Phishing for a Future: The Strange Evolution of Bonnaroo

Tracing the journey of the influential festival from its jam band roots to its eclectic present

Trey Anastasio, photo by Amy Harris-Invision-AP
Trey Anastasio, photo by Amy Harris-Invision-AP

This weekend, Bonnaroo returns to its home at the Farm in Manchester, Tennessee. Started in 2002, for almost two decades, the multiday camping event has served as a pillar of festival culture and, by extension, pop culture today.

The festival is currently on track to sell out, making 2019 one of its most successful iterations in years. Bonnaroo’s evolution has been much-discussed over the past few summers, and normally the conversation has taken a negative slant. After the historically low ticket sales of 2016 and lukewarm critical reception (like our own decision to decline coverage in 2018) in the years following, the event is bouncing back.

In many ways, this year’s lineup is a return to classic form, with jam favorites Phish headlining for three sets and a staging of the Grand Ole Opry kicking off the festival on Thursday night. This, plus the inclusion of Americana acts like The National, The Avett Brothers, Kacey Musgraves, John Prine, The Lumineers, and Brandi Carlile, shows a festival reflecting on its past successes and reaping the rewards.

However, that’s not to say that more mainstream pop and hip-hop artists aren’t represented, because they are with heavy-hitters like Childish Gambino, Post Malone, Cardi B, Odesza, Solange, and BROCKHAMPTON similarly topping the bill. In contrast to the past few lineups that leaned (arguably) too heavily into newer acts, ‘Roo 2019 has struck a balance with an eclectic mix that embraces the best of both worlds.

A Return to Roots (Pun Intended)

Bonnaroo 2002 Lineup Poster

Bonnaroo 2002 Inaugural Lineup

Seventeen years ago, Bonnaroo was a starkly different event than it is today. When AC Entertainment and Superfly first established the festival in 2002, it was widely thought of exclusively as a “jam band” festival. With classic jam and roots acts like Widespread Panic, Phish’s Trey Anastasio, String Cheese Incident, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Gov’t Mule, Jack Johnson, and Béla Fleck heading the inaugural lineup, the association was more or less inevitable.

The festival organizers continued to tap high-profile jam acts, with The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead, and Dave Matthews serving as headliners from 2003 to 2005 alongside other bands from its first edition. However, those versions also saw Bonnaroo beginning to diversify with rock and funk legacy acts like Neil Young & Crazy Horse, James Brown, Bob Dylan, and David Byrne, all of whom have major crossover appeal within the jam band community.

Despite relatively little recognition from outside the genre in those fledgling years, Bonnaroo flourished. Its first two installments sold out without the use of any traditional marketing, the festival instead earning a grassroots following through the jam community. And while it’s quite the feat, it’s really not surprising. Jam band fans have always been known as the most dedicated purveyors of live music — name another genre whose fans are known for living on tour to hear the same songs night after night.

Annabel Lukins — who put together the first year’s official CD sampler, ran the Sonic Stage for over a decade, and has continued to work with the festival as an artist liaison — elaborated: “Jam band fans were rampant back in the day, and we were all looking for a place to go. We need a place to go see music, because that’s what we do — we see music. Back then, Bonnaroo had all the big names, so we all used to go every year. It was the first big festival of its kind. It was like a pilgrimage.”

She adds, “There’s no doubt that jam bands helped strengthen the Bonnaroo community. Jam band fans are all about community, and they brought that sense of community to the festival.”

Bonnaroo in 2004, photo by Doug Mason

Bonnaroo in 2004, photo by Doug Mason

However, Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, pushes back on the idea that Bonnaroo first set out to be a jam-oriented festival. He explains:

“From the very beginning, the team was really passionate about music in general and all kinds of different music. We all wanted to create an amazing music festival, but we were never focused on a particular kind of music festival. We started out with a jam band base, but I don’t think any of us really thought of jam bands as a genre. For us, it was an attitude toward making music. It was very broad and open, where the bands were very influenced by all different types of music: bluegrass, rock, blues, folk, different kinds of international music, jazz. There were already so many different musical genres that so-called ‘jam bands’ were drawing upon to create the music that they loved.

They also had this real spirit of performance. Each night was different. They had very music-loving fan bases, not just of casual concertgoers, but people who were deeply into the bands that they loved. They were really tuned into the moment and to the shifting nuances of how the music was performed. All of those things — the influences, the passionate fans, the performances — gave us a lot to build on from the very beginning.”

