Phish wrapped Bonnaroo 2009 last night (with a sit-in from Bruce Springsteen), drawing the curtain on what producers feel was their most successful event ever on many levels.
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Aside from thunderstorms on Thursday that brought mud on Friday, and sometimes oppressive heat, the event came off well in terms of operations and financials. "We've got a great team out here and I feel like we're as prepared as any team possibly could be for whatever comes our way," says Ashley Capps, president of A.C. Entertainment, co-producers of Bonnaroo with Superfly Presents.
Talent-wise, Bonnaroo remained typically diverse, with a brace of headlining sets by reunited (and 'roo influence) Phish sandwiching an exuberant Saturday performance by Bruce Springsteen & the Street Band. In between were acts including Wilco, Elvis Costello, the Decemberists, Band Of Horses, Cage The Elephant, Mars Volta, Nine Inch Nails, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Merle Haggard, Gov't Mule, Snoop Dogg, Animal Collective, Booker T and the DBTs, and a late addition of Jimmy Buffett. "To me this year's the best Bonnaroo ever," Capps said. "I say that every year and I mean it every year."
Adds Superfly partner Jonathan Mayers, "Each year we try to raise the bar in every facet of the festival. You have to keep evolving, you don't want to stay static or you go backwards. Every year you want to look back and say 'wow this was better than the last year.'"
With some 125 acts on the bill, Capps says booking Bonnaroo is a "messy process" that can be years in the making. "We're already talking about 2010 and 2011," he says. "So many things take so long to come to fruition. The conversations with the Springsteen camp go back two to three years."
The Bonnaroo talent budget is a moving target, but was pretty much the same as last year when Metallica and Pearl Jam headlined. "Certainly an agent's job is to drive the best deal they can, we realize that, and our job is to pay what we believe is fair," says Capps. "We have considerable expenses, this is a challenging event to produce. It's not just about the talent, it's about providing the experience, the safety, and all of those factors are hugely expensive."
Capps says sales were "up dramatically" this year. "I haven't seen the final counts, but we were at 75,000 at least [Thursday] morning, up from about 70,000 [last year]."
But the metric for Bonnaroo success is not just gauged on box office. "It's not 'what's the ticket count?' it's about looking back each year and taking a step back and thinking about how the brand could be bigger than just the physical event," says Mayers. "Bonaroo stands for more than just the physical event. It's about a rite of passage, it's about curating the event, it's about the journey down here it's about creating a 365-day platform. We take a step back and look at where we're going to be in five years, the constant evolution of the brand."
More than 10% of this year's tickets were sold on layaway. "You have to be in touch with your audience, understand your audience, the good the band, the ugly," Mayers says. "This is a difficult economic climate and we have to think about that. You're building loyalty with that audience."