Bedraggled music fans are now making their way home from last weekend’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 full-time residents are bringing things back to normal — and beginning to worry as giant corporations acquire giant music festivals, including their own.
Words and photographs by Max Blau
It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday, and the weary crowd shuffles in for the final act of the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. The fans, an endless sea of them, struggle to contain their excitement. After all, Billy Joel, the Piano Man himself, is about to take the stage. If you live in America, you know Joel’s songs. His infectious melodies are inescapable, lasting longer than the good who died young.
Sure enough, one minute after Joel’s scheduled set time, the main stage darkens. The sexagenarian songwriter walks into sight; his shaved head and gray-peppered goatee colored by the colossal overhead rig of twirling LED lights. Joel and his oversized ensemble dive into a parade of hits that include “River of Dreams,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Uptown Girl.” The crowd hasn’t showered in days. Joel wears a black suit and gray tie with silver polka dots, which he constantly adjusts throughout his 22-song set, as if it’s suddenly unraveled in front of 80,000 disheveled fans. Every few songs, the platform on which Joel’s piano sits rotates a full 180 degrees, in case his fans grow tired of watching him from just one side as he hammers the keys and tells bad jokes.
“Anyone making babies out there?" the Long Island native quips between songs as he recalls attending Woodstock as a kid.
Then, after leading what has to be one of the largest sing-alongs in the history of “Piano Man,” an adoring legion of fans clap their hands, raise their cups and hurl glow sticks into the night sky, pleading for an encore. He indulges them with a few more songs. Before long, though, he takes a bow, waves farewell to the crowd, and exits the stage.
"Don't drink and drive!” he warns them with a grin. “Do what I do: Drink and get a big limousine."
On cue, fireworks brighten the night sky. The house lights turn on well before the clock strikes 11 p.m., when Joel’s set was supposed to end. Over the next hour, the mass exodus begins. The tens of thousands of Bonnaroo attendees plod toward their campsites, where they break down their tents, pack their bags, and prepare for their long drives home. And as one show ends, another one — the breaking down of Bonnaroo — begins.
Police mounted on horses herd the crowd toward the main exit. That’s because, just around the way, production staffers are tearing down stage decorations using a front-end loader. In the dark of the night, workers collapse bleachers, and vendors break down their kitchens. Before dawn arrives, volunteers have already picked up much of the 679 tons of waste — discarded beer cans, plastic cups, and cigarette butts — left behind on the 700-acre farm.
"The barn and the disco ball will stay,” Greg, a security guard from Austin, Texas, tells me as he watches the clock, waiting for his 12-hour shift to end. The sun has risen the following morning and, aside from two half-naked partiers refusing to call it a night, the festival site is deserted. Twelve hours after Joel took the stage, Manchester, Tennessee — a blue-collar town that’s smaller than the average attendance of the entertainer’s stadium-sized shows — returns to its sleepy self for another 361 days.
Before Bonnaroo, most motorists drove past the town right off Interstate 24 without batting an eye. With good reason: In the heart of Trumpland, U.S.A., this mostly conservative 10,000-person town had a historic town square, a Wal-Mart and, well, not much else. Now for four days each June, Manchester turns into the Volunteer State’s seventh-largest city, a little bigger than Franklin, but not quite the size of Murfreesboro.
Since the turn of the millennium, American festival culture has grown to the point that more than 32 million people — one-tenth of the entire nation — attend at least one music festival every year, according to the music industry bible Billboard magazine. During that period, the number of North American festivals has increased from a just handful of ticketed gatherings to nearly 850 in 2014. Today the annual transformation from a sleepy city into a musical Mecca is most evident in Manchester.
While the music industry has reaped billions, every major festival places a burden on the everyday lives of local residents. In large cities like Chicago or Austin, the respective impact of Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits tends to be smaller per capita, especially since their governments are better equipped to handle the influx of up to 100,000 visitors. From sporting events to holiday parades, big-city officials can help promoters make a festival run smoothly.
On the other hand, festivals setting up beyond the suburban sprawl draw unprecedented crowds to those areas. With those crowds come unprecedented problems: Look no further than a couple hundred miles southeast to TomorrowWorld, where last year the combination of rain and inadequate emergency planning left thousands of ticket-holders stranded in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.
