Widespread Panic closed out the 10th anniversary of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., last night, wrapping one of the most successful runs in the event's history.
With inspired performances and a logistically smooth run, Bonnaroo finished with sellout attendance of 80,000 and a gross north $20 million. While they've flirted with a sellout the last couple of years, this was the first time Bonnaroo sold all available tickets since 2007.
A sellout is "an affirmation that we're successfully creating an event that people want to come to, it's as simple as that," says Ashley Capps, president of Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, co-producers of Bonnaroo with Superfly Productions. "It's especially affirming in the way that the festival has evolved, because [Bonnaroo] has definitely changed over the years. I know if we were doing the same festival in 2011 that we were doing in 2002 we would have a fraction of that number, because the tastes and the interests of the public have changed."
True, Bonnaroo began with a sellout featuring a jam-centric lineup that included Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident and Phil Lesh & Friends as its headliners. While Panic and SCI were both on the bill this year, so were Eminem, Lil Wayne, the Black Keys, Arcade Fire, Bassnectar, and scores of other acts touching a wide range of other musical styles.
The first year sold out at 70,000 "because that's what we felt comfortable with," and producers went to 80,000 capacity the second year. In 2004, they sold 90,000 tickets and "it was too many people," according to Capps. "We did not feel like we could deliver the experience we wanted to deliver at 90,000, so we brought it back down to 80,000. Now as we're developing certain aspects of the infrastructure of the site, we might be able to possibly increase the number a little bit, we've talked about it. But we don't want to do anything that sacrifices the experience, and 10,000 more people out there has a real impact."
Sponsorships at Bonnaroo were "very healthy," Capps says, but don't expect to see a naming rights deal for the fest. "That's just not in the cards, for the same reason we don't name any of the main stages, either," says Capps. "Having sponsors really integrated into the experience is great for fans and sponsors, and it's really more valuable than things like naming rights to us. That's what we always want to do with our sponsors, have them completely weave what they do into the overall experience for the fans, and it's something the fans appreciate and know the sponsors make this aspect of the festival possible. But we also feel like the festival's integrity is what gives it its power, and it would be very short term thinking to undermine the integrity of the event by over-doing [sponsorships]."
As to selling the festival itself, Capps admitted "there has been interest over the years," but quickly added, "We're not in any serious discussions right now."
The success of Bonnaroo 2011 coincides with an overall robustness for festivals across North America, including the largest, such as the Goldenvoice-produced Coachella festival in Indio, Calif. -- which recently announced that it's expanding to two weekends next year -- and C3 Presents' Lollapalooza in Chicago and ACL Fest in Austin, Calif., all of which either anticipate or have already achieved sellout status. Festivals have for years been a staple of the summer music business in Europe and Capps thinks they're in growth mode in the U.S.
"I think the audiences in North America are warming up to the festival culture," Capps says. "In a lot of ways it's just beginning as fans are getting some festivals some under their belts and embracing the experience."
Even with its success, Bonnaroo 2011 was marred by the death of a 32-year-old Pittsburgh-area woman, who was found dead in her tent Thursday night of unspecified causes. "Safety is our number one concern at Bonnaroo, and when a tragedy like this happens it really impacts us all," Capps says. "It's very sad."
Given that neither Superfly nor AC Entertainment had produced an event remotely on the scale of Bonnaroo prior to 2002, to have it become the cultural touchtstone that it has is a bit overwhelming, Capps admits. "We're all blown away by the success of Bonnaroo," he says. "It certainly has had a momentum to it that none of us in our wildest dreams could have expected. We thought it was a good idea or we never would have done it, but its evolution and its significance in the musical landscape is something that genuinely grew organically and came from our initial impulse, which was to create a great music festival."
For more on Bonnaroo check out Billboard.com's coverage here.