Ashley Capps on This Weekend's Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, Asheville, Bonnaroo, Way More (Q&A)

Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, which is presenting the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit Oct. 25-27 in Asheville, North Carolina.

(Photo: Courtesy AC Entertainment)


One of the things most surprising is how far flung your music tastes lie. You had a radio show on an NPR in Knoxville called Unhinged in the late-1970s where you played artists like Anthony Braxton. And the first show you booked was Tristan Honsinger, a free jazz cellist -- where did that come from? How come you weren’t burned at the stake?
Sometimes it’s really nice to be in an unexpected place and be able to create something in an environment that is open and unexplored in that regard.

And the Tristan Honsinger show sold out.
That tells you that at the time there was a certain hunger. That there was an openness and certain hunger to explore and experience things a little more different.

I know your parents had Beatles records, but how did you go from that to Anthony Braxton?
I’ve always has an aspect of my personality that wants to learn and explore and that came out pretty early. My dad was a drummer, not professionally except for short period in his life, but he as a jazz fan, a drummer. He traveled to New York a lot and he’d tell me about seeing these artists in jazz clubs. I remember at a pretty young age about the same time I'm discovering the Beatles I’m also discovering Miles Davis, Lee Konitz and Gil Evans -- these are records that I stole from my father that I still have in my collection to this day. I didn’t necessarily know what to do with some of the music, but there was something about it that I’d keep listening to. I love pure pop music – the Beach Boys and Hermans Hermits, the Beatles, and Gary Lewis & the Playboys and all of the pop music of the time, but it didn’t keep me from buying Frank Zappa records. 

Miller's Department Store in Knoxville

Kids today seem more open minded to different kinds of music and can go seamlessly between say an EDM festival, indie rock show and hip-hop – and that’s still not as big a range as what you seemed to be ingesting.
I remember buying a frank zappa record at the department store when I’m like 12 years old. I bought it because it had a weird cover. This was in Knoxville -  it was Miller’s Department Store I still remember the day that I saw it sitting on the shelf and I was like ‘boy, that looks really weird, I want to check it out.’

How’d it get to Knoxville department store?
That was one of the other thing about the 60's there was a lot of things making their way – it was hard to find out about stuff maybe, but there was a tremendous renaissance going on in music. Whether it was John Coltrane or Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sun Ra or Jimmi Hendrix and Cream – in a way there were no boundaries. Bill Graham at the Fillmore putting Miles Davis on in front of Santana - which these days makes perfect sense but back then it didn’t really.


I read that your wife is German and that seeing how European festivals were run inspired you to think about having a camping and music festival.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Europe regularly since the mid-1980s and one of the things I was struck by in the late-80s and throughout the 90s is the degree which festivals are the cultural landscape of the European summer for music. Fests of all kinds – classical music, jazz festival, avant-garde, big rock festivals, city festivals, camping festivals – they’re everywhere. What seemed like an infinite number and I was very inspired by that. I started trying my hand at other small festivals whether it was a jazz festival weekend or a bluegrass weekend -- we did a little thing here just to celebrate spring. I was very intrigued by the festival experience.

Didn’t you have something in Knoxville called Hot Summer nights? 
That was actually an outdoor concert series. Although we built a couple of festival concept series. That started in 1992 and lasted until 1999 when they closed part of the park to build a convention center. That’s what really pushed me out of just doing the outdoor experience and looking to another alternative because we were like we’ve been doing these outdoor shows how can we keep doing them?

During this whole time there started to be conversations with some of the bands that played Bonnaroo the first year like String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, the Grateful Dead – at the time it was Phil and Friends – who we focused on. The idea germinated in a lot of different ways and took a lot of different paths. One of the most influential things for Bonnaroo in particular was Glastonbury. It was just such an iconic event. The fact that there had been this festival that had all of the aspects of Wooddstock and more but it had survived year after year after year since 1970 in some incarnation – I would just look at that or like Woodlands or Roskilde and think why is this not going on in Asheville?

