Phishing for a Future: The Unusual Evolution of Bonnaroo

This weekend, Bonnaroo returns to its house on the Farm in Manchester, Tennessee. Began in 2002, for nearly twenty years, the multiday tenting occasion has served as a pillar of pageant tradition and, by extension, popular culture immediately.
The pageant is at present on monitor to promote out, making 2019 one among its most profitable iterations in years. Bonnaroo’s evolution has been much-discussed over the previous few summers, and usually the dialog has taken a destructive slant. After the traditionally low ticket gross sales of 2016 and lukewarm vital reception (like our personal choice to say no protection in 2018) within the years following, the occasion is bouncing again.

In some ways, this yr’s lineup is a return to basic type, with jam favorites Phish headlining for 3 units and a staging of the Grand Ole Opry kicking off the pageant on Thursday night time. This, plus the inclusion of Americana acts like The Nationwide, The Avett Brothers, Kacey Musgraves, John Prine, The Lumineers, and Brandi Carlile, reveals a pageant reflecting on its previous successes and reaping the rewards.
Nonetheless, that’s to not say that extra mainstream pop and hip-hop artists aren’t represented, as a result of they’re with heavy-hitters like Infantile Gambino, Submit Malone, Cardi B, Odesza, Solange, and BROCKHAMPTON equally topping the invoice. In distinction to the previous few lineups that leaned (arguably) too closely into newer acts, ‘Roo 2019 has struck a stability with an eclectic combine that embraces the very best of each worlds.
A Return to Roots (Pun Meant)
Bonnaroo 2002 Inaugural Lineup
Seventeen years in the past, Bonnaroo was a starkly completely different occasion than it’s immediately. When AC Leisure and Superfly first established the pageant in 2002, it was extensively considered solely as a “jam band” pageant. With basic jam and roots acts like Widespread Panic, Phish’s Trey Anastasio, String Cheese Incident, the Grateful Useless’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Gov’t Mule, Jack Johnson, and Béla Fleck heading the inaugural lineup, the affiliation was roughly inevitable.
The pageant organizers continued to faucet high-profile jam acts, with The Allman Brothers Band, The Useless, and Dave Matthews serving as headliners from 2003 to 2005 alongside different bands from its first version. Nonetheless, these variations additionally noticed Bonnaroo starting to diversify with rock and funk legacy acts like Neil Younger & Loopy Horse, James Brown, Bob Dylan, and David Byrne, all of whom have main crossover enchantment inside the jam band neighborhood.
Regardless of comparatively little recognition from outdoors the style in these fledgling years, Bonnaroo flourished. Its first two installments bought out with out using any conventional advertising and marketing, the pageant as a substitute incomes a grassroots following by means of the jam neighborhood. And whereas it’s fairly the feat, it’s actually not stunning. Jam band followers have all the time been often known as essentially the most devoted purveyors of dwell music — identify one other style whose followers are recognized for dwelling on tour to listen to the identical songs night time after night time.
Annabel Lukins — who put collectively the primary yr’s official CD sampler, ran the Sonic Stage for over a decade, and has continued to work with the pageant as an artist liaison — elaborated: “Jam band followers had been rampant again within the day, and we had been all in search of a spot to go. We want a spot to go see music, as a result of that’s what we do — we see music. Again then, Bonnaroo had all the massive names, so all of us used to go yearly. It was the primary massive pageant of its type. It was like a pilgrimage.”
She provides, “There’s little doubt that jam bands helped strengthen the Bonnaroo neighborhood. Jam band followers are all about neighborhood, they usually introduced that sense of neighborhood to the pageant.”
Bonnaroo in 2004, photograph by Doug Mason
Nonetheless, Ashley Capps, founding father of AC Leisure, pushes again on the concept that Bonnaroo first got down to be a jam-oriented pageant. He explains:

