When you think of Knoxville, whom do you think of? Who truly epitomizes the progressive spirit of our city? History would raise hands to many fine pioneers of politics, art and business, such as Charles McClung, William Blount, James Agee and Alex Haley. Yet, when examining our city’s greatest representatives of today, one name always emerges. Ashley Capps.
Capps is best known as the founder of AC Entertainment, a concert promotions and artist representation business based here in Knoxville. His business has burst him to the forefront of today’s national music scene, as one of its greatest concert promoters, all the while earning himself a quasi-celebrity originally reserved for the musicians and artists he represents.
AC Entertainment not only produces the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, but the Big Ears Festival and Moogfest, all while managing various venues in a handful of southeastern cities, including the Bijou Theater and the historic Tennessee Theater in downtown Knoxville.
I was of mixed emotions when asked to write an introduction to this interview. Representing one of our beloved city’s finest allies is a privilege, but also a harrowing responsibility. For one, Q&A’s with Capps are as scarce as four-leaf clovers. The man is more tight-lipped than a mute secret agent. Granted, it wasn’t our mission to break the man, but let’s face it; Capps has blazed the trail for the parallel universe of live music…the promoters.
Once, as cavemen, we sat for weeks awaiting a chance to buy tickets to our favorite acts. Now, our thumbs fiddle endlessly on Twitter, Facebook and a plethora of online subsidiaries awaiting the disclosed truths of our next planned concert or festival.
Whether you acknowledge it or not, its an art form. And Capps’ team has found new ways of creating a buzz continually over the past decade. For example, in 2010, Bonnaroo took to its Myspace page to reveal the summer’s lineup, announcing one artist each six minutes for hours on end. What had been for years a single, simple announcement was turned into a daylong exercise of anticipation.
With Bonnaroo’s tenth anniversary approaching and the lineup looking bolder than ever, the opportunity to pick the brain of its mastermind should be as captivating to the local music fan as a palm-reading session with Derek Dooley is to any Volunteer.
As an infatuated music fan and Knoxville native, I’m proud to present this interview on behalf of Blank Newspaper. Within, Capps shares some of his most engaging thoughts on the development of the inaugural Bonnaroo, securing a performance by a reunited Buffalo Springfield, the future of AC’s other festivals and his reflections on what the Knoxville music scene truly has to offer.
How long did you plan Bonnaroo before you went ahead with the very first one?
AC: (Laughs) Well, that's kind of a trick question. It wasn't until late January that we actually knew we were doing it. So in a sense, we pulled off that first Bonnaroo on four and a half months notice which is fairly crazy. It really was a testament to the fantastic team that we pulled together that first year, which had a lot of festival experience under its belt collectively. These days if someone told us we had to do it on four and a half months notice, we would probably just say…no. That's kinda how these things have evolved, the opportunity emerges and sometimes you just have to go for it.
But in another sense, a lot of planning had already happened up to that point. We'd had a lot of conversations with artists, a lot of conversations with the land owner, with the community and those conversations with the various players that we really needed to have on our side to pull off the event went back to September of 2001. As far as talking about the event and brainstorming about what the event could be, it goes back much further than that. On a personal level, I had been imagining doing an event like that for two or three years if not longer.
There was a festival on the same site before Bonnaroo right?
AC: That's correct. There was one called Itchycoo Park. It was named after a big hit in the 1960's by The Small Faces. It was one of the first psychedelic hit songs. The concept of that festival was aimed at an older demographic and one that quite frankly was reluctant to go out into a field and see music.
It was not a successful event but the fact that someone tried it there is what got that particular piece of land on our radar screen and it ultimately led to Bonnaroo happening in Manchester, TN.
Were you surprised by the immediate popularity? It seemed like you had more people there than you were ready for that first year.
AC: We were very surprised and quite overwhelmed actually. It was an amazing and exhilarating experience but quite honestly we would have been happy that first year with 30,000 or 40,000 people. We never in our wildest dreams thought it would sell out in the way that it did.
How many people were at the inaugural Bonnaroo?
