I wrote a few weeks ago that I would be returning to the Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival to not only compile my annual list of acts I found feasible for an Augusta booking, but also to observe and comment on the ever-evolving event’s approach to infrastructure.
Because Bonnaroo manages vast crowds better than almost any event – without ever making its patrons feel like cattle – I felt there might be lessons learned from the way the massive event operates.
It’s funny, because although I noted a lot of little things organizers have done to ensure fans remain happy, healthy and accounted for, the essence of managing Bonnaroo seems to boil down to the simplest of credos.
This year was the eleventh time the enormous – 85,000 patrons – festival has been staged. Safe money might bet that essential lessons had all been learned, that Bonnaroo had become a clockwork event with only the acts changing year after year. That, clearly, is not the case.
Not only were numerous visible changes made – lush grass replacing dirt and dust in the main concert areas, large structures constructed to offer shade, increased water stations and a computerized entry/exit system that allowed organizers to keep track of the massive crowd’s comings and goings – but it was clear that there was room for more. Sound, for instance, was suspect for fans near the rear when the crowds were large. Radiohead and the Alabama Shakes, in particular, suffered from muddy and muddled sets. Though screens have now been added to the two main stages, the smaller tent venues would benefit from video feeds as well.
I don’t offer this up as criticism, rather things to watch for in the future. Bonnaroo always seems to understand what improvements are most important and rarely misses the opportunity to make them. It’s why the event has permanent stages, deliberately designed traffic patterns and the sleight-of-hand skills to make every decision seem organic.
So what does this mean for Augusta? Not much and quite a bit.
The truth is, there will probably never be a call to organize and event of the scope, scale and international prestige of Bonnaroo – golf tournaments obviously excluded. But we are moving into an area where multi-act outdoor events are becoming a regular occurrence. Whether Westobou’s music nights, the two-day Banjo-B-Que hoedown, Arts In the Heart or any number of events being booked at the Lady Antebellum Pavilion, festival-style concerts are becoming the rule, not the exception.
If we look at Bonnaroo in the most general sense, it offers Augusta clues on exactly how, and why, a festival-style event succeeds. The first rule is ensure that audiences are not aware of the man behind the curtain. Every event has a front and a back, and exposing the back does nothing but strip some of the magic from what happens out front. Even if things don’t happen flawlessly, it’s important to make sure that they appear to.
The second rule is to make an audience as comfortable as possible. Just because patrons are willing to cut promoters some slack because an event is outdoors doesn’t mean they should have to. Small touches – cooling stations, designated seating areas and facilities that remain relatively clean go a long way to making a concert experience both pleasant and memorable.
The third rule is to remember that artists talk. I spoke with Sharon Jones after her super-soul blowout at Bonnaroo and she said that although the festival has several hundred artists to contend with, every effort was made to ensure that each and every one felt individually cared for.
“For me, as an artist, this is great,” she said. “They understand what we want, what makes all of this a little easier.”
While these three rules, the foundation of what continues to make Bonnaroo a pinnacle concert experience, seem obvious, they are often broken. What’s important is that events learn from mistakes and continue to evolve. It’s what Bonnaroo does and we would be wise to follow that example.
SHOPPING LIST. Here’s a list of some of my favorite acts from this year’s Bonnaroo and venues and/or events I feel they would be well-suited for.
K-Flay (Hip-Hop) – Soul Bar
Cave Singers (primitive garage rock) – Sky City
Lonely Forest (Northwest rock) – Sky City
Orgone (neo-funk) – The James Brown tribute concert I dream of nightly
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (electro-rock) – One minor hit away from selling out Imperial Theatre
The Alabama Shakes (rockin’ Southern soul) – A headline slot at Banjo-B-Que, Westobou or Southern Soul and Song
The Kooks (British invasion rock) – Second on the Rock Fore! Dough bill
Foster the People (Pumped-up rock) – First on the Rock Fore! Dough bill
Das Racist (spiritual heirs to the Beastie Boys’ throne) – Promoted right, it could attract every hipster in the state to the Lady A
Punch Brothers (string band superheroes) – Is there a reason Banjo-B-Que and/or Southern Soul and Song haven’t booked this yet?
Flogging Molly (Pub rock) – Sweatiest Sky City show ever
Alice Cooper (the original shock rocker) – He told me he wants to come to Augusta. The Bell might be a good place for him and his guillotine.
Surprise sets – I held out little hope for Foster the People or the high-profile DJ Skrillex. Both shocked me in the best possible way.