to say about Bonnaroo, obviously. News outlets all over the country, from the Huffington Post and The New York Times all the way down to regional television stations, obscure music e-zines and basement bloggers, cover Bonnaroo before, during, and after the festival. There are straight previews, interviews with the performers, guides to maintaining your sanity during nearly 72 straight hours of music, heat, and mud, complaints that the festival’s not what it used to be, euphoric shout-outs that this year’s lineup is the best one ever, ticket giveaways, message board threads, and hundreds of miscellaneous references buried in other stories.
Bonnaroo is such an accepted, expected part of the summer calendar—and the summer media schedule—that it’s easy to take for granted. The sheer quantity of coverage can be numbing. It can even seem beside the point: If you’ve already got tickets, you don’t need reminding that Bonnaroo is happening this weekend. If you don’t, it’s too late anyway—it’s been sold out for months. If you don’t care, well, you’re out of luck. Bonnaroo’s the big story for the next four days.
The festival hasn’t just evolved from a hippie-friendly jam-band-a-thon into one of the most popular and most diverse concert events of every summer—it’s grown into a gigantic mainstream pop-culture behemoth, a national touchstone for summer music festivals. In short, an inescapable fact of life in Tennessee in June, like oxygen or humidity.
So how did this happen? How did a jam-band weekend in the middle of Tennessee turn into a national news story and one of the single most popular music events anywhere in the country?
Starting with jam bands helps. It gives you a built-in audience. Schedule Widespread Panic, The Dead, and Trey Anastasio as your headliners, as Bonnaroo co-managers AC Entertainment did in 2002 and 2003, and your festival’s almost guaranteed to pull in tens of thousands of people. That’s the base the current Bonnaroo is built on; it may have outgrown its image as a playground for college hippies, but it still owes much of its success to those fans, thousands of whom still turn out every year.
But what Bonnaroo has built with that base is a masterpiece of festival engineering and marketing. The second and third years added performers appreciated by those built-in fans but who also had wider appeal—James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Black Crowes, David Byrne, Wilco. (Another significant factor in Bonnaroo’s success is the fact that AC Entertainment has the pull to book so many big-name acts every year.) As the roster got bigger, AC took chances—Yo La Tengo, Patti Smith, Mouse on Mars. By 2006, with Radiohead and Tom Petty as headliners and a new attention to indie rock, hip-hop, and world music, Bonnaroo was a totally reinvented experience.
Add the relatively smooth operation of the event every year—few arrests, few reported overdoses, few programming glitches, Kanye West and his light show aside—and there’s almost nothing that could slow down the momentum of Bonnaroo. No other festival offers the same kind of depth, diversity, and popular appeal that Bonnaroo does. Other festivals—the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in July, the rejuvenated Lollapalooza, also in Chicago in August, and the venerable Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival in Southern California—exceed Bonnaroo in indie cred but can’t match its populism. Other festivals with big-name headliners don’t have the deep, day-long, multi-stage schedules that Bonnaroo does. (New Jersey’s All Points West might be in the running this year, its second, with the Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Tool, and Coldplay and an A list of up-and-coming indie-rock bands.)
None of them offer it on 700 acres of grass and mud in the middle of Tennessee in the summer, that’s for sure.