“From the very starting, the staff was actually enthusiastic about music basically and all types of various music. All of us needed to create a tremendous music pageant, however we had been by no means centered on a selected sort of music pageant. We began out with a jam band base, however I don’t suppose any of us actually considered jam bands as a style. For us, it was an perspective towards making music. It was very broad and open, the place the bands had been very influenced by all several types of music: bluegrass, rock, blues, folks, completely different sorts of worldwide music, jazz. There have been already so many various musical genres that so-called ‘jam bands’ had been drawing upon to create the music that they liked.
Additionally they had this actual spirit of efficiency. Every night time was completely different. They’d very music-loving fan bases, not simply of informal concertgoers, however individuals who had been deeply into the bands that they liked. They had been actually tuned into the second and to the shifting nuances of how the music was carried out. All of these issues — the influences, the passionate followers, the performances — gave us loads to construct on from the very starting.”

Many of those options stay true for ‘Roo immediately, albeit manifesting in numerous types. Reasonably than artists who draw on a plethora of disparate influences throughout a person set, that very same variety is showcased by means of the wide selection of genres supplied throughout the pageant’s 4 days. And whereas most of the followers who attended the early years have gotten older and “grown up” within the final twenty years, juggling full-time jobs and households, the pageant continues to enchantment to music-loving followers who brazenly make the most of Bonnaroo’s full vary of musical choices.
It looks as if no coincidence that the success of this yr’s pageant is due, partly not less than, to Bonnaroo eschewing the extra commonplace modern lineups of current years. As a substitute, the emphasis on diversified genres, together with these foundational to the pageant since its earliest incarnations, has reaffirmed its identification as stalwarts of variety over mainstream reputation.
Gone Phishin’

These days, pageant tradition is a mainstay of the tradition at massive. Influencers thrive at occasions like Coachella, going as far as to faux attending to spice up followers and be “seen,” whereas manufacturers boast catalogs devoted to “pageant” put on. As Lukins succinctly put it, “There’s one other pageant occurring each weekend. They’re a dime a dozen.” Nonetheless, this was not all the time the case. Reasonably, Bonnaroo cemented itself in historical past as being a forefather of the trendy festivals we all know immediately.
Capps defined:

“It’s laborious to recollect this now, however again when Bonnaroo launched, there have been only a few festivals in the USA, particularly tenting festivals. Many of the massive rock festivals had been a catastrophe of some type or one other. Proper earlier than we began, you had Woodstock ’99 very recent in all people’s reminiscence, which was only a horrifying expertise. There have been profitable bluegrass festivals all around the nation — individuals are inclined to neglect about that — however they had been much more low key than your typical rock pageant. There have been issues like New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Pageant, which has been superb for a protracted, very long time, however, for essentially the most half, most individuals thought that festivals weren’t a good suggestion.”

With few fashions to attract on, Jazz Fest served as one of many templates for Bonnaroo to start with. The heads of Superfly, which was began in New Orleans after three of its 4 founders attended Tulane collectively, had seen firsthand the success of the historic occasion, which inevitably helped form their thought of what a pageant may very well be. Actually, the identify “Bonnaroo” is a nod to New Orleans and its favourite son, the late and nice Dr. John, who handed away simply final week. Famous Lukins, “The connection to New Orleans runs deep. Exterior of among the founders discovering a house within the metropolis, ‘Bonnaroo’ means ‘good instances’ in Creole, they usually acquired the identify from Dr. John and his mid-‘70s album Desitively Bonnaroo. Dr. John’s sound was actually synonymous with New Orleans, and in plenty of methods, he was the soul of the pageant.”