AC: 70,000. We sold about 60,000 of them in about 18 days. We actually had to stop ticket sales and do all the planning for the festival because we still hadn't done enough of the site planning to be comfortable with the amount of people who were going to show up. Once we felt safe with 70,000, we put another 10,000 tickets up and they sold out in just a couple of hours. It was one of those perfect moments. Everything seemed to come together at the right time.
In a recent interview you mentioned that Widespread told you they would play that first year, but they thought you were crazy for trying to pull this off.
AC: (Laughs) They meant that in the best way of course. But yea, Widespread Panic was the first band to say “Yes, we will do this”. The concept we had that year was specific. We turned to the jam band movement for two or three different reasons. One of them was that we knew that these bands have fans that were passionate enough to follow them around the country and travel long distances to see them and were a little more inclined to camping in a field for the weekend. Widespread was at the center of that, especially here in the south. Another thing we liked about that was, for me, the term jam band doesn’t mean anything. That tag draws so heavily from so many different musical sources. Some of them are heavily bluegrass influenced, some are out and out rock bands, some incorporate a lot of jazz and improvisation in what they do. They can have folk influences, world music, blues...so it also gave us, musically speaking, a core so that we could develop other types of programming around that core so that we could create a really interesting musical experience.
(Note: Widespread Panic will be playing the final night of Bonnaroo X)
You have branched out considerably from those early days but it seems as though you tried to stay true to your laurels in that degree.
AC: Well some people would disagree. We do sometimes catch flack for having abandoned our jam band roots. I certainly don't see it that way though. We try to pay homage to that in some way or another but at the same time I think in order to be successful you have to stay fresh and you can't do the same thing year after year after year and all of us that are involved in the festival are big music fans. We see lots of shows throughout the course of the year and hear new bands and become excited about them. We're always responding to the exciting new music that we are hearing. Just through that process alone the festival evolves.
How has the evolution of setting the festival up occurred?
AC: From a logistics point of view, the festival evolved year after year through, in some instances, learning from our mistakes or learning how to improve what we were already doing. Things are never perfect and there's always ways to make improvements whether it be how the site is laid out or how the whole event functions. It’s an ongoing process that we go through to analyze how the festival works.
This is year ten and some of the people working on the festival have been working on it all ten years. But I would say that about 80% of our key staff have been to six or seven of them by now, so we've got a great team that is very familiar with the event and they are very familiar with one another and it hones itself and becomes more sophisticated and better as a result of that.
How has the relationship with you and the people of Coffee County been over the years?
AC: You could not stage an event of this magnitude without the support of the local community. The leaders and a lot of the people in Coffee County embraced it from the very beginning. They were very supportive and involved with the planning process the minute we said go. In the early days there were some naysayers who were concerned about certain aspects of the festival, but that has really diminished over the years. I really don't hear about that at all anymore. The people in the community are very excited about the festival and many of them attend it themselves. It's a really great, positive relationship. And we've worked hard to work with the community, to be honest with them and to give back to the community as well, which is a very important part of what the festival is all about.
I think our economic impact during that weekend in Coffee county is considerable but we also raise money for the general fund for the area and we help a variety of non-profit organizations in Coffee County along with our own non-profit that gives to worthy causes in the community as well. It's a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship. It's been really strong.
What specifically is the non-profit organization that you started in Coffee County?
AC: We have what is called “The Bonnaroo Works Fund”, which is administered through the East Tennessee Foundation, which is based here in Knoxville. It is the entity through which various worthy causes apply for funds to help them address some of their needs. One year the Coffee County High School band hadn't had new uniforms in about 30 years, so we bought them new uniforms. Our tendency has been to support arts education as well as certain environmental issues but also helping with some really worthy projects that were in need of assistance. We also gave a major contribution to the skate park in Coffee County among other things. That's a really important part of our belief. It's important to have an active, positive impact in a community in which you're working. It's been one of the most rewarding aspects of the festival.
How were you able to create the Bonnaroo environment? The farm becomes a town of its own where nothing trivial seems to matter.
