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Thursday, June 12, 2014

A conversation with Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps

Used with permission from Ashley Capps
  • Courtesy Ashley Capps

Starting today (June 12), a lone piece of farmland in a remote stretch of Tennessee will be converted into a musical wonderland with a temporary population of close to 100,000 eager citizens. There is no central figure or leadership in this magical pop-up city of superjams and psychedelic fountains, but if there ever was a mayor of Bonnaroo, it would undoubtedly be Ashley Capps.

Co-founder of AC Entertainment, the masterminds behind a number of Southeastern festivals, Capps has wielded more influence over the Southeastern festival circuit than any individual over the last 20 years. His work as show promoter started when he organized shows at the University of Tennessee in the '70s, which grew into a lifelong love when he founded AC Entertainment in 1991.

Even though Bonnaroo, the East Coast's answer to Coachella, is certainly Capps' most popular brainchild, he has altered the Southeast's musical landscape more through his dedication to smaller, niche music festivals. This year saw AC Entertainment host the third annual Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. Whereas Bonnaroo focuses on brining in a variety of musical heavyweights, Big Ears shines a light on the avant-garde, the experimental, and the weird musical voices that have influenced music from the shadows of obscurity.

Yet the musical festival's revival raises issues of authenticity and whether it truly holds the artists' best interests at heart. A common practice demanded of promoters is the "radius clause," which states that artists can't play within a certain time or distance from the festival to ensure a level of exclusivity for the festival. Countless reunions from OutKast to Neutral Milk Hotel have also been spurred in part to the significant financial incentives offered by festival dates. So far OutKast has yet to schedule one show outside of a festival, forcing attendees to cough up a hefty ticket price to gain entry to a festival they might not have cared about in the first place.

In an email exchange, Capps spoke at length about the effectiveness of the radius clause, promoting more obscure artists in a mainstream festival, and the legacy AC Entertainment has left on the Southeast.

How have you seen the advent of music festivals over the past two decades revive the music industry?

I think that music festivals - the really good ones at least - have a very positive influence on the music biz in a number of ways. For one thing, they've helped to restore the focus on the overall experience for the audience and the artists alike - and on the social aspect of coming together with friends and making new friends who share a similar passion for music and life. The great festivals work hard to enhance and nurture that. Plus, they can give artists an extraordinary opportunity to not only play for those who are already their fans but also to connect with many potential new fans. A well-programmed festival is booked in a manner - curated, you might say - to encourage audiences to make connections and discover new music that they love. It helps to keep the music - and the connection between artists and audiences - vibrant and healthy.

Do you think the "radius clause" (i.e., bands can't play within a certain number of miles or months prior to the festival) demanded by festivals hinders a fan's ability to experience music?

No. It's important to consider the big picture here. The "radius clause" serves to help a festival maintain its unique character and appeal, which is important for the long-term success of all festivals. It helps to keep the scene strong. It may require artists and their managers and agents to be a bit more creative in their tour planning, but over the long term its best for all concerned. And an artist can come back in a few months to build on a strong festival play and hopefully play for even more fans than before.

How have festivals like Bonnaroo managed to convince even the most unlikely dormant bands like Neutral Milk Hotel to come out of the woodwork for reunions?

Well ... I don't think we can take credit for Neutral Milk Hotel reuniting - it was their fans who did that - but we are thrilled that they're playing our festival. We do, however, try to explore unique ideas and offer opportunities for artists to do so as well. At Bonnaroo, a great example of that is our "Superjams," which have become a much anticipated and very special part of our weekend. The opportunity to create a unique one-of-a-kind experiences at Bonnaroo allows us to explore our own creative ideas and to offer unforgettable memories for all of us.

Why do you think Mountain Oasis failed to garner the necessary revenue and what challenges have increased in organizing the festival that were not as present beforehand?

Smaller festivals - and especially those that take place indoors in venues with especially limited capacities - can be a delicate balancing act from a business perspective. The parameters are tighter, but the expectations are similar to that of a big festival. There's no wiggle room. We thought we could make it work, and indeed we did on the first Asheville Moogfest in 2010. But the others struggled ... they all got close but then we couldn't quite get them across the finish line to success. They didn't really lose that much money, but it was a lot of hard work to lose anything at all. And there were increasing challenges in a shortage of downtown hotel rooms in Asheville and - perhaps biggest of all - no place to really grow the festival further. So we decided to give it a rest. The fans who attended loved the festivals as did we, so it was a tough decision. But we also have other great opportunities to pursue that seemed to make a lot more sense for us, both creatively and financially, so we've decided to put our energies towards those.

Moogfest just announced they lost $1.5 million this year, why do you think it's so difficult to have a profitable festival in Asheville?

That's a huge loss for such a small event. They weren't even using the larger arena venue that we used during the three years that we produced Moogfest in 2010-2012. So I can't speak to that. But, in a nutshell, Asheville has some infrastructure challenges in terms of venues - especially the lack of a viable outdoor space - and the huge demand for limited hotel rooms that make things difficult. Asheville's a great town, and it's very busy especially on weekends. It's almost a festival of its own every weekend now ... there's so much going on with the food and beer scene, there's lots of live music ... so that may be a factor, too.

