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Exclusive: Bonnaroo Founders Talk Impact of Live Nation Deal, Including More Events at 'The Farm'

Cage the Elephant at Bonnaroo 2014
FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival

Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant performs at Which Stage during day 3 of the 2014 Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival on June 14, 2014 in Manchester, Tennessee.

AC Entertainment founder Ashley Capps and Superfly co-founder Rick Farman talk to Billboard about a monumental move.

In yet another aggressive move into the North American festival space, Live Nation has acquired a controlling interest in the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., as well as an interest in the 750-acre site it sits on known as The Farm, for an undisclosed amount. Founded by Superfly and AC Entertainment (and significantly financed in the beginning by Red Light Management founder Coran Capshaw), Bonnaroo was, until this morning, the largest independent music festival in the U.S., and the Live Nation acquisition of the fest follows similarly structured deals with Lollapalooza/ACL producer C3 Presents, and Electric Daisy Carnival producer Insomniac.

But Bonnaroo is a different animal entirely. With annual attendance of more than 80,000 and an estimated gross in the $25 million range, and the overwhelming majority of attendees staying onsite for the festival’s entire four-day run, Bonnaroo is the most immersive of the major U.S. music festivals, a four-day city with nearly constant entertainment, its own post office, newspaper, cinema, and acres of campsites. Launched in 2002 at the height of the neo-jam band movement, Bonnaroo years ago transcended its hippie roots, presenting such artists as Metallica, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West, Elton John and 2015 headliners Billy Joel, Mumford & Sons and Deadmau5. In an exclusive interview, Billboard spoke with Bonnaroo co-producers Rick Farman, co-founder of Superfly (with partners Rich Goodstone, Jonathan Mayers, and Kerry Black), and Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment, about the future of Bonnaroo, why Live Nation, and why now.   
 
Billboard: What influenced the decision to partner with Live Nation on Bonnaroo?

Ashley Capps: The conversations built organically from discussions about partnering with Live Nation on some other festival concepts that might take place on The Farm. We started talking about potential infrastructure development and, really, one conversation led to another. As these discussions went forward, internally we felt like this was a strategic alliance that could really help us take Bonnaroo to the next level and strengthen the festival for years to come.

Rick Farman: That’s certainly the history of how it unfolded. As we got into these discussions, [Live Nation CEO] Michael Rapino did a fantastic job, as he did with other entrepreneurs, of creating a dynamic where we’ll be empowered to go, as their partner, take this thing to the next level. We feel like having a partner that brings to the table all of the knowledge, scale and assets that they do puts Bonnaroo in an amazing position to continue to be one of the leaders in the space and provide the best fan experience possible. We love partnerships, this business was founded on great partnerships -- between Superfly, AC and Coran [Capshaw], and this is another step in building the best team to continue to have the most amazing festival possible.

You’re already one of the most important rock festivals in the world, with one of the highest attendences and grosses, and beloved by fans. So what’s the next level?

Farman: Well, for starters, part of this arrangement is to make some significant site improvements. We’re basically going to get right to work at bringing The Farm to an even greater level of fan experience. We’re not ready to talk about details yet, as we have a lot of work to do, but now we have the resources and the partner to help us bring the facility to a whole new level. That’s a huge element of this, for sure. And then, in general, being able to not only access the vast resources and dollars that Live Nation as a company has, but also to engage in dialogue with some of the other festival partnerships and entrepreneurs they’ve brought into the fold. We’re going to be looking to collaborate and share ideas and resources to have that knowledgebase for us.

Capps: The key words are "enhance” and “evolve.” It’s not like there’s going to be any sudden transformation, at all. The team that has been working on The Farm and producing the Bonnaroo experience from the very first year to the present day is the same team, it’s going to remain the same team. This will simply give us the access to resources and knowledge that will enable us to evolve the festival experience in a really compelling way.

Formally or informally, did you guys talk with the [Insomniac founder] Pasquale Rotella or the C3 guys, who made similar moves with their own very distinctive festival brands, and did that play a role in your decision?

