The exponential growth in music festivals over the past decade has only been matched by the significant number of festivals either canceled, closed or going bust. It seems anyone with a plot of land, a decent sound system and a few biz connections somehow thinks they can be the next Bill Graham. It’s understandable – the premise is simple, and finding ample talent is easy enough, but it takes much more than a solid headliner and good parking to create a memorable event. So as they continue to come and go, one festival has managed to rise above the rest, not only becoming a consistent draw and apparently success venture, but an annual event that has raised the bar and redefined the contemporary music experience – entitling it Bonnaroo. Oh yeah, did we mention they hold it in Manchester, Tennessee?
Bringing together high profile acts and established bands, with emerging artists and eccentric developing acts, Superfly Productions have continuously assembled a Bonnaroo line-up that exceeds fan expectations. The standard performers may fill in the cracks, but the 60+ act bill is full of buzzword bands and unexpected highlights, not to mention all the extras alongside this, that and the other stages.
Now in its fourth year, the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival has moved beyond the proving grounds, graduated well above legitimate concert and finds itself permanently circled in red on 90,000 summer calendars.
So as flights begin to fill up, RVs are booked and tents are rolled out of the attic, we caught up with Jonathan Mayers, president of Superfly – one of the festival founders and primary talent buyers, responsible for assembling Bonnaroo’s diverse line-up each year. Not a bad way to make a living…
The first official announcement about who is playing Bonnaroo is becoming an anticipated winter tradition. What goes into choosing which bands are invited each year?
Well, the group kind of puts together a wish list of all the acts we want to do, and [the acts] we know we have to start with, this core. And from there we balance it with doing a lot of the flavors as well.
Obviously Galactic has been represented well, and Jack Johnson and Particle seem to get the open invite each year. Are there certain artists you routinely invite back every year?
Well, it kind of goes back to the core. There are definitely repeats, and most of that is for the core audience. And there are just some acts that we love and we like to bring back, and the audience loves it. And we believe in developing some of the acts…like My Morning Jacket have been so well received that we have brought them back multiple times and really helped develop their audience.
Are there other artists that you feel Bonnaroo helped develop? Particle’s early morning set in 2002 pretty much put them on the map.
Well I would definitely say My Morning Jacket. I think Ray Lamontagne last year, we put him on the Thursday, and we used the Thursday kind of as a surprise slot to introduce new bands and I’ve heard back from Ray’s manager that they hear throughout the country, “we saw him at Bonnaroo.” So, I think we had an impact on that. And some bands like Umphrey’s McGee and Particle, some of the core bands, I think really dealt the response from their performance at Bonnaroo and it has really helped their touring and their fan base.
You’re always filling unique slots on the roster. Last year you had Jem, and this year you have Joss Stone. Last year Doc Watson, this year John Prine. Do you make that a conscious effort outside the core acts you noted?
Yeah, I think it’s important that we really have a balanced lineup and we really want to show diversity. I think about my music collection and it incorporates a lot of different types of music and that’s what we want to showcase at Bonnaroo. I think for the importance of our festival, it’s important to keep challenging our audiences to new music. When you’re doing 90,000 people, there are going to be acts that you love and acts that you don’t like, so you want to present something for everyone. A kind of cool thing about the position we’re in is to be able to introduce people to new music.
By continuously pushing the envelope, are there any acts this year you feel may not be well received, or too risky? Iron & Wine, or The Mars Volta perhaps?
Well, I’d like to think they are going to go over well. Those are two acts in particular that I think people are really going to be psyched about once they see them. And its really our job to educate our fan base who all these great artists are. For instance, Joanna Newsome we love, I would bet a good majority of our audience doesn’t know who she is. So even prior to the event we hoped to introduce her so people will check her out when she’s out there.
Joanna Newsome is a great example of the diversity, as well as The Brazilian Girls, that really splits open the genre bending of the festival.
Yeah, and the partners and promoters of the festival like so many different types of music. And even for the help of the event, if we only stuck to one kind of music it would limit us to what we want to do. We really want to have a large programming base.
In regards to the programming base, once the line-up is set, how do you choose the actual play timeslots? Scheduling Bonnaroo seems like a tougher job than the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee.