AC: We've often asked ourselves that. That's often the takeaway that everyone has from the festival. There's such an incredible experience of togetherness with the people who choose to attend the event. I keep expecting that to evaporate year after year. I thought after the first year that it would only happen once but it's really been there every year. I think a lot of that has to do with, certainly being off the grid, but also it's a unique camping event so everybody is immersed in living together in unity. It has some challenges that go with it and overcoming those challenges of being together helps build a lot of bonding between people. And everybody is there for a common purpose…they love music and they want to have this celebration with their friends and soak up as much of the music as they can. What's not to like about that?
What is your favorite thing about Bonnaroo?
AC: I'd have to say that. Not just the camaraderie between the attendees but the camaraderie that emerges from creating the event. And I mean all aspects of that. The people that we work with to create the festival...it's what I imagine life in the circus is about. Especially when you get into the week of the festival, people are putting in 20-hour days to get everything up and running and it's such an immersive and absorbing experience. There's nothing quite like working like that. But also interacting with the artists and the fans and just being part of the celebration is what I love the most.
What can fans expect in 2011 for Bonnaroo X?
AC: Well were keeping a lot of these things as surprises and were still working on a lot of things but I think that everyone acknowledges that ten years is a big milestone in the festival's development. From the very beginning of planning this year's event we were thinking in terms of that as we programmed it. Simultaneously the festival is a bit of a look back of its tradition but also there are a lot of fresh faces as well. I think we've hit a great balance in that regard.
Many of the artists who are coming to the festival are talking about what they can do special. We've got the super jams coming back. There will be more than one. And there are a number of special projects involving some special guests. It's really still being planned and evolved and it wouldn't be much of a surprise if I shared it at this moment. We'll see.
How in the world were you able to get Buffalo Springfield on board?
AC: (Laughs) You know, they wanted to do it. I did a string of shows with Neil Young back in May and both he and his manager mentioned wanting to come back to Bonnaroo and we talked about whether it would be Crazy Horse or Neil doing his solo project and ultimately, he had done the Buffalo Springfield reunion shows at the Bridge School benefit in California back in October. It worked so well and he enjoyed it so much that he decided that was the project he wanted to do. I'm pinching myself over it because that's one of my favorite bands of all time and I never ever thought I would see Buffalo Springfield live.
Other special acts have already been announced like Dr. John and the original Meters performing together.
AC: That's certainly one of the special events because they are recreating Dr. John's album that we took the name Bonnaroo from. It's called Desotively Bonnaroo and was released on Atlantic records back in the 1970's and it's currently out of print. He recorded that record with The Meters and they're gonna lay it out there live.
When was the last time that album was played live?
AC: I don't think it's ever been done. I don't think it was ever played live in its entirety in a presentation like this.
Bruce Springsteen and Phish on the same stage at the same time. I didn't see that one coming.
AC: I don't think any of us did. And that's just part of the magic that is Bonnaroo. That's something that I can't make happen. That's the artists themselves and it emerges from them really embracing the spirit of the event. It's those special moments that really capture the spirit of the festival.
How does the process of acquiring bands for a festival of this size take place?
AC: It's an ongoing thing. It can take several years for a discussion to actually result in an artist actually playing the festival, especially with some of the big shows. There's a lot involved with staging a Bruce Springsteen show or a Radiohead show. There's a lot of moving parts to that and it's not something that you can wave a magic wand over and there it is. Some of these discussions can go on literally for two or three years before it actually happens. In some cases we've had discussions for years and they still haven't happened. I've wanted The Arcade Fire to play Bonnaroo for several years and this is the year.
Beyond that, the festival now has a reputation with many of the artists where they want to play here and we get far more requests than we're able to say yes to. We look at it from the standpoint of trying to balance out different genres of music. It's never possible to do everything you want to do in a given year.
Has the last ten years been one big magic carpet ride or have you had a chance to sit back and be proud of this event?