Farman: Those guys are all contemporaries and people we respect greatly and, informally, we followed their history, and we’ve had dialogue over the years about how their businesses have evolved. And a lot of the things we’ve heard over the years about how Michael [Rapino] and the team that he has, how they do business, how they support entrepreneurialism and people in our positions, how they’re good partners, all of that. As we were getting into forming this partnership, all of what we’d heard in the past really shined through.

I’m sure there have been other offers in the past, and you sell out the festival every year, so why now?

Capps: Yes, there have been discussions, off and on, for years, but timing is everything, and we felt this was the right time in the history of this festival to make this move. It was right for us, it was right for the festival, it was right for the environment out there. It was time to strike this type of strategic alliance.

In some ways is it a validation of what you guys have built?

Farman: Absolutely. As I said before, we built this business on partnerships, and having a company like Live Nation come to the table and want to be part of that partnership in the way that they are here, and making the commitment to taking Bonnaroo to the next level, is an extremely gratifying, humbling validation of the hard work that not only my team and Ashley’s team have put in, but certainly all the people part of the Bonnaroo family that helped this thing become what it is. We couldn’t be more excited to move forward with our team in the new partnership in this regard.

Does this deal impact your other interests, like Outside Lands in San Francisco for Superfly and Forecastle in Louiville for AC?

Capps: It doesn’t impact them in a structural way at all, Live Nation is not buying AC or Superfly. But I think we all are looking forward to developing this relationship, and I know we all look forward to exploring what the future may hold. But there are no discussions or plans along those lines, this is strictly a Bonnaroo deal.

In what ways would fans notice this year or in coming years that there has been a change in the structure of the ownership of Bonnaroo?

Farman: I don’t think you’ll see anything this year. The major change people will notice over the coming years is in how we improve the Farm and the things we’re able to do in that regard. Otherwise, it’s kind of business as usual for Superfly and AC. We’re the operators going forward, and the team that has been producing it is going to continue producing it, and that’s what we’re empowered to do here, use the resources and support that the Live Nation network provides and to go on and do that great job we’ve been doing for many years. Ultimately, if you’re a fan of Bonnaroo, you’re going to see us be able to do things that the community has always asked for. Other than that, I don’t think there will be any significant or meaningful impact that fans of Bonnaroo, people that are part of our community, the people in the local community, will see. The only adjunct to that is we’re going to put a greater emphasis on bringing some other events to the Farm, which I think will be beneficial to everyone involved, the Bonnaroo community and the local and regional community, as well.

I imagine that more than a few Bonnaroo fans will be a little leery of this announcement. What will you do to address fan concerns that things might change at Bonnaroo?
 
Capps: The experience of the festival itself will address the fans’ concerns. The values of Bonnaroo, the vibe of Bonnaroo, no one wants to see that change, it’s not going to change. This alliance with Live Nation is only going to give us the resources to continue to improve that experience perhaps a little more quickly than we’ve been able to do before, in terms of just basic infrastructure that enables us to do what we do better.

In the deeply immersive festival game in the U.S., Bonnaroo is at the top of food chain, and it’s not really Live Nation’s expertise in North America. So it would seem they have more to learn in operating this type of festival than vice versa, would you agree?

Farman: I think we’ll add something significant in terms of our knowledge and creativity and vision to that organization, absolutely, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity this affords us to be connected to other festival promoters globally. Certainly, we have deep respect for our contemporaries over here [in the U.S.], but we’ve also been inspired by many of the partners that they have over in Europe. That knowledge of what makes a great long-term festival exists there, and we’re going to be adding to it.

What does this deal say about the maturation of the U.S. festival business?

Farman: I think that it’s more indication that this industry is here to stay for the long term, that the value that we create for fans, the experience, the relationships we have with artists, the ability for us to really create something important culturally, is further cemented by the support that us and others are getting from the industry at large. It’s amazing for us to look back, with our contemporaries who started this a decade-and-a-half or more ago in America, to be really proud of where we’ve taken it, and to be in a position where there’s nothing in our way from taking it beyond what we created, evolving it, and keeping it going for a really, really long time. This stuff isn’t going anywhere, it’s here for the long haul.


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