Many of these features remain true for ‘Roo today, albeit manifesting in different forms. Rather than artists who draw on a plethora of disparate influences during an individual set, that same diversity is showcased through the wide range of genres offered across the festival’s four days. And while many of the fans who attended the early years have gotten older and “grown up” in the last two decades, juggling full-time jobs and families, the festival continues to appeal to music-loving fans who openly take advantage of Bonnaroo’s full range of musical offerings.

It seems like no coincidence that the success of this year’s festival is due, in part at least, to Bonnaroo eschewing the more standard contemporary lineups of recent years. Instead, the emphasis on varied genres, including those foundational to the festival since its earliest incarnations, has reaffirmed its identity as stalwarts of diversity over mainstream popularity.

Gone Phishin’

Nowadays, festival culture is a mainstay of the culture at large. Influencers thrive at events like Coachella, going so far as to fake attending to boost followers and be “seen,” while brands boast catalogs dedicated to “festival” wear. As Lukins succinctly put it, “There’s another festival happening every weekend. They’re a dime a dozen.” However, this was not always the case. Rather, Bonnaroo cemented itself in history as being a forefather of the modern festivals we know today.

Capps explained:

“It’s hard to remember this now, but back when Bonnaroo launched, there were very few festivals in the United States, especially camping festivals. Most of the big rock festivals had been a disaster of some sort or another. Right before we started, you had Woodstock ’99 very fresh in everybody’s memory, which was just a horrifying experience. There were successful bluegrass festivals all over the country — people tend to forget about that — but they were a lot more low key than your typical rock festival. There were things like New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has been amazing for a long, long time, but, for the most part, most people thought that festivals were not a good idea.”

With few models to draw on, Jazz Fest served as one of the templates for Bonnaroo in the beginning. The heads of Superfly, which was started in New Orleans after three of its four founders attended Tulane together, had seen firsthand the success of the historic event, which inevitably helped shape their idea of what a festival could be. In fact, the name “Bonnaroo” is a nod to New Orleans and its favorite son, the late and great Dr. John, who passed away just last week. Noted Lukins, “The connection to New Orleans runs deep. Outside of some of the founders finding a home in the city, ‘Bonnaroo’ means ‘good times’ in Creole, and they got the name from Dr. John and his mid-‘70s album Desitively Bonnaroo. Dr. John’s sound was really synonymous with New Orleans, and in a lot of ways, he was the soul of the festival.”

However, while Jazz Fest helped shaped the vibe of Bonnaroo from the start, it’s a far cry from what we think of most camping music festivals today. Instead, the Bonnaroo team also drew inspiration from this year’s returning headliners, Phish, who had been successfully hosting annual camping festivals since 1996’s Clifford Ball. In addition to proving the strength of jam band fans when they get behind an event, Phish’s hiatus in 2000 laid the groundwork to help Bonnaroo come to fruition.

Historically, when a major jam act disbands, it leaves a lot of lost jam band fans in the wreckage. When Jerry Garcia died and the Grateful Dead broke up in the mid-‘90s, many Deadheads jumped over to Phish to continue touring. During Phish’s first break, which spanned from 2000 to 2002, again, fans started searching out new summer plans. To an extent, Bonnaroo’s first year took advantage of this opening, tapping Phish frontman Trey Anastasio’s solo project to headline the festival alongside other touring bands that Phish fans had migrated to, such as Grateful Dead spin-off Phil Lesh & Friends, String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, moe., the Disco Biscuits, and Umphrey’s McGee.

Besides bringing together the newly crowned heavy hitters of the jam band scene, the festival took cues from Phish’s pioneering presence on the Internet. When the World Wide Web was still in its fledgling incarnations, the Vermont quartet took full advantage of the medium, using it to directly communicate with fans, build fan communities, and support their touring. In turn, ‘Roo’s success in those first few years sans traditional marketing came, in part, from continued buzz generated online.

However, the hiatus also helped shape Bonnaroo more directly on a deeper level. Capps explained:

“By the time we actually got around to launching Bonnaroo, Phish was on hiatus, which enabled us to tap into their team. The people who had helped Phish create their festivals became the key leaders in helping us launch Bonnaroo, not only in the first year but in the first several years. They gave us a base of expertise that certainly was one of the key ingredients to our success in that first year — and I’m talking about nuts-and-bolts, operational things like the logistics of setting a festival up on the scale of Bonnaroo.”

