Skip to main content

Tale of Two Festivals: Bonnaroo and CMA Music Fest Share Tennessee But Little Else

ere we compare and contrast CMA Fest and Bonnaroo as both festivals gear up for an unparalleled weekend of live music in Tennessee.

Some 200,000 music fans and 200-plus artists, along with scores of agents, managers, label execs, and other music industry players, will stream into Middle Tennessee this week as two of the highest-profile music festivals in the world launch within an hour of each other, a situation unique in the festival world. Set to run June 11-14 are the CMA Music Festival in downtown Nashville, and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival some 60 miles to the south on a 750-acre farm in rural Manchester, Tenn.

After taking place on consecutive weekends in 2014, Bonnaroo and CMA Fest are back to running concurrently this year. Both fests are significant cultural events and true destination festivals, drawing fans from all 50 states and several foreign countries. While the basic demographics of the festivals’ audiences are not dissimilar (both skew heavily to 20-somethings), beyond that, Bonnaroo and CMA Music Fest are entirely different beasts, with artists playing both fests only rarely over the course of the 13 years they’ve both been in existence. Here we compare and contrast CMA Fest and Bonnaroo as both festivals gear up for an unparalleled weekend of live music in Tennessee.


CMA Music Fest: A veritable who’s who of mainstream contemporary country music, spiced with classic country and with forays off into bluegrass, gospel, and rock. Noticeably absent: Toby Keith

Bonnaroo: Still boasting a healthy representation of its jam band roots, along with all the bluegrass, jazz, blues and folk leanings that improve music entails, Bonnaroo has evolved into an “everyman’s” music fest, featuring indie and classic rock, EDM, urban, Americana, R&B, reggae, and classic and current pop. Noticeably absent: pop country.

Superfly Co-Founders Jonathan Mayers & Richard Goodstone on Bonnaroo’s Future and Teaming With Live Nation


CMA Fest: Downtown Nashville on both sides of the Cumberland River, surrounded by honky-tonks, trendy restaurants, tourist shops, Bridgestone Arena, and the new Music City Center.

Bonnaroo: The Farm (officially known as Great Stage Park), a 750-acre field in rural Manchester, Tenn., surrounded by trees, cows, and a bemused local populace.


CMA Music Fest: Roughly 50,000 per day paid, for an announced aggregate attendance of nearly 200,000

Bonnaroo: Estimated 80,000 total attendance


CMA Music Fest: $177-$280 reserved

Bonnaroo: $300 GA

Lady Antebellum performs at the 2014 CMA Music Festival
Lady Antebellum performs at LP Field on Sunday, June 8 during the 2014 CMA Music Festival in downtown Nashville.  John Russell/CMA


CMA Fest: Produced by the Country Music Assn., CMA Fest was launched in 1972 as “Fan Fair” at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium and moved to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds 10 years later. In an effort to raise its profile in the burgeoning festival scene, the event changed its name to CMA Music Festival and moved downtown in 2004.

Bonnaroo: Launched by AC Entertainment and Superfly Presents (and backed by Red Light Entertainment’s Coran Capshaw) 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 Lionel Richie. Earlier this year, news came that Live Nation, the world’s largest promoter, had acquired a controlling interest in the festival and the Farm for an undisclosed amount, ending Bonnaroo’s reign as the largest independently produced festival in America.

Mumford & Sons on Returning to Bonnaroo After Cancellation: ‘It’s a Chance for Redemption’


CMA Music Fest: Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban, Bryan, Rascal Flatts, Zac Brown Band

Bonnaroo: Billy Joel, Mumford & Sons, Deadmau5, My Morning Jacket, Florence + The Machine, Kendrick Lamar


CMA Music Fest: Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Darius Rucker, The Band Perry, Gary Allan

Bonnaroo: Alabama Shakes, Bassnectar, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, Spoon, Ben Folds & Ymusic


CMA Fest: Sam Hunt, Cole Swindell, Chris Young, Ashley Monroe

Bonnaroo: Hozier, The War On Drugs, Sturgill Simpson, Childish Gambino, Twenty One Pilots


CMA Fest: Alan Jackson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Restless Heart, the Kentucky HeadHunters

Bonnaroo: Earth Wind & Fire, Tears For Fears, Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters


CMA Fest: Big Smo, The Cadillac Three, A Thousand Horses

Bonnaroo: Slayer, Kacey Musgraves, Against Me!


CMA Music Fest: The Cleverlys, Tim Montana & the Shrednecks, The Shuggah Pies

Bonnaroo: Rubblebucket, Snicklefritz, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizards

CMA Music Festival Kick-Off Concert Announces Lineup: Exclusive


CMA Fest: LP Field, Riverfront Stage, Plaza Stage, Park Stage

Bonnaroo: Which Stage, What Stage, This Tent, That Tent, Solar Stage


CMA Music Fest: Very much a celebration of the country music lifestyle, CMA Fest-goers are, as ever, fervently passionate about the genre and its artists, and come to Nashville to party with other country music fans and get as close as possible to their favorite artists. Like contemporary country music itself, CMA Fest has evolved over the years, with today’s crowd skewing toward early 20-somethings, with the polyester set with entire families wearing Billy Ray Cyrus t-shirts now virtually non-existent. Rowdy, over-served youths are not an uncommon sight, but weed smoke rarely, if ever, hovers over the audience. T-shirt security is abundant, and representatives of the Metro Nashville Police Department are highly visible. CMA Music Fest is a safe place to be.

