Just as thousands of eager music fans started streaming into the enormous Manchester, Tenn., site for Bonnaroo on June 7, the wildly popular event sold off the very last of its 80,000 tickets. Obviously, the capacity crowd was viewed as a great achievement, but as festival organizers now prepare for the show's 12th year in 2013, they're quantifying success by other means as well.
"It's been nice to see Bonnaroo's evolution on musical, creative and logistical fronts," said festival founding partner and Red Light Management owner Coran Capshaw as he took a (brief) break on a tour bus parked in a restricted area just a few steps away from all of the hectic Bonnaroo hubbub.
Above and beyond its status as a major music event, Bonnaroo has taken on a greater cultural significance, Capshaw said: "It's the offerings that fans get out here - whether it's music, cinema, comedy, art, décor. There really is no other festival experience quite like it."
Festival co-producer and AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps pointed out that enhancing the festival in seemingly small ways can, in aggregate, loom large. "You learn more every year, but you can't make all the improvements you'd like in one fell swoop," Capps said. Among these improvements: planting 110 new trees on the site. "That's already paying some dividends, but in 10 years it will be transformational," he said.
Festival organizers purchased the 750 acres of land that hosts Bonnaroo several years ago, which has allowed them to continually upgrade its offerings to fans. "We bought some extra land, creating more room at [the city-like epicenter] Centeroo and at our various campgrounds," Capps added. "Every one of those little steps goes a long way in creating a better experience."
Bonnaroo has become a rite of passage for bands at various points in their careers. Indie rock act Young the Giant arrived two days before its June 10 performance to do press interviews and check out other bands, including Little Dragons, Feist, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Friday night headliner Radiohead.
"Absolutely insane," Young the Giant singer Sameer Gadhia raved, while drummer Francois Comtois called Radiohead "a huge influence for us," on everything from the band's music to its career path. "I don't really know exactly what you do to get to that point," Comtois said. "You just have to be honest with yourself and trust yourself - that seems to be what Radiohead has done."
Aside from the stature and sheer quantity of bands, the event has also made strides in terms of logistics. Last year, Bonnaroo began using wristbands for admission instead of tickets or laminates, with each bracelet outfitted with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchip that improves crowd management and potentially delivers other benefits down the road.
Contrary to conspiracy theorists, the microchips aren't part of any "big brother" surveillance program, Capps explained. Fans who register their wristbands receive "an added level of protection" against theft or other mishaps, while allowing festival organizers to "identify people on-site, who's here, when they arrive and how many people are in Centeroo at a given time."
Capps added that the RFID technology may deliver "extra features" someday, perhaps offering a debit card-like system so fans don't need to carry cash. "You can put however much you intend to spend for the weekend on your wristband, so you don't have loose change, dollar bills, credit cards or whatever," he said. In addition, fans who register their wristbands may be contacted before the show and given more personalized information to improve their festival experience.