Rich Goodstone is wandering the 700-acre site of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. on Monday afternoon, taking in what will become the state’s sixth-largest city this weekend.
“It’s so much fun to see it all come together,” the festival’s co-founder says over the din of production vehicles and crews. “Thousands of people are here working together to create something they’re really passionate about and proud of, knowing that 100,000 people will be here in a few days.”
Now in its 12th year, Bonnaroo brings together music fans from all walks of life who eagerly detach from the realities and responsibilities of their daily lives for four days of music, camping and community. While the bands are clearly the main attraction – with noon-to-sunrise sets from more than 150 genre-spanning acts – the 24/7 experience also features a comedy theater, mini beer festival, cinema, art installations, yoga classes and more.
Goodstone and his partners at Superfly Presents made their mark booking after-hours concerts during the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, often bringing together multiple artists for unique collaborations. After hitting a financial and creative ceiling in 2001, they re-engineered their business model and hatched the idea of a multi-day music festival.
The first Bonnaroo – Creole slang for “good stuff” – was held in 2002 on a sprawling farm 60 miles southeast of Nashville. A year later, Rolling Stone magazine anointed it “the American rock festival to end all festivals.”
We spoke to Goodstone about how the Bonnaroo experience has evolved over the years while retaining its roots:
What motivated you and your partners to launch Bonnaroo, and what was your initial vision for the festival?
The inspiration was really around the great European festivals we’d just been to, seeing the kind of cultural touchstones they are and understanding what it’s like to bring different people together around shared passions and build a community. When you’re born, your eyes are wide open, and you greet everybody with a frame of mind that’s open and free. When people get older, they tend to close up. These environments encouraged people to open up and greet everyone with a hug. That was an eye- opener for us. Wanting to be part of these profound, rite-of-passage moments was a big reason for starting Bonnaroo. In addition, we started the company in New Orleans. One of my business partners used to work at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, so we learned a lot of lessons from that great event.
Do you remember the first time you saw the farm in Manchester?
It all happened so fast. We’d seen a few other pieces of property, but finding a great site wasn’t easy. We knew we wanted something centrally located, within a day’s drive of most of the country’s population. A guy who ran security for us a while back said, “Hey, there’s a farm over in Tennessee.” They’d hosted a festival there that was not successful. We took a look at the land and met with the owner. The site is such a beautiful piece of property… it just made a tremendous amount of sense.
In 2002, you sold 10,000 tickets the day they went on sale and all 70,000 in about two weeks – with no advertising and before social media. Why was there such an appetite for an experience like Bonnaroo at the time?
I think it was a combination of things. Artists were just starting to talk to their fanbases digitally, fan clubs were happening and the iPod generation was emerging. We fed off the grassroots rock scene, which was used to immersive experiences. The concept for Bonnaroo was to bring together different bands with established fanbases who were willing to travel and camp out – and adding our unique spin to create more than just a concert. And that’s what we did.
Was there a ‘wow’ moment that stands out from that first year?
It was all one big “wow” moment – from the on-sale, to understanding we’d struck a chord with U.S. culture. No doubt, we’ve come a long way from a logistics and operational standpoint since that first year. Our team today is best in class; everything is so tight. In 2002, we were not best in class (laughs). There were all sorts of issues, including backing up the highway for 12 hours, which we knew would happen, but the local community didn’t believe us. Yet what was amazing was despite all those issues – and certainly traffic was number one – people were just so forgiving. It was about the glass being almost full rather than being half empty. Everyone realized they were part of something special.
Twelve years is an impressive run. How do you keep things fresh?
We make sure we’re always listening to our audience, because they’re what makes Bonnaroo special. When we stay close to the community, we evolve with them. We’ve always looked after every attendee’s entire experience – from camping, to what they eat, to what they do while they’re here. We wanted to build an adult Disneyworld. We’ve always tried to look at the totality of the experience, not just one single passion. Because passions don’t live in silos. Even though I love live music, which is the cornerstone of the event, I don’t want to watch 17 hours in a row. Here at Bonnaroo, I can watch a great comedy performance, take in a movie and go to a café rather than walking up to a food both. The bands build on top of the environment we create.
Millennials are turned off by traditional marketing. How have you integrated brand sponsorships without polluting or over-commercializing the experience?
It’s all about authenticity. If you put your community at the center of anything you’re thinking about, you’ll usually be successful. Few people think about whether or not this or that will add value to the audience. If it doesn't, then you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s a simple guiding question for everything we do. And our partners totally get it. They understand that, in this day and age, marketing is entertainment. Marketing messages are everywhere you go, but that’s not what we’re about. If the message is going to be there, it needs to add value. It needs to surprise and delight. For example, we’ve worked with State Farm to set up lockers on site, and with Garnier to provide hair-washing stations. And the only way we’re able to film and broadcast content online – which is a big investment – is through partners like Ustream, who we’re working with this year. When partners can help us do something we couldn’t do without them – digitally, promotionally and certainly experientially – then it’s a real value proposition.
How have you guys used technology to deliver, enhance and amplify the Bonnaroo experience?
Everything we create here together with the community is socially rich and shareable. These are some of the most memorable moments of people’s lives. They’ll be talking about them forever. I have three friends who met their husbands or wives at Bonnaroo. The entire social and digital world feeds off real experiences that happen in the physical space. So the more profound those experiences are, the more shareable they are. That goes for the content created here – from photos, to vines, to vycloes. We see these as tools available to us to tell our story. And we continue to expand our ability to communicate with our audience throughout the year. Because one thing we hear from our audience is that they’re looking for more from us. They see us as a trusted source and curator. So rather than just doing that for four days, we’re focused on providing these experiences year-round digitally and socially.
Thanks largely to the culture you guys have created, millennials have grown up in the festival era. How are their expectations for music festivals different from older generations?
There really were no festivals here in the U.S. before Bonnaroo, so no one knew what to expect. Now the festival culture is burgeoning. There have been resets and failures, of course, but festivals that do a good job generally rise to the top and can stay there for the long haul. I think millennials appreciate the festival experience. They understand what you get, which is all this talent and energy in one location. They come here with a philosophical viewpoint – an openness that you can have a really great experience that offers much more than than a three-hour concert.
Speaking of the experience, how does the camping aspect set Bonnaroo apart from other festivals?
I often describe Bonnaroo as the most amazing five-course meal you’ve ever had, while a festival like Outside Lands in San Francisco (which Superfly also presents) is like the best slice of pizza you’ve ever had. Bonnaroo is a four-day experience, so people are taking multiple days off work to be here. They’re making a real commitment… living on site and creating their own environment. At the end of the night, they can’t go back to their TV. And there’s really something special about that.