Pop Rocks: Attendance at Bonnaroo music festival begs questions for Augusta

Location, location, location.

 

For years I’ve been going to music festivals – both large and small – looking for the secrets of success and yes, occasional failure. My thinking was, could the components that worked be replicated and missteps avoided?

Augusta – with its prime placement off the interstate and experience with large events – would be an appropriate place for one of the increasing numbers of large-scale music events that have cropped up around the country. But now I think I might have been somewhat mistaken.

This past weekend, I returned to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival for the first time in a few years. And what I discovered – along with an ever-decreasing tolerance for dust, heat and overpriced concessions – is that location doesn’t matter a bit, nor does a community’s event experience.

Let’s use Bonnaroo as our model. Located in Manchester, Tenn., a small, rural community midway between Nashville and Chattanooga, the festival site – in terms of accessibility and, even 14 years into existence, civic infrastructure, leaves a lot to be desired. Traffic into the festival – which has regular attendance of about 85,000 – is largely dependent on two-lane surfaced streets. Hotels – although more abundant than they were a decade ago – are still pretty scarce. And while I’m sure a strong relationship has developed between the city and the event – I know for a fact that a foundation donates regularly to local programs – the city of Manchester has no real ownership of the event. It is, for all intents and purposes, an island unto itself, overseen by the entertainment company Live Nation, which bought a controlling interest in the event last year.

So while all those things I believed we had going for us certainly are not hurdles, they hardly pave the way for festival-founding in the Augusta area.

So what then, is the secret? What can we do to make Augusta a global music destination and, more significantly, do we want to?

The truth is a festival such as Bonnaroo isn’t about the acts or even the attendance. It’s about commerce. And while the purchase price on tickets certainly contributes to the bottom line, it would be folly to believe that an event where the artist fees alone must certainly tally up to tens of millions is paid for by patrons.

No, it is the sponsors.

Red Bull, Miller Beer, Garnier Fructis, Ford and Kohler faucets were just a few of many companies that paid for a presence at the event. That’s where the real money came from. That’s what makes an event like this work. And for a community like Augusta, that probably means a company like Live Nation, with strong corporate partners and an international reach, taking a liking to not only a site in the area, but also any inducements and enticements that might be offered.

Tax breaks. Promises of infrastructure assistance. The scratching of backs. To my knowledge that has not happened.

But before we dismiss the idea, let’s ask one final, and perhaps more important, question. Do we want a music festival?

I’m not sure. You see, while I enjoyed several of the sets I saw – my favorites were English rock act Royal Blood, country outlaws Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves and hip hop iconoclast Kendrick Lamar – I’m not sure, as a citizen, that the access would be worth the effort.

Bear in mind that while it does mean dollars flowing into the economy, this is a very different kind of crowd than a certain golf tournament attracts. The impact on the community would be quite different.

I would be curious to see how Augusta, as a community, might respond. My guess is there would be some protest – there always is – but that if it made dollars it would also make sense.

 

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