Will Mountain Oasis ever be rebooted?

There are no plans at the moment, but never say never. We love Asheville, we've booked the Orange Peel there, which is a world-class club, for over a decade and we do lots of shows at the Auditorium and the Arena. If it makes sense at some point in the future, we could bring it back. We'll see.

Why did AC Entertainment decide to revive Big Ears this year and will it be an annual event in the future?

Big Ears is a very special festival and we've always intended to bring it back. In fact, we never really intended for Big Ears to take the four-year hiatus that it did after 2010. But as we started to plan 2011, we encountered some major challenges with venue availability, artist availability, and some conflicts with other events, so we decided to postpone. Then we just got very, very busy on other projects. In late 2012, however, we were approached by some influential people in the community who really wanted to see it come back, so they gave us a few strong nudges - and some extraordinary support - to get us focused. So it came back with a bang in 2014. Yes, we are planning to produce Big Ears annually ... we're already very deep into the planning of 2015.

What were some of the successes and failures of Big Ears and what would you liked to add in the future?

Each year, I would have to say that Big Ears has been an extraordinary success. The feedback from both the audiences and artists who attend has been remarkable ... it really is a mind-opening, energizing, creative experience for everyone. Bringing together some of the greatest composers and musicians of our time - who, on the surface, may seem to be operating in different musical worlds but who in reality are fueled and inspired by one another's ideas - makes the world seem alive with possibilities. This year, having Steve Reich - whose musical genius has been influencing so much of what we hear for 50 years - along with Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, Bryce Dessner from the National, Glenn Kotche from Wilco, the amazing Marc Ribot ... rock legends like Television and John Cale ... and so many great young artists like Julia Holter, So Percussion, Dawn of Midi, Son Lux ... it seemed that there was one astonishing performance after another, and it was exciting watching people discover new music and make these connections. It was everything I had imagined in might be.

One of the other great successes has been hosting it in Knoxville - which I know some people find a bit of a head-scratcher - at least, until they attend. But Knoxville has two beautiful and acoustically magnificent historic theaters, some great clubs and a great museum, and it's all there with hotels and restaurants only a very short walk from one another in this beautiful historic downtown. It's great to have so many people come from all over the world and fall in love with our city ... which they almost inevitably do.

So, yes, we're deep into the planning of Big Ears 2015 and should be making the first announces about the lineup in just a few weeks. It already looks mind-blowing but my lips are sealed.

I noticed you still added lesser known-acts such as the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Seun Kuti to Bonnaroo's lineup, how much of a challenge is it to promote more obscure artists to attendees who focus on headliners?

The Bonnaroo audience has a high percentage of passionate music fans who interested in far more than just the headliners. Again, our job is to program well and create the right context so that the audience discovers the music. With the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Seun Kuti, we've also teamed up with the team behind GlobalFEST in NYC to help curate and raise awareness of these special artists. Billy Martin from Medeski Martin and Wood is leading a band that includes guitarist Marc Ribot with Morocco's Master Musicians, and we know this will draw fans into what is truly one of the world's most stunning musical worlds. Seun Kuti is, of course, the son of the legendary Fela Kuti ... last night, at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, I saw what must have been 15,000 people totally captivated by Seun and his amazing band. If they don't have you locked into their irresistible groove, you need to have someone check your pulse ... there's something seriously wrong with you.

It's obviously been a big upset to some that Kanye is the headliner this year, and every year jam band fans decry that Bonnaroo moves away from its roots. How difficult is it to force certain factions of Bonnaroo fans to move forward from the past?

Well, we aren't trying to force anyone to do anything. As the founders and programmers of the festival, however, we have always been committed to keeping Bonnaroo as fresh, vital, and exciting as it can be. You have to evolve. You can't live in the past and continually repeat yourself while maintaining that freshness and vitality. One of the most exciting aspects of music is how it changes and evolves and introduces new elements and revisits the past ... music is continually reinventing itself. We are all passionate music fans ourselves, and we love riding that creative wave and embracing new ideas and discovering new sounds and new artists. Inevitably we're sharing that with those who come to Bonnaroo. It's at the heart and soul of the festival.

What are your personal favorite acts you're looking forward to seeing this year?

Oh, there's so many ... as there is every year. I'm very excited that Elton John is playing his first American festival ever at Bonnaroo. He's an amazing performer and I can't wait to see that. And i'm very excited to see Kanye's performance ... and Jack White ... and Lionel Richie. The GlobalFEST stage on Friday is going to be insane ... in addition to the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Seun Kuti, I should also point out DakhaBrakha from Ukraine ... I saw them give an unbelievably powerful, stunning performance in NYC back in January ... and A Tribe Called Red. Did I mention Damon Albarn? Or the Bluegrass Situation tent? How about ... well, I don't know where to stop. It's going to be a musical feast.

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