Promoter Ashley Capps used nontraditional promotional channels to start his music festival 12 years ago. Now he focuses on the power of community.
Bonnaroo is a four-day music and arts festival in rural Manchester, Tennessee (population 10,102). It attracts some 80,000 fans each June, who camp out with few amenities. This year’s lineup included Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam and dozens of other acts, large and small.
Twelve years ago, Ashley Capps, a rock promoter in Knoxville, Tennessee, had the idea of bringing together indie bands whose music was rarely played on the radio but who had legions of loyal fans.
He named the festival Bonnaroo after a Cajun term – derived from the French bon and rue and popularized by New Orleans rhythm and blues legend Dr. John – meaning “a really good time.” Capps signed up the bands and asked them to email their fans with an early bird offer of $100 for the four days.
“We were hoping to sell around 6,000 tickets over two weeks, so we’d have a base to build on,” says Capps. “That first day we sold 8,900.”
In several days they sold many more discounted tickets than they’d planned for. “When we raised the price to $125, some folks weren’t happy, but it gave others the impression that the festival was selling out, which it did.
“I had to call Ticketron in Nashville and tell them we didn’t need to use them. That was a fun call to make.
“That first year, I walked out on the stage and looked out at the crowd of 70,000 people,” says Capps. “It was the only time I’ve ever felt like a rock star, and it was the transformative moment of my life.
“The next year we had 80,000. One year we went up to 90,000 but that was too many. So we’ve set the limit at 80,000.”
Marketing lesson No. 1: The power of connecting
Even before the advent of social media, the Bonnaroo sellout demonstrated the power of email, websites and communities of interest working outside traditional avenues of mass media advertising and promotion.
“We didn’t spend one penny on advertising,” says Capps. In fact, a major appeal of Bonnaroo was that most of its artists were performing, recording and finding audiences outside the artistically stifling corporate music world.
The first year, cars were backed up on I-24 for 20 miles in each direction. Now, a temporary exit is set up on the interstate just for Bonnaroo. Coffee County – which each year enjoys an economic injection of some $51 million due to the festival – has worked out traffic patterns that keep the roads clear.
Marketing lesson No. 2: the power of community
Today, when Capps talks about Bonnaroo, he talks about creating communities.
“The camping experience is what gives Bonnaroo the feel it has,” he says. “Camping takes the attendees from passive to active. It makes them participants in a broader experience and a community.”
Bonnaroo now has movie and comedy tents, a food court, a 5K run, yoga practice each morning, a radio station and a daily newspaper.
“Along with the fans, we have different communities,” says Capps. “The artists, the staff of 5,000 and the 3,000 volunteers, the community of Coffee County. We do our best to be great stewards in the community.”
Marketing lesson No. 3: Sustainability is built in to the experience
Each year, Bonnaroo distributes three tons of leftover food to local communities. And the mountains of trash are picked up, composted or recycled by the 500 volunteers of CleanVibes Events Waste and Recycling Services of Marion, North Carolina.
The company was founded in 2000 by Anna Borofsky, a follower of the band Phish who was appalled by what she saw left behind after multi-day outdoor festivals and did something about it. Today CleanVibes works at festivals all over the country, along with some NASCAR races.
On the CleanVibes website, volunteers describe meaningful experiences working as part of a larger team, educating concert-goers about sustainability and making a real, measurable difference.
Marketing lesson No. 4: Meet the millennial market on its terms
When Capps decided to give a lifetime pass to the first fan to arrive on site one year, the winner arrived on a Harley.
“He pulled off his helmet and out fell these locks of hair,” says Capps. “He was a neurosurgeon from Chicago. So you just never know. Our audience is mostly in their 20s and early 30s, but there’s plenty of gray hair out there.”
Messages of community, experience and sustainability resonate with Millennials, along with the GenXers and Boomers who enjoy the Bonnaroo experience and return year after year.
The sustainability efforts and messages are genuine, innovative and practical. Millennials will sniff out phoniness and pretention in the experience and in the artists.
As an example of the Millennials’ apparent contradiction in their relationship to brands, they embrace both established brands of classic rock (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith) and the fiercely independent groups who maintain their individuality and thrive without the help of the suits in Nashville, New York and L.A., thank you very much.
Millennials can be reached in the context of experiences and community, through the channels of social media and the internet – but always by keeping it real.