Of course, Phish’s association with Bonnaroo extends outside the time of their first hiatus. While the members’ various side projects have always found a home at Bonnaroo, this year, the group returns to headline the festival for the third time. In 2009, the jam act debuted at the festival, making Bonnaroo one of their first stops after coming back from a second hiatus started in 2004. The band followed up their inaugural performance in 2012, when they served as headliners for the event’s most successful year to date with a staggering 100,000 people in attendance.

Growth Spurts

While Bonnaroo has roots in jam band culture, those initial four years really only served as one era of a festival that’s experienced near-constant evolution. In establishing itself as one of the greatest music festivals of its time — we named Bonnaroo the festival of the decade in 2009 — for better or worse, it had to keep pushing itself to grow and not rest on its laurels.

In 2006, the festival took a step forward in challenging its jam band-heavy identity. While Phil Lesh returned to round out the headliners, the top two spots were given to Radiohead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty was a big grab for the event, but the late rocker more or less fell in line with past years’ classic legacy acts. Instead, it was Radiohead who helped largely redefine public perception of the festival in this fifth year.

Capps explained: “When Radiohead played in 2006, first of all, it was the most amazing Radiohead performances ever. And I think the band would agree with that. Certainly Thom [Yorke] said so publicly. But, it was also a real watershed moment for the festival. We were a little frustrated being typecast as a particular type of festival. That year felt like it was breaking open the concept of what Bonnaroo was all about because of what that band represented.”

Radiohead opened Bonnaroo up to a whole new market, broadening its scope to appeal to fans of increasingly popular indie and alt-rock bands. The festival was entering its golden era; each year, the event tapped increasingly high-profile artists as headliners, further solidifying its identity as the music festival of the summer. The following year, The Police’s sole North American festival appearance came during Bonnaroo, and they were joined on the lineup by Tool 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 performance alongside Bruce Springsteen and Nine Inch Nails.

Throughout this period of growth, Bonnaroo managed to broaden its fan base while (generally) keeping its original fans happy. Not only were jam and classic rock acts always well represented across the bill, but following Radiohead’s historic performance, the festival continued to tap into the lush indie-rock market of the mid-2000s, offering enough of the genre to draw those fans in, too.

Capps elaborated on the thought process that rules the booking team:

“The representation of different types of music — from the Grand Ol’ Opry to Cardi B — has always defined the breadth and depth of what we would like Bonnaroo to be. There’s definitely an art to making sure that the balance is right. You can’t isolate an artist and have them representing a genre all by themselves. You want everything to have a context. It’s like weaving a tapestry with these different-colored threads. The presence of a particular strand has to be strong enough, otherwise it won’t be noticed in the lineup. It’s a give-and-take process that really emerges after weeks and weeks of pondering what’s possible, what’s actually going to happen, and how it can all work together.”

Throughout the next half-decade, this became Bonnaroo’s modus operandi, and it paid off in spades. The festival thrived, growing its reputation as a place where you could get a little bit of everything. During this time, a new wave of popular electronic music similarly blossomed, and the festival deftly incorporated EDM into its fabric without overly pandering to its fans. Take 2012, which is largely considered Bonnaroo’s zenith, for example. Sure, Skrillex was a top-billed act, but he was one among Phish, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beach Boys, The Avett Brothers, The Shins, and Foster the People, the latter still riding high from their breakthrough pop hit “Pumped Up Kicks”.

Ultimately, Bonnaroo led the modern resurgence of festival culture. In many ways, the recent rise of music festivals in the 21st century mirrors Bonnaroo’s trajectory during its first 10 years. Though the team might not have had many successful examples to draw from (besides those of the ‘60s counterculture and a handful of its predecessors), ‘Roo became an exemplar for the wave of festivals that followed in its wake. From the mid-aughts on, festival culture began to seep into the popular culture at large, with its prevalence hitting a high note by the start of the second decade of the century.

Growing Pains

Bonnaroo 2016

After peaking at 100,000 festivalgoers in 2012, Bonnaroo added its third and most recent stage as they struggled with growing pains following Live Nation’s acquisition in 2015. Though not necessarily related to the buyout, sales took a major hit the following year, with tickets for its 2016 edition hitting an all-time low of 45,000 and The New York Times declining coverage.

Much of the blame has been directed at Live Nation, as its buyout happened to coincide with the start of the festival’s much-hyped stagnation. Undoubtedly, the music mogul’s inclusion on the team led to major infrastructure improvements like running water and better campground experiences. However, it also coincided with some of the more criticized changes. As we outlined last year when we decided not to cover Bonnaroo for the first time in years, a number of shifts turned off longtime fans: the emphasis of non-music experiences, appealing to a younger demographic of fans and chasing trends, and lackluster headliners.

