Musings /// Losing Its Edge: Has Bonnaroo (and the Festival Bubble) Gone Pop?

After a dusty weekend on the Farm, Kevin wonders if Bonnaroo - and festivals and general - have reached the pop tipping point.

It stands to reason that, if found in conversation about something that just turned 15, you would likely be talking about a young adult. It would be also appropriate that you would be talking about the aforementioned individual with a sense of measured wariness, believing in this 15-year old’s potential to do great things with the rest of its lifespan, while also being just a little bit exhausted by its attitude. In more ways than one, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is that same child.

Weekend in The Dust: this year’s installment was easily the hottest and dustiest that this writer has attended.

Having just hosted its fifteenth consecutive installment, the pride (economically speaking) of Manchester, TN has entered a noticeable patch of growing pains. After fourteen straight years’ worth of eclectic and unique lineups, the 2016 installment of Bonnaroo hewed noticeably closer to the center of the summer music festival industrial talent complex.

This decision remains to be seen as either the result of a suddenly unimaginative booking staff or as the result of the market being oversaturated with the same acts forced to make the same routes on the circuit to make up for a lack of profits caused by the music industry firmly planting its feet in the free streaming model over the past several years. Personally, my bet is on the latter, as the common refrain of blaming Live Nation is unfounded (the repercussions of that takeover on booking will only be fully felt at Bonnaroo 2017, per industry sources), but primarily because you can look at nearly every North American festival lineup this summer and build a Venn diagram that has a single-digit number of acts in each individual circle’s non-overlapping sections. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the bubble might have burst, and there may be no way for Bonnaroo to truly reclaim the factors which made it a destination oasis for music lovers that are a bit too “socially awkward” (read: actually fun to be around at concerts), while also enjoying an extremely hot climate and not minding the occasional game of Port-A-Potty Russian Roulette.

Premature graffiti on the walls outside Centeroo. Next year will be the first year that festivalgoers can be justified in their hatred of the concert conglomerate, as it will be their first year truly in charge of Bonnaroo.

Speaking of the weather, Bonnaroo 2016 was easily the most unbearable that I have experienced in four years of attending, the temperature pushing into triple digits on occasions and even getting to the point where Centeroo had to shut down for about an hour as a precaution for lightning. But, more importantly, speaking of Port-A-Potty Russian Roulette, this was the first year in Bonnaroo history for the permanent toilet. Two structures in the main venue erected in the month prior to the festival, they represent where this festival stands in its fifteenth year: here to stay, at a cost.

While it seems that Bonnaroo is typically regarded in the “Too Big To Fail” category of music festivals, the truth of the matter is that this year was easily the most sparsely attended in the history of Bonnaroo. Leaked info about two weeks prior to the start of the weekend placed the number of tickets sold around 46,000, or about half of the festival’s normal attendance. Looking around the grounds, the lack of stifling crowdedness was simultaneously impossible to ignore, worrisome and… oddly comforting.

One of the only truly congested crowd situations of the weekend: a mob of folks outside the SIlent Disco, waiting for their chance to get in for a listening party being held by the Mayor of Bonnaroo, Chance The Rapper.

There have been many occasions in my personal history in the festival in which I have been relegated to catching a set from an unserviceable vantage point in the crowd, simply by virtue of there being just too many people around to allow for navigation to a better spot. Alas, this was not the case for Bonnaroo 2016, which will forever go down as the year in which myself and many others simply just walked right into the general admission pit for Friday night headliner LCD Soundsystem, a night which in years past has seen near riots from those trying to achieve a similarly close viewpoint, from fans of Kanye West and Paul McCartney alike. Similar, easily attainable spots were prevalent throughout the weekend, and the low attendance gave way to a significant portion of the campgrounds being sectioned off altogether. While difficult to imagine The Farm continuing to operate each June if ticket sales continue trending in this direction, the common belief is that The Farm will no longer exclusively belong to Bonnaroo in the years to come.LC

LCD Soundsystem’s dance songs about existential dread unsurprisingly did not translate to a huge crowd typical of the Friday night headliner, but it did make for a killer opportunity to get close to the stage along with a mass of other dedicated fans.

With that being said, if this so happens to be the last year that revered piece of Manchester farmland is only hosting the four-day bacchanalia that is Bonnaroo, let’s just say it went out on a medium note. While a lot of criticism was heaped toward last year’s below-standard lineup, Bonnaroo 2015 was a prescient one, hosting many of that circuit’s best bands (think Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, Florence + The Machine and others) before they themselves oversaturated the market. 2016’s roster, on the other hand, felt like the organizers playing catch up. The aforementioned LCD Soundsystem were, upon lineup announcement, something of a rare “get”, returning from a 5-year hiatus only to make short work of becoming this year’s Outkast, a headliner that much of the online peanut gallery has begun to view as cashgrabbers. On the opposite end of that spectrum, the festival managed to book Dead & Co. as their second-billed name, a year after offering untold sums to the last original iteration of The Grateful Dead to host one of their final shows on the main stage. While that booking would have easily been given top-billing preference over the notoriously underwhelming Billy Joel set that closed out 2015, this year found the John Mayer-led troupe placed firmly behind Pearl Jam, a band that’s worked for decades to find itself in the same rarefied air of important American musical acts as a band such as the Dead.