Nonetheless, whereas Jazz Fest helped formed the vibe of Bonnaroo from the beginning, it’s a far cry from what we consider most tenting music festivals immediately. As a substitute, the Bonnaroo staff additionally drew inspiration from this yr’s returning headliners, Phish, who had been efficiently internet hosting annual tenting festivals since 1996’s Clifford Ball. Along with proving the power of jam band followers after they get behind an occasion, Phish’s hiatus in 2000 laid the groundwork to assist Bonnaroo come to fruition.
Traditionally, when a serious jam act disbands, it leaves plenty of misplaced jam band followers within the wreckage. When Jerry Garcia died and the Grateful Useless broke up within the mid-‘90s, many Deadheads jumped over to Phish to proceed touring. Throughout Phish’s first break, which spanned from 2000 to 2002, once more, followers began looking for new summer time plans. To an extent, Bonnaroo’s first yr took benefit of this opening, tapping Phish frontman Trey Anastasio’s solo undertaking to headline the pageant alongside different touring bands that Phish followers had migrated to, corresponding to Grateful Useless spin-off Phil Lesh & Associates, String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, moe., the Disco Biscuits, and Umphrey’s McGee.
Moreover bringing collectively the newly topped heavy hitters of the jam band scene, the pageant took cues from Phish’s pioneering presence on the Web. When the World Extensive Net was nonetheless in its fledgling incarnations, the Vermont quartet took full benefit of the medium, utilizing it to immediately talk with followers, construct fan communities, and assist their touring. In flip, ‘Roo’s success in these first few years sans conventional advertising and marketing got here, partly, from continued buzz generated on-line.
Nonetheless, the hiatus additionally helped form Bonnaroo extra immediately on a deeper stage. Capps defined:

“By the point we truly acquired round to launching Bonnaroo, Phish was on hiatus, which enabled us to faucet into their staff. The individuals who had helped Phish create their festivals grew to become the important thing leaders in serving to us launch Bonnaroo, not solely within the first yr however within the first a number of years. They gave us a base of experience that actually was one of many key substances to our success in that first yr — and I’m speaking about nuts-and-bolts, operational issues just like the logistics of setting a pageant up on the dimensions of Bonnaroo.”

In fact, Phish’s affiliation with Bonnaroo extends outdoors the time of their first hiatus. Whereas the members’ varied aspect initiatives have all the time discovered a house at Bonnaroo, this yr, the group returns to headline the pageant for the third time. In 2009, the jam act debuted on the pageant, making Bonnaroo one among their first stops after getting back from a second hiatus began in 2004. The band adopted up their inaugural efficiency in 2012, after they served as headliners for the occasion’s most profitable yr thus far with a staggering 100,000 individuals in attendance.

Progress Spurts
Whereas Bonnaroo has roots in jam band tradition, these preliminary 4 years actually solely served as one period of a pageant that’s skilled near-constant evolution. In establishing itself as one of many best music festivals of its time — we named Bonnaroo the pageant of the last decade in 2009 — for higher or worse, it needed to maintain pushing itself to develop and never relaxation on its laurels.
In 2006, the pageant took a step ahead in difficult its jam band-heavy identification. Whereas Phil Lesh returned to spherical out the headliners, the highest two spots got to Radiohead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty was a giant seize for the occasion, however the late rocker roughly fell consistent with previous years’ basic legacy acts. As a substitute, it was Radiohead who helped largely redefine public notion of the pageant on this fifth yr.
Capps defined: “When Radiohead performed in 2006, initially, it was essentially the most superb Radiohead performances ever. And I believe the band would agree with that. Definitely Thom [Yorke] stated so publicly. However, it was additionally an actual watershed second for the pageant. We had been a little bit pissed off being typecast as a selected kind of pageant. That yr felt prefer it was breaking open the idea of what Bonnaroo was all about due to what that band represented.”

Radiohead opened Bonnaroo as much as a complete new market, broadening its scope to enchantment to followers of more and more well-liked indie and alt-rock bands. The pageant was coming into its golden period; annually, the occasion tapped more and more high-profile artists as headliners, additional solidifying its identification because the music pageant of the summer time. The next yr, The Police’s sole North American pageant look got here throughout Bonnaroo, they usually had been joined on the lineup by Device 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 efficiency alongside Bruce Springsteen and 9 Inch Nails.
All through this era of development, Bonnaroo managed to broaden its fan base whereas (usually) retaining its unique followers completely satisfied. Not solely had been jam and basic rock acts all the time effectively represented throughout the invoice, however following Radiohead’s historic efficiency, the pageant continued to faucet into the luxurious indie-rock market of the mid-2000s, providing sufficient of the style to attract these followers in, too.
Capps elaborated on the thought course of that guidelines the reserving staff:

