As I sit here, reflecting on my third consecutive year at Bonnaroo, I am seeking to make sense as to how this event has become so thoroughly ingrained into my being, running on a timeline parallel to major moments in my young adulthood. My ticket in 2013 was a self-funded graduation present, my 2014 visit gave way to my first trip to Nashville, and this third year was secured only by the fact that I would be attending as a member of the music blogosphere that helps to perpetuate the popularity of these things in the first place.
I know I am not the only person that’s been affected by the experience, either. I think of the engaged couple that I camped with last year and how they didn’t expect to make it back for an eighth try because of wedding expenses, until a friend they met on The Farm surprised them with tickets as a wedding gift. I remember conversing over beers with an EDM blogger from New York who gushed about how welcomed he felt by the South and an LSU student who spontaneously accepted an offer to tag along the day before gates opened. I strain to remember their names along with many others, but the countless faces and stories are impossible to forget when the memories surrounding them become worth holding onto.
Analyzing the cumulative whole of my history at Bonnaroo in search of a common thread that justifies why this atmosphere never fails to intoxicate and excite me, it becomes obvious that the foundation is found in the power of music. While there is certainly a small amount of ticketholders present for reasons other than giving themselves over to the communal experience of live music, it helps to understand that the concept itself is as much social as it is primal. While I fully believe in the undeniable attraction to music being present in every living human, I know from spending a significant portion of time at shows that aren’t at Bonnaroo that some people think that it’s simply difficult to leave the outside world behind. This is a perfectly acceptable mentality to have, and I have no qualms about confessing to having had nights like this myself. However, when you’re faced as a spectator with the fact that your only connection to that outside world is limited only to what you can observe from a screen, these anxieties start to dissipate.
Of course, it feels a bit silly to even have to be actually talking about technology encroaching on our lives in a manner that it affects who we are as people, but this is a genuine consequence of being alive in these times. Some people cultivate entire personalities while hiding behind the anonymity of niche Twitter accounts, others remodel their actual physical image on Instagram. The fact that Bonnaroo is located on 700 acres in a very small Middle Tennessee town helps greatly to dissipate the illusion of the significance of outside pressures to mediate our experiences, making it a lot easier for attendees to revert to doing things that actually might serve to satisfy them.
Likewise, there’s a reason why a notable portion of the older Americana/jam band community that Bonnaroo originally catered to has stayed loyal despite the programming extending in a manner that seeks to encompass as much of the spectrum of recorded music as the budget will allow. Though the target demographic of the festival only skews younger and younger with each year, the longtime veterans have embraced it more so for the experience inherent in attending and the fact that the schedulers still work to respect the festival’s roots, dedicating an entire day at one of the tents to bluegrass and forcing everyone this past year to watch STS9 if they wanted to watch any music past 2am. That is, any music that didn’t take place at the collegiate-catering Kalliope Stage, one of the most glaring facility upgrades that I’ve seen within my three years of going, in addition to the video screens added to each of the three tents and the randomly placed flushable portable toilets this past year.
Of course, someone has to be bankrolling all of these current improvements, along with all the ones that need to stay on top in a festival market that only keeps growing as the coffin of the old industry model of relying on record sales gets slowly lowered into the ground. And while Bonnaroo has returned great profits as an independent festival, the competition between corporate live music monoliths Live Nation (Lollapalooza) and AEG Live (Coachella) to acquire the next best thing ended with Live Nation acquiring a controlling stake in Bonnaroo in late April. While Bonnaroo’s unofficial slogan encourages attendees to “radiate positivity”, there are not too many silver linings to be found in the news of the sale, which suggests that Great Stage Park might be used for multiple events in addition to Bonnaroo and that Live Nation is not divulging any plans for the festival itself.
While the transition proved to be an intriguing conversation topic over the weekend, I eventually resigned myself to a truth that ended up being more universal in scope than I expected: that this place had been changing long before I got there, and so had I. Sometimes, reflecting too thoroughly can cause memories to take on a funhouse mirror effect. My cynicism wants me to see this transition as if it’s already a signed death sentence. My sincerity wants me to believe that the inherent power of music might be able to outweigh the will of those who seek to exploit it.
Words by Kevin Brown /// Photos courtesy of Christian Ayers