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HomeGrown: Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment

The son of a concert pianist, Ashley Capps was born with a love of music. Today, he's the mastermind behind booking the industry's top headliners through AC Entertainment and putting on the internationally acclaimed, 4-day summer music festival... Middle Tennessee's Bonnaroo.
Ashley Capps

From creating and producing music festivals, to booking and promoting artists from coast to coast, Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, has certainly made a name for himself in the music industry.

"We've definitely come a long way since the beginnings. We were basically operating out of my bedroom," he said. Now Bonnaroo is in its 13th year, and they're closing in on 1,000 concerts a year.

Ashley's had a passion for music as long as he can remember.

"I grew up listening to all sorts of music- riffling through my father's collection of jazz records. I remember him bringing home like 'Meet the Beatles' right before the Beatles were going to be on Ed Sullivan. For some reason, it was something that sucked me in immediately and never let go."

He studied music off and on and started a radio show at WUOT as a senior at Central High School in 1973.

"I got the radio bug, a little bug."

But he graduated from UT-Knoxville with a degree in philosophy & religious studies. All the while, he was organizing and promoting concerts.

"I did it as a hobby. I promoted concerts here at the Bijou and at the Tennessee Theatre throughout the 1980s."

Then, he opened the club Ella Guru's in the Old City.

"I still look back on it as my graduate school."

He forged lasting relationships with artists and agents, but filed for bankruptcy 2 1/2 years later.

"I had gotten myself stuck in a bad business decision."

Then, an agent called and asked Ashley to book a show for jazz great Wynton Marsalis. It sold out.

"And really, AC Entertainment was started a month or so after the club closed."

And, Ashley saw an opportunity.

"Many of the artists were no longer coming to secondary and tertiary markets. Knoxville was especially hampered by the amusement tax of 17.75 percent. I initially built my business by starting to take artists back into those cities. I think the idea of a festival was always there in the back of my head."

His wife is German and they started traveling to Europe in the '80s.

"It was exciting to go over there and see literally hundreds of festivals. We were looking to create our own opportunities. We started at World's Fair Park in Downtown Knoxville."

AC Entertainment hosted well over a hundred concerts with big names from 1992 to 1999 from The Dave Matthews Band to Willie Nelson. But then, World's Fair Park closed to build the Knoxville Convention Center.

"Suddenly, we lost the opportunity to do summer concerts."

That set the stage for Bonnaroo.

"I think it's fair to say that most in the music industry thought we were completely out of our minds."

Capps and his team tapped into jam bands with internet fan bases and hoped to sell 7,000 tickets in two weeks.

"The first day we sold like 12,000 tickets. By the second day, we had sold 16,000. We were absolutely amazed, but we were also freaking out."

A month later, they'd sold 70,000 tickets.

"We never spent a penny on advertising."

With help from logistics specialists, industry experts and tremendous support from Manchester, Tennessee,

"Everybody approached it with a can do spirit."

Bonnaroo was a hit and continues to be. The four-day music festival features 150 artists on a dozen stages and draws in 80,000 fans every year.

AC Entertainment also now produces the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. And, the company just revived Knoxville's Big Ears Festival in March.

Fifty employees strong, AC Entertainment has offices in Knoxville, Nashville, Louisville and Chicago. The company works with dozens of clubs and venues across the country and continues to operate and manage both the Bijou and Tennessee Theatre.

"They're two of the most successfully operated historic theatres in the country.

Ashley Capps, born in Knoxville, HomeGrown in Tennessee.

"It's certainly been a fascinating ride."

What's next for Ashley Capps? He says there's been discussion of some international festivals. So, stay tuned.