So you’ve heard and read and seen on TV so much about the Bonnaroo music festival, right? You know that music promoter Ashley Capps of Knoxville is the “father” of Bonnaroo, of course. But wouldn’t you like to ask a few questions about it and hear the “inside scoop” on how it came to be?
Seventy-five folks did that last week at the art-packed Rudder Road home of Don and Maureen Bosch as part of a new “Behind the Scenes” series of events that Leadership Knoxville is putting on. There are two more coming up. One is this week when Derek and Allison Dooley will take us behind the scenes in a high-powered two-career marriage. He’s the UT football coach, of course. She’s a successful OB/GYN. And later in the spring, Dee Haslam will take us behind the scenes of her powerhouse television production company, Rivr Media. Details on these later in this blog post.
But first, here are some things we learned from Ashley Capps about Bonnaroo:
- Capps said he started promoting concerts as a hobby during his senior year at the University of Tennessee. During the ’80s, he opened Ella Guru’s, a performance-oriented nightclub in the Old City where the Melting Pot now is. “Ella Guru’s was my graduate school,” he told the group Tuesday night.
- Ella Guru’s closed the week before Christmas in 1990. Still, Capps got a call from the management of Wynton Marsalis saying they were looking for a place for Masalis to play on Jan. 24. Capps sadly told them that he had closed the club and would be unable to book them. “Get us a place to play and we’ll split the money with you,” he was told. Capps arranged for Marsalis to play the concert at the UT Music Hall. Tickets were $23. 50 and the show sold out. Capps had become a producer.
- From 1992 to 1999, Capps busied himself with the “Hot Summer Nights” outdoor shows at World’s Fair Park. Those came to an end when the park was closed to make way for the construction of the Knoxville Convention Center. About that time, Capps kept seeing industry news stories about “the death of the independent producer,” meaning producers who were not attached to a specific venue. “I realized they were talking about me!” Capps said.
- Then he started thinking about something. For some reason, he didn’t see many outdoor music festivals in America anymore. But when he went to Europe to visit the family of his German-born wife, he saw they were flourishing. “I thought, why not in the U.S.A?” Capps said.
- Bonaroo, held on a farm near Manchester, Tenn., was born with just five-months notice. It exceeded its projected budget by 50 percent the first year, 2002. But ticket sales also exceeded expectations, selling 80,000 tickets in two weeks.
- Capps says he has never seen a musician deliver a bad show at Bonnaroo. “They sense the bond that the audience feels,” Capps said. And why is the experience so special for music fans? “Because it’s hard,” he laughed. “You have to camp. That is a barrier to entry that makes it special. You are committed to living together for four days. That builds a sense of community.”
- When pressed to name his favorite performances at Bonnaroo, he lists these: Neil Young and Crazy Horse under a full moon, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. His goal every year is to “create an amazing experience for people,” he said. Getting Springsteen to Bonnaroo was a three-year process. “It’s about the stars lining up.”
- In summing up the secret to his success, Capps offered this. “I’m a music fan, first and foremost. I didn’t think of it as a career.”
For a link to the other upcoming “Behind the Scenes” events, locations and ticket prices, click here. If you are not a member or alumnus of Leadership Knoxville, don’t worry. We are allowed to bring guests. Call me at Moxley Carmichael and I’ll bring you! (But you have to pay for your own ticket!)