Yeah, there is definitely some debate about that. We start with a grid and we kind of work our way down with the headliners and the first offers that we make, and then we kind of fill out from there. We kind of start with our wish-list and a good portion of the acts that we wanted this year are participating and we kind of fill out from there. We kind of like to give a good creative flow to each stage each day.
How do you decide who gets to play the coveted late night sets. Medeski, Martin & Wood for instance has played that slot, and you wouldn’t typically relate them to an after midnight gig.
You know what, more than anything, I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to it, it’s going with your gut and what feels right, and it’s subjective. I’d like to think we’re good at what we do. Again, we want to show diversity. We’ll have Mars Volta do a late night set and we’ll have someone else do one, it’s just going with your gut and what feels right.
Do you ever consider the issue of fans having to make hard choices with so much overlap? Like last year people had to choose between Primus and Ween for late night.
Yeah, life can be worse right? I encourage people when they come to the festival to walk around and check out stuff they don’t get an opportunity to see otherwise and really try and discover some new music. But when you have 70 bands out there, you’re going to have to make certain choices. When I look at the schedule I get overwhelmed because there are so many things I want to see, but when I’m out there, I’ll go check out three songs and I’m like, I wish I could see more, but there is another band I want to check out as well.
You talked about your wish list before. Are there any bands, like a Bright Eyes or Queens of the Stone Age that you wanted to get but couldn’t?
Those are actually two bands that it just didn’t work in their schedule. Bright Eyes was definitely one, but hopefully Conor (Oberst) will be part of the event sometime in the future. Queens of the Stone Age, I definitely want to see them up there at some point. Obviously Radiohead, we hope to have them out there sometime or a Pearl Jam out there sometime. There are a lot of great bands that we haven’t yet done that we’re excited to do, and again, by opening ourselves up and branching out, allows us to do more and more and not limit our programming.
I spoke with Robert Randolph a couple years ago and he mentioned to me that he was going to talk to you guys about getting Stevie Wonder to play.
I would be psyched to have Stevie Wonder, I think he’s worthy of being at Bonnaroo.
The big surprise this year, and it may not be a bright spot for some people, is the headlining spot by the Dave Matthews Band, who already have an enormous commercial following. Do you feel that was a risky choice in terms of keeping the festival roots oriented?
Well, I don’t do the programming based on like “is Dave Matthews Band too popular?” The Dave Matthews Band is a great band and great live show and to be honest with you that’s how we choose a band to be out there and they pull off a great live show. Whether I personally go home and listen to the Dave Matthews Band, I can go home after the show and say, “you know what you guys are great.” Every time that they play they give it their all and it’s a great show. And so I do believe that the Dave Matthews Band belongs at Bonnaroo and I think they encompass the spirit of the event. And again, when you have 90,000 people at the event, there are going to be acts that you aren’t that into. But when you get complaints that there is so much music, then go see something else or go check it out and you’ll be surprised.
Do you ever get unreasonable demands from certain acts to play at Bonnaroo. Obviously playing the festival is a huge marketing tool.
We want bands to do well and be successful, but at the end of the day, sure there is a lot of pressure to play the festival, but we have to make the right choices for the festival and present acts that fit what we are trying to do and what our fans are going to want. So we are saying no a lot, probably more than we say yes, but we have to keep the integrity of what we are trying to do with the festival. Fortunately there are so many great artists out there that there is a lot to choose from. And we’re fortunate that a lot of people want to play our event.
Has that been a conscious decision to keep things where they are, and not expand the Bonnaroo name too rapidly?
I think Bonnaroo in my opinion means more than just an event in Tennessee. I think it stands for community. I say that with, I don’t think we’re going to franchise Bonnaroo, but I think there is a lot of room for growth, and look, us as company we’re going to do other things. Whether it be a tour or another event, but it’s not going to be Bonnaroo. But will it have some of the same principles that we brought to Bonnaroo: great booking, reasonable prices for an amazing experience. All those things, do I think that can be brought on the road? Do I think that can be brought to another part of the country? Yeah, but it’s still different than what Bonnaroo is. You’re not going to see Bonnaroo North, Bonnaroo South, Bonnaroo East, Bonnaroo West, but I think you will see a tour and you will see other events.
editors note: Superfly has announced the Zooma Tour, a Bonnaroo side tour featuring Trey Anastasio and Ben Harper.