“The illustration of several types of music — from the Grand Ol’ Opry to Cardi B — has all the time outlined the breadth and depth of what we wish Bonnaroo to be. There’s undoubtedly an artwork to creating positive that the stability is true. You possibly can’t isolate an artist and have them representing a style all by themselves. You need all the pieces to have a context. It’s like weaving a tapestry with these different-colored threads. The presence of a selected strand must be sturdy sufficient, in any other case it gained’t be observed within the lineup. It’s a give-and-take course of that actually emerges after weeks and weeks of pondering what’s doable, what’s truly going to occur, and the way it can all work collectively.”

All through the following half-decade, this grew to become Bonnaroo’s modus operandi, and it paid off in spades. The pageant thrived, rising its repute as a spot the place you might get a little bit little bit of all the pieces. Throughout this time, a brand new wave of well-liked digital music equally blossomed, and the pageant deftly integrated EDM into its material with out overly pandering to its followers. Take 2012, which is essentially thought of Bonnaroo’s zenith, for instance. Positive, Skrillex was a top-billed act, however he was one amongst Phish, Radiohead, Purple Sizzling Chili Peppers, The Seaside Boys, The Avett Brothers, The Shins, and Foster the Individuals, the latter nonetheless using excessive from their breakthrough pop hit “Pumped Up Kicks”.
In the end, Bonnaroo led the trendy resurgence of pageant tradition. In some ways, the current rise of music festivals within the 21st century mirrors Bonnaroo’s trajectory throughout its first 10 years. Although the staff won’t have had many profitable examples to attract from (in addition to these of the ‘60s counterculture and a handful of its predecessors), ‘Roo grew to become an exemplar for the wave of festivals that adopted in its wake. From the mid-aughts on, pageant tradition started to seep into the favored tradition at massive, with its prevalence hitting a excessive be aware by the beginning of the second decade of the century.
Rising Pains
After peaking at 100,000 festivalgoers in 2012, Bonnaroo added its third and most up-to-date stage as they struggled with rising pains following Stay Nation’s acquisition in 2015. Although not essentially associated to the buyout, gross sales took a serious hit the next yr, with tickets for its 2016 version hitting an all-time low of 45,000 and The New York Instances declining protection.
A lot of the blame has been directed at Stay Nation, as its buyout occurred to coincide with the beginning of the pageant’s much-hyped stagnation. Undoubtedly, the music mogul’s inclusion on the staff led to main infrastructure enhancements like working water and higher campground experiences. Nonetheless, it additionally coincided with among the extra criticized modifications. As we outlined final yr once we determined to not cowl Bonnaroo for the primary time in years, a variety of shifts turned off longtime followers: the emphasis of non-music experiences, interesting to a youthful demographic of followers and chasing traits, and lackluster headliners.
On one hand, being one of many first of its type was an enormous consider Bonnaroo’s preliminary success. On the opposite, main this century’s pageant resurgence contributed to its downswing. With the oversaturation of festivals, the long-running occasion grew to become only one extra cease in main artists’ summer time plans, they usually struggled to face out among the many dozens of main festivals throughout the nation.
Plus, after greater than a decade, Bonnaroo’s first followers had been growing older and inevitably had been changed by a brand new, youthful wave of attendees, and the pageant wrestled to discover a completely satisfied medium. Establishments just like the eclectic Different Tent morphed into an all-EDM stage. The standard Sunday classic-rock or jam nearer was deserted in favor of acts like The Weeknd, who by all accounts placed on a superb present, however highlighted a change within the reserving (although Capps insists this was a product of a scheduling battle moderately than a bigger shift in mentality). Lukins defined, “They’ve needed to sustain with the instances. We’re not a jam-band music scene anymore, so that they’ve modified and developed relying on what children prefer to hearken to.”