On one hand, being one of the first of its kind was a giant factor in Bonnaroo’s initial success. On the other, leading this century’s festival resurgence contributed to its downswing. With the oversaturation of festivals, the long-running event became just one more stop in major artists’ summer plans, and they struggled to stand out among the dozens of major festivals across the country.

Plus, after more than a decade, Bonnaroo’s first fans were aging and inevitably were replaced by a new, younger wave of attendees, and the festival wrestled to find a happy medium. Institutions like the eclectic Other Tent morphed into an all-EDM stage. The traditional Sunday classic-rock or jam closer was abandoned in favor of acts like The Weeknd, who by all accounts put on a good show, but highlighted a change in the booking (though Capps insists this was a product of a scheduling conflict rather than a larger shift in mentality). Lukins explained, “They have had to keep up with the times. We’re not a jam-band music scene anymore, so they’ve changed and developed depending on what kids like to listen to.”

Keep on Keepin’ On

The success of this year coincides with AC Entertainment’s return to the lead role in booking over the more collaborative process with Live Nation in the past. But Capps is quick to stress that the acquisition wasn’t a major factor in causing the recent criticisms:

“When Live Nation became our partner on Bonnaroo, it was like any other relationship. You spend a lot of time getting to know one another. It takes a while to understand what makes each other tick, what their strengths are, how we can best and most effectively work together. I would say that early on there was maybe a little bit of too many cooks in the kitchen. Not in a negative way, but in that everyone’s excited, everybody’s trying to make the most of an opportunity, and everybody’s trying to get to know one another and make sure that the festival continues to be as successful as it has been historically. As we’ve gotten to know each other, everyone has settled into roles that capitalize on their strengths. The determination was made that it’d be good for us to step into a leading role in the booking, but it’s still very collaborative, very cooperative. We talk to one another, we get ideas, and go back and forth. Ultimately, we’re all playing to each other’s strengths, and I think the fact that the festival is going to sell out again is a testament to our success in ultimately doing that.”

He continued:

“I don’t think that ticket sales plunged — if you want to call it that — because of Live Nation by any stretch of the imagination or because there were too many cooks in the kitchen. We are at the mercy of artists who are touring, what their schedule is like, whether they’re going to be in the country at that particular time of year. There are so many factors that come into play at any given time. Any business that’s two decades old is going to have its ups and downs. It’s not always going to be at a certain level. Maybe there were a little bit of growing pains in there that had a little bit of an impact on it, but for the most part, it’s really hard to point and say, ‘That was the reason sales were a little bit lighter this year.’ Ultimately, it’s all driven by the lineup and what else is going on out there in festival world and what’s distracting people and so on.”

In addressing recent changes, Capps also emphasized the booking continuity that can be seen from the production side behind the scenes. The process for booking headliners can happen years in advance, with some of its most lauded moments coming to fruition years after an artist was first approached. He elaborated, “Radiohead wasn’t something we suddenly decided to do in 2006. We’d been talking with them for a couple of years or more before that show actually came to fruition. That’s the case with many artists. I think we first approached Paul McCartney about playing the festival back in 2006 or 2007, and we thought he might play it either later that year or the next year. It ended up being seven years later or something.”

And for his part, Capps is relatively non-plussed about any criticisms that befall the event.

“I’m a little jaded about this I suppose because people have been telling us that we’ve been screwing up the festival since 2003 or 2004. In all fairness, every year, there are people who say that you’re ruining it, you know? I chalk a certain amount of that up to just people are resistant to change, and some people are more resistant to change than others. Depending on your taste, of course, some years are more exciting than other years might be.

I don’t think anybody is going to like everything they see at Bonnaroo. That’s really not the point. This is like a feast of plenty, and you don’t have to like everything on the table to still have an amazing meal. Generally speaking, the focus of Bonnaroo booking is the same as it was in 2002, which is that we want the most exciting live performers of our time playing our festival. That still is ultimately the guiding principle. I think we’ve got that this year in spades, and I’m excited about the conversation that we have for next year. As long as we stay focused on that, I think the festival will maintain its vitality in the cultural landscape.”

Now, if this year is any indication, Bonnaroo’s evolution continues. Entering (hopefully) a fourth era, the festival has learned from the good and bad over the past 17 years. Like the integration of genres during its diverse golden years, the event has struck a balance weaving pop music into its fabric, while still leaving space for the plethora of other genres for which it’s known.

As far as we can tell, Bonnaroo is back. Long may it reign.