You tried staging the Bonnaroo Northeast a couple years ago, but that was halted because of site issues…the same fate as the anticipated Field Day Festival.
Yeah, I think we learned some lessons from that and again I think we’re going to do other events and we’re going to do other projects. But we’re very careful how the Bonnaroo name is used. We’re going to take the principles that we used for Bonnaroo and apply it to other things.
I think it has a lot of international flavor as well. People out in Europe are more familiar with the big Glastonbury type festivals and it would be nice to give the Europeans an American taste in festivals?
We’ve been out to a lot of the European festivals. I was at Glastonbury this past year and that’s kind of like the Grandaddy of festivals and as much as you feel like “wow, we have a great festival and we’ve done so much” there is so much further to go as well. And every year we really try to step up the event, and there is a lot to manage out there from just infrastructure and the portolets and the roads and the traffic, but the feel of the event. There is so much room and as big as the event is, it has a long way to go too.
Would you say it gets easier every year or is it getting tougher?
I think in some ways it becomes easier, because we walk into the same things going into our fourth year. We know a lot of the infrastructure is built already, we’ve been at the same site so a lot of the people who know the event from a programming standpoint, the agents, the managers, the town, they all know about the event so it’s already established. In that way it’s easier. And yet there are some aspects that it gets harder. Lets say from a programming standpoint, to keep it at the level to keep presenting, it’s a challenge. Politically sometimes things get harder and sometimes there is more pressure, but overall it gets easier, but there is always going to be a challenge to putting on this kind of event. Whether there are things that are going to be out of your control, [like] the weather. Every single year we learn something new and we realize we still have a long way to go and it just isn’t like, “great, we’re done with this.” There are a lot of parts to the event.
In terms of the other aspects of Bonnaroo, like The Mardi Gras parade or having comedians – how is that all run and organized?
Well each of the partners, we bring in all different kinds of ideas. So all of us kind of have brought a lot to the table. Music is definitely the biggest element of the event, but we want to create something bigger than that. I think the comedy tent or whether it be some of the activities like the classic arcade, the digital download tent, I think that’s all part of the experience and you know we really want to have so many things going on there.
Each year it seems to get better, and you’ve managed to avoid any big problems like power outages or unforeseen tragedies. As an organizer, do you continually have your fingers crossed throughout the weekend?
The stuff that I worry about the most is the stuff that you can’t worry about too much, because it’s out of your control. It’s the safety of the festival goers, the weather, these are the things, you build the best team, have the best service down there, take the best precautions, but there are certain things that are out of your control. And that applies whether you are putting on a concert, running a club or an event with 90,000. We know we have a lot of responsibility out there and we take it very serious, but we surround ourselves with the best team possible. Every year we look at how do we continue to improve this event, how do we continue to make smart, long-term decision making?
Have you tried to make the Tennessee site bigger capacity wise?
I don’t think our goal is to keep pushing the capacity. I think we want to focus on making it the best event possible in the amount of space that we have. Our goal is not to jam as many people in there as possible. I think that we’re going to bring other aspects of the event like the arts end of the event and continue to expand.
n a final note, what are your personal favorite moments from Bonnaroo since this all began?
Well, probably my number one favorite moment was, well, first of all I’m a huge Neil Young fan, and to have the honor of Neil Young play my event and to be chanting “Bonnaroo,” it was kind of surreal to have your hero fifteen feet away and there are like 80,000 people out there chanting the name of your festival. I remember thinking about the name and it was kind of like surreal. So that was probably my biggest highlight. I think from a business end, I think the first year when we put the event up, and we put the tickets up for sale, you just really didn’t know what to expect, and the fact that it just took off with no traditional advertising…it was kind of like that commercial where they put up a website where sales keep going and going and going. It was kind of like a turning point of my career and it was just something that you felt like something special was happening.