Carry on Keepin’ On
The success of this yr coincides with AC Leisure’s return to the lead function in reserving over the extra collaborative course of with Stay Nation up to now. However Capps is fast to emphasize that the acquisition wasn’t a significant component in inflicting the current criticisms:
“When Stay Nation grew to become our associate on Bonnaroo, it was like some other relationship. You spend plenty of time attending to know each other. It takes some time to grasp what makes one another tick, what their strengths are, how we are able to greatest and most successfully work collectively. I’d say that early on there was possibly a little bit little bit of too many cooks within the kitchen. Not in a destructive approach, however in that everybody’s excited, all people’s attempting to profit from a possibility, and all people’s attempting to get to know each other and be sure that the pageant continues to be as profitable because it has been traditionally. As we’ve gotten to know one another, everybody has settled into roles that capitalize on their strengths. The willpower was made that it’d be good for us to step into a number one function within the reserving, but it surely’s nonetheless very collaborative, very cooperative. We speak to 1 one other, we get concepts, and travel. In the end, we’re all taking part in to one another’s strengths, and I believe the truth that the pageant goes to promote out once more is a testomony to our success in in the end doing that.”
He continued:
“I don’t suppose that ticket gross sales plunged — if you wish to name it that — due to Stay Nation by any stretch of the creativeness or as a result of there have been too many cooks within the kitchen. We’re on the mercy of artists who’re touring, what their schedule is like, whether or not they’re going to be within the nation at that individual time of yr. There are so many components that come into play at any given time. Any enterprise that’s twenty years outdated goes to have its ups and downs. It’s not all the time going to be at a sure stage. Possibly there have been a little bit little bit of rising pains in there that had a little bit little bit of an impression on it, however for essentially the most half, it’s actually laborious to level and say, ‘That was the explanation gross sales had been a little bit bit lighter this yr.’ In the end, it’s all pushed by the lineup and what else is occurring on the market in pageant world and what’s distracting individuals and so forth.”
In addressing current modifications, Capps additionally emphasised the reserving continuity that may be seen from the manufacturing aspect behind the scenes. The method for reserving headliners can occur years upfront, with a few of its most lauded moments coming to fruition years after an artist was first approached. He elaborated, “Radiohead wasn’t one thing we out of the blue determined to do in 2006. We’d been speaking with them for a few years or extra earlier than that present truly got here to fruition. That’s the case with many artists. I believe we first approached Paul McCartney about taking part in the pageant again in 2006 or 2007, and we thought he would possibly play it both later that yr or the following yr. It ended up being seven years later or one thing.”

And for his half, Capps is comparatively non-plussed about any criticisms that befall the occasion.
“I’m a little bit jaded about this I suppose as a result of individuals have been telling us that we’ve been screwing up the pageant since 2003 or 2004. In all equity, yearly, there are individuals who say that you simply’re ruining it, you realize? I chalk a certain quantity of that as much as simply persons are resistant to vary, and a few persons are extra resistant to vary than others. Relying in your style, in fact, some years are extra thrilling than different years is likely to be.
I don’t suppose anyone goes to love all the pieces they see at Bonnaroo. That’s actually not the purpose. This is sort of a feast of loads, and also you don’t have to love all the pieces on the desk to nonetheless have a tremendous meal. Usually talking, the main focus of Bonnaroo reserving is similar because it was in 2002, which is that we would like essentially the most thrilling dwell performers of our time taking part in our pageant. That also is in the end the tenet. I believe we’ve acquired that this yr in spades, and I’m excited in regards to the dialog that we’ve got for subsequent yr. So long as we keep centered on that, I believe the pageant will preserve its vitality within the cultural panorama.”
Now, if this yr is any indication, Bonnaroo’s evolution continues. Coming into (hopefully) a fourth period, the pageant has realized from the nice and dangerous over the previous 17 years. Like the combination of genres throughout its numerous golden years, the occasion has struck a stability weaving pop music into its material, whereas nonetheless leaving house for the plethora of different genres for which it’s recognized.
So far as we are able to inform, Bonnaroo is again. Lengthy could it reign.

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