What is the state of Bonnaroo 12 years in – how's its growth, structure, success?
I say this every year and I really mean it every year. It just keeps getting better and better and it’s something that I dare not predict. Almost every year we find it’s like “Okay, what are we going to do next year?” But somehow through the creative process it all comes together to create a really great experience. Last year based on what I heard from fans, what I heard from artists, and from what I heard from our team - many of whom have been out there all 12 years – it was the best festival ever. I’m not sure what the chemistry is exactly but I do think the team that plans and executes every aspect of Bonnaroo asks ourselves one question every year which is how can we create the most amazing experience that we know how?  I think as long as we focus on those details we’ll continue to create an event that people will respond to.

Does it get harder and harder to top once you’ve had Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney– are you gong to get Zeppelin to reunite? What can you do?
We’ve done a good job of not letting ourselves get sidetracked thinking how we can top presenting this artist or that artist and really focus on what the opportunities are in any given year. Every year something really extraordinary emerges from the whole process.  People ask how can you top Paul McCartney. You can’t top Paul McCartney. You can’t do that. And Paul’s performance at Bonnaroo was everything you could ever possibly ever want a Paul McCartney show to be and more. It was – hate to use this word – it was an iconic performance. It floored everyone who experienced it. It was so wonderful so inspirational.  You can’t top it but you can use the inspiration from that and try to do the best that you can to create something amazing in 2014 which working hard at doing.


Did you just open an office in Nashville?
We did a couple of weeks ago. We announced it last week.

It was really the culmination of a lot of things we’ve been working on that’s just grown and grown and grown. Part of it has to do with Bonnaroo – we started working even more closely with the Nashville Conventions Visitor’s Bureau and the City of Nashville the State of Tennessee and were looking for synergies. There’s some interesting ideas and programs that we’re exploring with them. Last year we did a shuttle program for the first time that enabled people to experience Bonnaroo in a slightly different way. Some of them lived in Nashville, some chose to stay in Nashville and go back and forth. It’s actually the only way you can experience just a single day of Bonnaroo.

Are you thinking about a festival in Nashville or growing your footprint there?
We’re already very, very active in Nashville we have a partnership with two clubs – with the Marathon Music Works, which is a 1,700 seat venue and with the Exit Inn which is 500 capacity and an iconic venue in Nashville – it’s the place where the Clash played when they first came to Nashville and Jimmy Buffett, Springsteen, Rahsaan Roland Kirk—it was an amazing venue in the 70s.

And we do quite a few shows at the Ryman and we do stuff at the arena. Over the last 15 months have had a close association with the Nashville Symphony – they have an extraordinary Symphony Hall called the Schermerhorn and we’ve been booking all their non-symphony performances since Aug. 2012 and it’s been a very successful program. For all these things it just got to the point where – Nashville is only 2.5 hours from Knoxville and we can do it from here, but it got to the point where we really couldn’t anymore.

How many employees do you have?
I think 51 somebody just told me – we’ve started adding people.

You were managing Abigail Washburn for a while and read you stopped doing management, why?
I felt like I needed to focus my time and attention on events. It’s really what I’m good at and more and more opportunities were emerging and I simply had to make a very difficult decision. Fortunately, I love Abigail Washburn and working with her was a very very wonderful and rewarding thing. The woman who helped me to do that is continuing to work with Abigail so there’s a continuity there.  It just got to the point where I didn't think I could pursue what I needed to purse and offer Abigail the kind of support that any artist needs from a manager.

It’s interesting these days how many companies are becoming full-service operations – a publicity firm opens a management agency and then a publishing/licensing wing and it seems to kind of sprawl.
It’s very tempting, I found myself wanting to be involved on the management end because I did want to experience the business a little bit more from an artist perspective. I felt like I had some experiences to offer that would be valuable for artists. In truth, the day-to-day practice of that became a lot more complicated.

You must see so many artists throughout the year who you must think you would like to help.
That was exactly the impulse I had for a while – I was very enthusiastic and wanted to help but management is a 24/7 gig. When it got to the point it was clear that I had to make a decision to go in one direction or the other I felt that my skills were more in the event creation business and there’s a lot of opportunities here. We engage with artists as curators we encourage artists to create special projects, there’s a lot of opportunities on the creative end of things – artist management is its own very special niche.