For 14 years, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival proved to be an unstoppable, trend-setting annual event, drawing about 75,000 fans annually to rural Coffee County and sparking a festival revolution that has spawned competing events in virtually every corner of the United States.
Then came 2016.
As shown through a public records request by The Tennessean, ticket sales plummeted by 28,000, reaching an all-time low of 45,553 tickets sold.
In some ways, the poor sales could not have come at a worse time. Festival organizers are engaged in talks to extend their agreement with the Coffee County government, and part of the argument is that Great Stage Park is poised to become a preeminent international festival and special events space.
Those factors come together to make this the most important festival in Bonnaroo’s history.
Can Live Nation and the smaller music business companies that founded Bonnaroo join together to bump up ticket sales to their customary levels? Can the festival’s executives broker a deal to position rural Coffee County, of all places, as an international tourist destination hosting Bonnaroo and a slate of other concerts?
Among both Bonnaroo’s leaders and county officials, there is unambiguous optimism entering 2017.
“Since Bonnaroo launched in 2002, the festival landscape in North America has completely transformed,” said Ashley Capps, whose Knoxville-based AC Entertainment co-founded the festival. “We've gone from people thinking we were crazy and that no one wanted to attend rock festivals, to everybody wanting one in their backyard.
“So the landscape's changed, but we know that Bonnaroo is still unique and vital in the festival landscape. But any time a business matures, there's a certain ebb and flow that's an inevitable part of the experience. Last year was amazing, and this year's going to be amazing. Focusing on that is our number one goal.”
Bonnaroo exec says "ticket sales are definitely on the upswing"
Capps acknowledged that this year’s Bonnaroo lineup features a larger contingent of young acts. And that move might pay off. Without going into details, he said that ticket sales are on the uptick this year.
Capps, whose live music company AC Entertainment sold to Live Nation last year, acknowledged the rise of competing festivals that have sprung up since Bonnaroo revolutionized the multi-day concert event in 2002.
Coachella in southern California, Hangout Fest in Alabama, Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, Pitchfork Fest in Chicago are just a few of the multi-day music festivals with regional or national draws. In Nashville, CMA Fest will once again take place the same weekend as Bonnaroo. Pilgrimage Fest, which takes place in the fall, has picked up steam as well.
“The exciting challenge about the music business is its iconoclastic nature, Capps said. “What worked 15, 16 years ago doesn't necessarily work at the same level today. Throughout the years, we've endured a fair amount of criticism for being willing to change.
“But that change, I would argue, is at the heart and soul of the Bonnaroo aesthetic: being open to embracing new trends in the worlds of music. We got a huge amount of pushback in 2006 when we booked Radiohead. So being willing to take risks and to stay on top of the exciting artistic trends in the music business is a major part of the Bonnaroo aesthetic.”
Capps described the booking of new acts and electronic-dance-music artists as part of its evolving strategy.
“So yes, we're introducing a lot of new acts this year,” he said. “The EDM component has grown, with its own stage. And we'll continue to evolve in future years as well. How that evolution takes place? None of us know.”
Middle Tennessee State University music business professor Paul Fischer said the competition has been mounting against Bonnaroo as other successful festivals have taken shape. But Fischer said he thinks Bonnaroo has booked a good lineup this year with down-lineup bands appealing to younger fans and touring juggernaut U2 at the top of the bill.
"They've got so much more competition now," Fischer said. "There are only so much entertainment dollars floating around, and there are so many festivals and so many different lineups to choose from. When they started out, they had next to no competition regionally.
"You can't look at just one year and call it a trend. They've booked very strategically, I think, to bring in a bigger crowd. Last year's audience didn't bring in as many boomers and they've got U2 and Chili Peppers before it gives itself over to younger people and their attractions."
Bonnaroo, Coffee County leaders in talks for new deal
While the festival looks to get back on track in terms of attendance, this is an equally big year behind the scenes. Bonnaroo's one-of-a-kind agreement with Coffee County expires after this year's festival.
The current deal sees Bonnaroo pay $30,000 plus $3 per ticket sold to the county. That arrangement has brought about $250,000 per year to the government coffers.
The two sides are engaged in talks that would create a fund to pay for improving infrastructure inside and around the farm property, which Bonnaroo owns. At the top of the projects list is a proposed widening of New Bushy Branch Road, which borders the farm.
That project would cost at least $6 million, according to initial estimates, but would come with state funding likely in addition to local dollars. The goal is to eventually bring more music festivals and other events to the farm, said Bonnaroo executive Jeff Cuellar, who oversees the company's community outreach in Coffee County.
Last year, the government and Bonnaroo organizers partnered to secure a rural development grant to address water and sewer infrastructure around the farm.
“Everybody thus far in terms of our conversations is extremely supportive,” Cuellar said. “The goal outside of that project — that would be the first project on our plate — is to establish a public private partnership.”
Cuellar said the goal of the new agreement will be to dedicate the ticket taxes collected toward projects that enhance tourism. Cuellar acknowledged that Bonnaroo is a sacrifice for some residents who must deal with traffic congestion as patrons file in and out. The festival's owners pay for overtime hours accrued by public safety officials.
“From our standpoint, I don’t look at it from standpoint of a deal,” he said. “It’s more of how can we strengthen partnership we already have.”
Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell said that despite last year's attendance drop, optimism is high among public officials there.
“The mood is one of optimism,” Cordell said. “I talked with official from Live Nation and they’re saying their sales are really up this year. I don’t know what number that translates to. If they’re optimistic then I am. We feel it’ll be a good year.”