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Go Behind the Scenes at Bonnaroo, From Bringing Kanye Back to ‘Surprises’ On the Ground

This 700-acre farm in rural Manchester, Tenn., will be swarmed with 80,000 euphoric Bonnaroovians by Thursday, but right now it's a hub of productivity as Jonathan Mayers, president of Bonnaroo…

This 700-acre farm in rural Manchester, Tenn., will be swarmed with 80,000 euphoric Bonnaroovians by Thursday, but right now it’s a hub of productivity as Jonathan Mayers, president of Bonnaroo co-producer Superfly Presents, assesses the situation for Billboard.

“It’s great to see the crew, old friends, everyone on-site, and see the projects we’ve been working on come to life,” Mayers says. “Things are pretty smooth. It feels like we’re ahead of schedule, the grounds look great, and we’re excited for the weekend.”

By June 12-15, Kanye West, Elton John, Jack White, Lionel Richie, the Avett Brothers, Phoenix, Arctic Monkeys, Skrillex, and some 80 other acts will rock the Tennessee countryside. But in these days leading up to Thursday, tents are being set up, art installations are being built and tweaked, the grass is being striped for parking spaces, vendors are loading in. At night, producers and crew fire up the grill and gear up for the coming weekend.

“I look around through the campgrounds and there’s this tranquility,” Mayers observes, “and knowing there will be 80,000 people descend on the property in a few days, it’s a cool thing.”

Each Bonnaroo is a distinctively different animal, and over 13 years literally thousands of stories, dramas, epic performances, and memories have played out on this former cow pasture about 60 miles South of Nashville. “I think about that a lot,” Mayers admits. “When you walk the grounds, walk on the stages, you think about how many amazing performances, how many great memories have taken place on this property, I get this amazing feeling every time I come back to it.”

One of those stories took place in 2008, when West was first booked into Bonnaroo. Rather than open old wounds, suffice to say it didn’t work out so well. Bonnaroo bookers shocked both fans and the industry when they announced that West would be one of the festivals headliners this year.

From Bonnaroo message boards to the graffiti posted on the Bonnaroo wall ever since 2008, the move to bring the superstar rapper back was either ballsy or misguided, depending on whom one asks. In actuality, West’s return falls in line with Bonnaroo booking philosophy: expect the unexpected.

“We’ve always tried to be bold in our booking,” Mayers says. “When we had Metallica back in 2008, we knew that was a great way to expand our programming and showcase this legendary band. But that was a shift, maybe, in what some people’s perception was about Bonnaroo. We’ve always taken that stance, and what it comes down to is Kanye West is one of the great contemporary artists, an amazing live artist that puts so much into a show. That’s what Bonnaroo is all about: artists that bring it live.”

Mayers adds that producers were “always open minded to bringing him back,” and discussions to do so have been taking place for at least a couple of years.  “Last year there was even a discussion about him doing a surprise performance, but that didn’t happen,” says Mayers. “We collectively — both our team and Kanye’s team — wanted to come back and do it right this time.”

Ultimately, it’s all about “pushing boundaries, being bold, and these are good things, we believe,” Mayers says. “Our audience has an open mind to a lot of different things, and we encourage people to check it out. I think people will be blown away by his show.”

Building the Bonnaroo lineup is “a rolling process,” Mayers says. “We’re always having conversations, and we’re already starting to think about next year, who our wish list is, understanding who’s going to be touring, who will have new records out, the lay of what’s going to be happening,” he explains. “We have our format for the ways we look at it, and it’s a successful format.”

That format has the opening Thursday as emerging artists day, where artists take their shots to one day play the main stage as a headliner. My Morning Jacket, the Avett Brothers, and Kings Of Leon are all acts that have graduated from Bonnaroo’s smallest tents to the What Stage, climbing the various rungs of the ladder like Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, and The Other Tent. “It’s amazing to see artists grow with us, starting in tents and playing the main stage and headlining,” Mayers says. “Future headliners will play on Thurday, you just know it.”