In 2002, Manchester failed to heed warnings about the inaugural Bonnaroo. “They were like, ‘Widespread Panic? Who’s that?” Bonnaroo community manager Jeff Cuellar recalls. When tens of thousands of hippies, as predicted, clogged the town’s roads, locals freaked out. The congestion catastrophe taught the city a lesson. Since then, the city and the festival have planned together — establishing a relationship that, by most accounts, is symbiotic.
The 15th Bonnaroo ended on Sunday. As attendees danced themselves clean at LCD Soundsystem’s reunion show, weathered a storm to watch Pearl Jam, or danced with the living members of the Grateful Dead (and, yes, John Mayer), the festival and its hometown were quietly entering a new chapter of their longstanding accord. In the spring of 2015, Live Nation, the publicly traded concert production corporation, bought a controlling stake in Bonnaroo for an undisclosed sum. Despite the Bonnaroo founders’ assurances the festival will only get better, the free-spirited happening, built upon a faithful legion of fans devoted to its communal spirit, has a new owner that is likely to demand profit over purity. Amid that dynamic, a once peaceful harmony may soon face its biggest challenge — one that could bring changes to Manchester on a level unseen since Bonnaroo first came to town.
There are two main routes to Manchester. If you’re leaving Nashville, the drive is a straight shot 65 miles down I-24 East, half an hour past Murfreesboro. From Chattanooga, the trip is slightly longer, about 70 miles, a westbound ramble around Lookout Mountain, past the roadside fireworks superstores and cornfields. Both ways lead to Exit 111. Head south on McMinnville Highway for a mile or so, turn right on Hillsboro Boulevard, make another right on Main Street, and you’ll see a town square anchored by an Italianate-style courthouse that looks like the ones found in many other small Southern towns.
The day before the “Piano Man” sing-along, Manchester’s regular farmers market is underway early on Saturday morning. As the campers squeeze in a final few minutes of shut-eye, a dozen or so tents stand along the sidewalk outside the courthouse offering a host of homemade goods for sale. Catty–corner from the market, an older black man with thin-rimmed glasses steps out of a sedan that has just pulled into a reserved parking spot outside the town’s City Hall. Lonnie Norman, the silver-haired mayor of Manchester, has lived there his entire life, so he knows the town — and its 10,000 mostly white residents, 29 police officers, eight schools and five or so liquor stores — better than most. Dressed in Saturday finest, a beige floral-patterned button down, Norman heads upstairs to his second-floor office. Framed monochrome photos of Manchester in the mid-20th century and colorful Bonnaroo posters hang on the walls. Inside his office, he plops into his leather desk chair, before reaching for a token he takes great pride in showing me.
“We used to give a key to the city,” Norman says. “Then we made this.” It’s an oblong plaque shaped like a guitar, which tonight he’ll present onstage to the great Ohio guitarist and Dobro player Jerry Douglas.
Bonnaroo aside, Manchester is like many other small Southern towns, Norman explains. That’s evident from the wide two-lane streets and two-story buildings — cafes, barbershops and a police department — that surround the old courthouse. In the place where judges once banged gavels, Coffee County Historical Society members like Evans Baird, its soft-spoken former president, now pore through nearly two centuries of history books and old property records. He’s called the town home for nearly seven decades. After World War II, his family moved to Manchester back when it had fewer than 2,000 residents. Growing up, he says, times were simpler and safer. Everybody knew his name. As the choral music teacher at the junior high school, he went on to know their kids’ names, too.
“Manchester was very Mayberry-esque,” says Beverly Vetter, one of Baird’s former students, who now directs the historical society. “It had all the stores around the square that you might need. I’d walk to town by myself at age 11.”
Coffee County’s population doubled between 1950 and 2000. The rural county’s largest cities, Manchester and its neighbor, Tullahoma, outpaced that growth. Tullahoma was bigger. Naturally, it got the daily paper (Tullahoma News), the iconic distillery (George Dickel) and the state-of-the-art Air Force base (Arnold Engineering Development Complex). Meanwhile, Manchester was left with the weekly (Manchester Times), a couple of industrial parks and a Walmart.
“Tullahoma has got a bowling alley and a movie theater. Murfreesboro, 30 minutes up the road, is more popular, too,” Manchester Times publisher Josh Peterson says. “There's a couple of local small bars with some live music. Otherwise, there is, literally, nowhere to go for entertainment in Manchester.”