Despite the intergenerational popularity of The Dead, their Sunday night headlining set was easy to get close for as well, as many attendees took the evening as an opportunity to head back home.

In fact, if you were just looking at the top three names on this year’s lineup, it would seem that Bonnaroo is actually one of the more exciting festivals you could attend in 2016. However, with the prevalence of the previously mentioned streaming model, the truth of booking these multi-day events in these modern times (in which you can easily access playlists that will introduce to bands that you never realized even existed) is that what drives ticket sales relies on the names that fall below the top line, a regard in which Bonnaroo failed greatly this year, booking several acts based on misguided YouTube metrics and major label placement. As a result, the shining spots (in my estimation at least) of Bonnaroo 2016 were the acts who slipped under the radar of these qualifications.

While made obvious through my several mentions of the band already, it is in my humble opinion that LCD Soundsystem put on the best show of the weekend, worthy of the same legendary status as other Bonnaroo alumni coming back to the venue with a status elevated from when they first played, joining the likes of bands like My Morning Jacket, Vampire Weekend and (gulp) Mumford and Sons. Of the many Nashville acts playing (and there are seriously so many, from Rayland Baxter to Maren Morris to Luke Bell), the best was Bully, who unsurprisingly laid waste to a Thursday night tent set to thousands of new converts. That first night also traced the ascendance of acts like the funky Vulfpeck and the emphatic rapper/singer Lizzo. Likewise, a busy Friday was kind to some of the smallest names on the bill, from the mathy/folky/all-around brilliant Mothers and 70s MOR revivalists Whitney conquering the Who Stage, to international superstars Daughter playing to a scant but dedicated crowd and jazz genius Kamasi Washington gleefully transcending the limits of the genre. That is not to say that some of the more popular acts of the weekend did not also show up and give their all. On the same Friday billing, Fort Worth’s finest Leon Bridges drew a sizable and adoring crowd, with buzzing Long Beach rapper Vince Staples drawing a slightly less large, but maybe more visibly adoring crowd at an adjacent tent in the same time slot.

On the subject of time slots, this year’s conflicts were thankfully few and far between, though possibly the result of greater periods of dead air between acts, a space that somehow stretched out to an hour at points throughout the weekend. While a lot of blame for low profits will be (justifiably) pointed towards lazy booking, it is also certainly within reason that a certain amount of that disparaging be cast towards the schedulers, who in years past have accommodated multiple acts on the festival’s second stage for late night entertainment before promptly switching gears and only allowing one band (Australian psych rockers Tame Impala, who ended an hour earlier than their scheduled time) to play that same stage past midnight this year, Subsequently, it is within reason for veterans to worry that the festival’s thoughtful late-night programming is slowly being scrubbed in favor of EDM-friendly acts like RL Grime and Adventure Club and related sideshows such as the Kalliope stage, a DJ-centric bane of existence for anyone not in college (unfair generalization I know) that has attended Bonnaroo since 2014.

Where, in years past, this reserve of confetti would have been spread throughout the weekend, Tame Impala had full access to use it all, an opportunity they took full advantage of.

Gripes aside, the fact of the matter remains that Bonnaroo is still one of the more experientially significant festivals that one can attend in this country, and likely this world. There are very few other weekend-long gatherings that quite literally require you to be a fan of the music you’re paying to see, as no one who buys a (now, very very expensive) wristband to Bonnaroo is going just to casually hang out in a stuffy tent in egregiously hot weather. This forced atmosphere of survival via music and community has always been, and will continue to be, the festival’s most alluring aspect. At the same time, it is also the case that part of that allure is built into and resultant of the fact that it has always been used exclusively for the purpose of Bonnaroo, when not being used as farmland. Now that the festival is finally on the precipice of feeling the full impact of its acquisition by Live Nation, does it run the risk of becoming less significant should the corporation decide to hold multiple other festivals on The Farm throughout the year? In addition to the music-related questions circling this topic, what are the potential ecological consequences of holding many large-scale events on that specific piece of land? How will it affect Manchester as a town? These are all things to keep in mind going forth, as our favorite 15-year old starts to enter the period where it either becomes a bright young adult with regard for its responsibilities, or a complete asshole with no regard for what made it likable in the first place.

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