Date: June 21, 2006
At some point, any big festival reaches a tipping point where it either gets too big for its original intent or veers too far away from its founding musical vibe, causing the original fans to cry “sell out!” This was supposed to be that year for Tennessee's Bonnaroo festival. The jam band friendly destination event that has taken over a 700-acre farm in rural Coffee County every summer since 2002 came under some criticism from longtime fans this year for booking such mainstream rock acts as Tom Petty and Radiohead.
But after an exhausting weekend from June 16-18 that critics praised as one of the best, most eclectic concerts in the series, co-founder Ashley Capps, president and event producer for A.C. Entertainment, said he thinks Bonnaroo had its best year in 2006.
“It was a great weekend,” said a tired-sounding Capps of the three-day party featuring 100 bands on nine stages, 30 comedians and the highest grosses in the history of the event. “We completely sold out of 80,681 tickets and people really seemed to enjoy themselves.” Gross ticket sales topped out at $15,807,963, a record, due to a combination of strong sales and higher prices, between $169.50 and $184.50. The event did not completely sell out in 2005, but the real news this year was that all the tickets for the 2006 edition were sold through the festival's official website in advance of the show. Capps said organizers do not give out any per caps on food and beverage or merchandise, but said sales were strong.
Capps said one of the biggest differences this year was the continuity in the behind-the-scenes crew helping to coordinate the massive event. “We've had a great team from the first year and many of those people have been here since 2002, and all the key staff this year have been working on the festival for at least two or three years,” he said. “I think the team has really come together and they know how to work with one another and they know the event. From an organizational standpoint, last year was a watershed year. We got the site layout and plan right, so things functioned well. We built on that this year, which didn't really require any major changes in terms of how things were laid out.”
Though the early years of the festival were plagued by massive traffic jams, Capps said this year that issue was dramatically improved. “In fact, it was so improved it was almost uncanny,” he said. “At some point, we were thinking that perhaps people were coming later this year, but that ended up not happening. People actually came earlier.” Capps said the traffic situation was so improved that waits that ranged up to three hours in the past were reduced to 30 minutes or less. He attributed the improvement to better planning, better weather and the unintended side effects of higher fuel prices.
“I think fans were playing a proactive role this year,” Capps speculated. “There was more carpooling by people who were probably trying to save money on gas, but also last year we really organized the entrances to the sites and our traffic systems in a pretty efficient way. This year we just tweaked that, but didn't really look for any new solutions.”
While Capps said initial indications are that arrests and police action was down nearly 50% from 2005, the festival was marred by the death of Joshua Overall, a 21-year-old Hamilton, Ohio man. Overall was killed on the first night of Bonnaroo when he stepped out onto nearby Interstate 24 and was struck by a tour bus carrying bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs. The incident happened outside of the jurisdiction of the festival.
Economic impact studies for 2006 won't be available for a while, but the 2005 study commissioned by Bonnaroo organizers found that the 2005 event had an estimated $20 million impact on Coffee County, a figure that is likely to be met or exceeded by the 2006 concert.
The organizational meetings for the 2007 edition of the festival – which has become a 365-day-a-year project for A.C. Entertainment and New York-based co-producer Superfly Productions – aren't expected to start until next week. But the camps are already gearing up for this October's spin-off fest in Las Vegas, Vegoose, and Capps said they are still flying high from the good vibes of this year's 'Roo. “Everyone just feels very good about how the festival worked this year. It was definitely the most mellow festival yet,” Capps said. “The camping was incredibly mellow and it had a great atmosphere.”
One of the improvements held over from 2005 that was ramped up this year was the 'pod' system in the camping grounds. The pods, scattered across the festival grounds and through the camp sites, served as community centers that gave a human face to the festival. Attendees were encouraged to approach the employees manning the pods to share or get information, or to participate in the pod-centric art projects. “The people who staff the pods live there and we got some local artists to work on these sculptures that would emerge over the weekend as fans got involved and helped build them,” Capps said. “That atmosphere in the campground is one of the special things about Bonnaroo. It creates a real sense of community.”
In addition to the multiple stages of music, there were roving circus performers, sound and sculpture installations, a 'silent disco' where dancers wore headphones, a masquerade ball and movie and comedy tents that Capps said were packed all weekend.
One of this year's key sponsors was SBC/AT&T, which webcast much of the action and who are on board as sponsors for Vegoose as well. Capps said it was too early to tell if SBC/AT&T would be on as a sponsor for the 2007 Bonnaroo, but “we're looking for sponsors who help to enhance the event and they certainly bring a lot to the table.”
Interviewed for this story: Ashley Capps, 825-523-2665