AC: Well it is a magic carpet ride but I catch my breath all the time. I'm extremely proud of Bonnaroo. I've had so many amazing moments whether it be seeing a great band on stage ranging from Neil Young and Crazy Horse under the full moon to the White Stripes, to Radiohead, to Metallica, Springsteen, My Morning Jacket, and so on...there's too many to single out just one. Then some of my most memorable moments have been quiet moments with friends in a break from all of the action. I definitely take the time to enjoy myself. It would be too hard otherwise.
Is there anything you would do differently?
AC: You know, it's easy to look back with 20/20 vision and say “Maybe we shouldn't have done this or maybe we should have done that” but overall in how the festival has evolved I think it has done so organically with a lot of input from a lot of smart people. It's like a living, breathing organism. It continues to evolve year after year and at this point it's not so much about the finished product as it is the process. It's a tremendous learning experience for all of us each year and it's a little bit of a laboratory where you can try out different ideas and concepts and have a little bit of fun. It's hard to say that there's anything that I would really change. Are there details where we've wondered if we could have done something slightly different? Sure, but just as often there are surprises that really exceed ones expectations.
Can you describe the local impact that Knoxville has on the festival?
AC: There are a lot of local people who have had an enormous influence on the festival. And that again is one of the most exciting things about the evolution of the festival...being able to engage people to bring their expertise and passion, whether it's about greening and environmental issues and of course the local Knoxville music scene has played a great role for Bonnaroo as well.
Knoxville Music at Bonnaroo
AC: It has been a particular pleasure to showcase many of the local artists. We love to put them in front of a national audience and there have been some cases where that has really had a fantastic impact. I see bands like Royal Bangs and Dirty Guv'nahs and The Black Lillies and Johnathan Sexton and his group, there has been some great stuff that has really jump started some really worthy peoples' careers at Bonnaroo. It's really good for our community and good for our role in the greater community.
When did you buy the farm and how did that affect things?
AC: I think it was four years ago. It gave us more control over the site. Over the first few years it was uncertain...I don't think the owner of the farm had fully committed to an event the scale of Bonnaroo year after year on his land. He was raising farm animals and was a winemaker and was growing grapes on the land and it ultimately just gave us the ability to putting in the infrastructure to improve the logistics of the site. Since we bought the land we now have electricity installed for a good bit of the property. We've just built a permanent stage and we're able to have more permanent roads. It really provides us with the basis to improve the experience for everyone who attends the festival each year. We're able to add small things all the time that can really make a difference.
Any hopes of the Bonnaroo DVD returning for the tenth anniversary?
AC: We're certainly recording the entire event. We do that every year and this year we have some partners who are helping us broadcast the even online. Whether there is going to be another DVD, I don't know. In some ways, I think the idea of a festival DVD is a little old fashioned. There's other exciting ways of sharing recordings of the event that we are exploring.
AC Entertainment is also going to take on the Forecastle Festival, correct?
AC: We've hired JK McKnight who is the creator and mastermind behind Forecastle in Louisville. He's done a lot of work for us with BIG EARS and Moogfest and a lot of our other events. And we are going to work with him to create a “Halfway to Forecastle” Event, which will happen in July of this year. He had already decided to hold off on Forecastle this year due to some scheduling issues in Louisville. Forecastle Festival is planning on coming back in 2012 and we are also discussing when and where that is going to happen.
Any new news on Moogfest and Big Ears?
AC: We're hard at work at Moogfest right now. It'll be the same weekend, October 28-30. We've got a lot of offers out, we've got a few offers confirmed and there are a lot of really fun and exciting things happening in that regard.
It looks like we're postponing BIG EARS until the spring of 2012. The real reason for that is that we got really busy last year and by the time we got through Moogfest, we had a couple of irons in the fire for BIG EARS that weren’t working out scheduling wise. The theatres were not available at the same times the artists were. We kept trying to make it work but it was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. The deeper we got into the conversations, the more evident it became that we were going to have a really hard time creating the event that we wanted to in the time frame so we decided to press the pause button for a little while. Originally I was considering doing something in the fall but I think most people, including a few of the artists, decided it would just be better to wait until the spring of 2012. It'll be here before we know it.