Bonnaroo: Like CMA Fest, Bonnaroo’s audience has evolved over the years from the tie-dyed, granola-munching neo-hippies of the early ‘90s into a crowd not unlike many other mainstream rock festivals of today. There is, however, a pervasive sense of community present at Bonnaroo that many festivals lack, forged by the common on-site experience and bond that only spending four days together on a farm can bring. While drunken rowdiness is rare, Bonnaroo does host a buzzed crowd, with open pot use common and altered states the norm. Violence never happens at Bonnaroo, security is present but not heavy-handed, with the biggest danger at Bonnaroo being self-administered medications of various sorts.


CMA Music Fest: Artists are not paid to perform at CMA Fest, apparently considering the high profile of the event, the unique interaction with fans, the music education philanthropy, and support of CMA as payment enough.

Bonnaroo: Top headliners get paid $2 million and up, middle acts $300,000-$5,000, while baby acts often play for free.


CMA Music Fest: Dating back to its Fan Fair beginnings, CMA Music Fest is all about fans interacting with artists. Beyond numerous fan club parties at various locations around town, the new Music City Center is the epicenter of the fan/artist connection, a veritable country music theme park now known as the AT&T U-verse Fan Fair X, billed as “the Ultimate Country Music Fan Experience.”

Bonnaroo: Given that the overwhelming majority of fans stay on site the entire four days, The Farm becomes the fourth largest city in Tennessee each weekend in June, with all that entails. Among the non-music attractions are a 24-hour cinema, comedy club, beer festival, theater performers, classic arcade, and the ever-popular Silent Disco. Acres of camping, ranging from the smallest pup tents to “glamping” to elaborate RVs and the VIP Roll Like a Rock Star program tour buses (price tag: $18,000) creates a scene unto itself.

What Live Nation’s Bonnaroo Buy Means for Indie Festivals


CMA Fest: Lower Broadway

Bonnaroo: Centeroo


CMA Music Fest: Garth Brooks’ marathon 23 hour, 10 minute autograph signing session at the 265th Fan Fair in 1996

Bonnaroo: Tie: Radiohead’s transcendent 2006 What Stage headlining set; My Morning Jacket’s four-hour, wee hours tour de force on the Which Stage in a rainstorm in 2008.


CMA Music Fest: Shania Twain meets future ex-husband/producer Mutt Lange at Fan Fair in 1993

Bonnaroo: Bruce Springsteen joins Phish on stage in 2009, cranking out “Mustang Sally,” “Bobby Jean,” and “Glory Days.”

Bruce Springsteen and Trey Anastasio
Bruce Springsteen performs with Trey Anastasio of Phish on stage during Bonnaroo 2009 on June 14, 2009 in Manchester, Tennessee.   Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


CMA Music Fest: Paul McCartney, Duck Dynasty‘s Robertson family

Bonnaroo: The Olsen twins, Ron Jeremy


CMA Music Fest: Bud Light, sweet tea

Bonnaroo: Starr Hill, fruit smoothies


CMA Music Fest: Barbecue, catfish, anything fried

Bonnaroo: Food trucks, Baconland and the Gastropod Diner


CMA Music Fest: AT&T U-Verse, Chevrolet, Belk, Bud Light, Delta, Durango, Spam

Bonnaroo: Ford, Garnier Fructis, Red Bull, Teva, GNC, Miller Lite, Kohler


CMA Music Fest: The festival airs as a primetime special on ABC in August, “Country’s Night To Rock”

Bonnaroo: Live streaming at Red Bull TV.


CMA Music Fest: The CMA Music Fest provides millions of dollars to benefit music education in schools.

Bonnaroo: The Bonnaroo Works Fund supports regional and national organizations with a “mission of making communities healthy in areas of the arts, education, and environmental sustainability; with the goal of local reinvestment and asset building for the communities in which we live, work and play.”


CMA Music Fest: “Leave the Night On,” Sam Hunt; “Don’t It,” Billy Currington; “Homegrown,” Zac Brown Band; “Crushin’ It,” Brad Paisley; “Drunk On A Plane,” Dierks Bentley

Bonnaroo: “Ship To Wreck,” Florence + The Machine; “Snake Eyes,” Mumford & Sons; “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel; “Spring (Among The Living),” My Morning Jacket; “Rainbow,” Robert Plant


CMA Music Fest: Men: Backwards ball caps, sleeveless Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts (or no shirt at all), cargo shorts, aviators, Nikes. Women: Cowboy hats, Daisy Dukes, short skirts/sleeveless sundresses, bikini tops, Western boots

Bonnaroo: Men: Backwards ball caps, Wayfarers, Social Distortion t-shirts, Fila skele-toes, cargo shorts Women: Sundresses, aviators, floral headbands, body paint, Birkenstock sandals


CMA Music Festival:,,

Bonnaroo:,, @Bonnaroo,,


CMA Music Fest: Moonshine

Bonnaroo: High octane herb