Bonnaroo has also become known for hosting monumental Super Jams, unique collaborations that have become a signature of the festival. Comedy, theatrical attractions and other non-musical performances round out the Bonnaroo experience. “We really continue to be conscious of showcasing a diverse lineup and touching on many different genres, from legends to emerging artists,” says Maters. “That’s the goal.”

As at every festival, Bonnaroo bookers are hard core music fans, and Mayers is no exception. Asked who he is stoked to see perform this year, Mayers says, “I’m always excited for the Superjam, and this year we’re doing it with Skrillex.  I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of the emerging artists: Darkside, Ty Segal. Thursday is a great way to see artists I haven’t had a chance to see yet. Elton closing the festival will definitely be a special moment.”

Meanwhile, veteran Bonnaroovians should expect to see an ever-evolving site, with new and intriguing changes to the whimsical ‘roo grounds, like the addition of the Jake & Snake Christmas Club Barn last year. “We always try to add different elements and redesign some of our iconic pieces, like the arch, the tower, or the fountain,” Mayers says. “They get re-skinned each year with a new design aesthetic. We have some new installations going on, new programming ideas, a bunch of surprises out there. We keep expanding, keep growing the festival, and each year is a new, fresh look building off the tradition.”

Bonnaroo owns the property on which it sits, allowing them to build permanent infrastructure, and that includes building a main stage four years ago capable of presenting virtually any production imaginable. “We’ll continue to build out the site, improve the experience,” Mayers says. “We continue to look at opportunities of what else we can do on the property, and there may be things on the horizon there. As we own the property, it makes sense to add more and more infrastructure.”


A recent article in Rolling Stone seemed to take a shot at pricey VIP programs at festivals, but festival producers overall are not only trying to build revenue streams — festivals are hugely expensive endeavors, costing well over $10 million to produce at the highest level. But, more importantly, producers look to be more inclusive in the experiences they offer, and to tap into a wide range of demographics. That’s no different than gold circle seating on most tours, or suites at arenas and stadiums, or first class tickets on a flight. Festivals, like any other business, must cater to consumer demand.

“We are a business, and we do try to look for opportunities to create new revenue streams,” Mayers says. “But, always, we’re looking at revenue streams and opportunities that are gong to enhance the experience, allow people who maybe wouldn’t come to enjoy Bonnaroo in a way that makes sense for them. We believe strongly that you have to provide options. Somebody who’s in college might jump in a car with their friends and wants to camp out and have that experience. Different people want to do it in an RV, or want to have a tent that’s already set up for them when they come on site. We want to be able to grow with our audience and build on our community, expand the range of different demographics and age groups.”

From VIP experiences like the Roll Like a Rock Star bus program (run by CID and Pioneer Coach) to pup tents, Mayers says sales are on a par with last year’s sellout pace. “We’re closing in on a sellout, so we’ll have over 80,000 on site,” Mayers says. “It’s going to be another successful festival.”

Bonnaroo is partnering with xBox for its live streaming this year in a collaboration that will feature a wealth of content-related programs. The live stream will be hosted on the xBox Bonnaroo app, as well as at “We try to keep taking the webcast experience to the next level, we’ll introduce a lot of innovative things in the way we’re presenting the festival weekend,” says Mayers.

This year, attendees can connect their RFID wristband to Microsoft OneDrive to “check in” by tapping their wristband at different stages. “For each show an attendee ‘checks in’ for, they’ll have an exclusive photo from that performance sent to their OneDrive account,” Mayers explains. “In addition, we’ve set up photo kiosks around the festival grounds where attendees can take pictures of themselves, and have them sent to OneDrive as well.”

Mayers says Bonnaroo is also using OneDrive to highlight a Bonnaroo photo history, with over 100 images dating back to 2002 through the present year. The collection features a variety of images from photographers Ryan Maestro, Taylor Crothers, and Danny Clinch.

As activity heats up down in Tennessee, Mayers and the rest of the Bonnaroo team are busy teeing up one of the most successful festival brands in the world. “We’re so excited for 13 years, we have to pinch ourselves that we’re so lucky to be able to do this, keep evolving and growing the festival,” he says. “We’re more passionate than ever about what Bonnaroo is, what it stands for, and what it can be.”