Manchester didn’t change much as the 20th century came to a close. But one day in 1999, Itchycoo Park came to town. Named after a song from English mod band the Small Faces, the promoter, boasting the tagline “the beat of Woodstock lives on,” wanted to bring rockers such as Steppenwolf, Styx and Sammy Hagar to a farm just outside the city limits. At their peak, those acts might have opened the 1969 festival; instead, it was the summer of 1999.
Not only that, the 40-band “classic-rock concert extravaganza” happened a few weeks after festival-goers had raped and rioted their way through the ill-fated revival of Woodstock. Itchycoo’s promoters vowed 70,000 attendees would come to Manchester, but the production went belly up after only 10,000 people bought $80, four-day passes to the farm.
However, the Manchester farm — located a one-day drive from more than three-quarters of the nation — piqued the interest of Knoxville native Ashley Capps, the founder of a fledgling promotions company, AC Entertainment.
“It defied conventional wisdom,” Capps tells me in an email. “Almost no one in the United States thought that launching a large music festival — especially a camping festival — was a good idea, especially in the wake of what had happened just a couple of years before at Woodstock ’99.”
Capps had dipped his toes into festival promotion when he booked the Mountain Oasis Music Festival in the fall of 2000. The 6,000-person event, held nearly five hours east in Horse Shoe, North Carolina, sold out fast. Fans hoping to see Iris Dement and Robert Earl Keen had to be turned away at the gates. AC Entertainment realized that, despite the missteps of other promoters, American music fans wanted more festivals.
“Bands like Panic and Phish, at that point in time, were maintaining and building audiences based on touring,” Cuellar says. “That culture was out there: People wanted to see great live music, and they didn't want the Backstreet Boys. But the Internet had also spawned a new way to discover music. Festivals were what people were craving. They just didn't know what they were craving yet. And we built off of that.”
Thus, the idea for Bonnaroo — New Orleans slang first popularized by Dr. John’s 1974 record “Desitively Bonnaroo” (rough translation: a really good time) — was born. When Cuellar first drove to Manchester in 2002, local officials were wary Bonnaroo would be Itchycoo redux. But in less than three weeks, AC Entertainment and its then New Orleans-based partner Superfly sold out the three-day event featuring Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio and Jack Johnson, doing it all by relying on grassroots web promotion rather than through Ticketmaster.
On June 21, 2002, tens of thousands of cars lined up outside the farm before it opened. But there was only one entrance for the entire festival, and security had to search cars for contraband. Before long, the town of Manchester turned into a giant parking lot. It took some people upwards of a full day to get into the festival grounds.
“Traffic was backed up 30 miles on the Interstate,” Mayor Norman recalls. “You couldn’t get anywhere.” With nowhere to go, people stuck in town left their cars in the streets to get food, while people in gridlock farther away played Frisbee on the Interstate. Because congestion shut down the trucking industry reliant upon that stretch of I-24, the Tennessee Department of Transportation was called in to divert traffic.
“It's a small town, so when they couldn't get from A to B, it kind of scared people,” Peterson says. “They hated it.”
Things died down once the 70,000 festival-goers finally made it onto the farm. The pseudo-hippies reveled in their Woodstock as they opened their wallets for $5 draft beers, $6 tofu wraps and overpriced T-shirts.
“Money seemed to be no object to these kids," Coffee County's judicial commissioner, Steve Moore, who spent that weekend selling sandwiches, told the Associated Press. After the first day, life returned back to normal for locals. The remaining problems caused by that many visitors were relatively minimal: 18 arrests (public intoxication, disorderly conduct, marijuana possession), 39 emergency room visits (from dehydration to overdoses) and some minor property damage to nearby lots.
By the weekend’s end, many local business owners were ecstatic: The Ramada Inn sold out its 84 rooms, and when the music fans said goodbye, they spread the lore of a new tradition that, they hoped, would become a summer rite of passage.
“For some, the Bonnaroo Music Festival this past weekend felt like the culmination of a musical movement,” USA Today contributor Brian Mansfield wrote. “But the music and camping festival held here Friday, Saturday and Sunday also heralded a new beginning: the point where the jam-band scene made its presence known to the mainstream.”
Capps, who didn’t expect Bonnaroo’s debut to be a success, created a free-spirited culture that was free from corporate influence yet grossed nearly $9 million. To keep the positive vibes flowing, Bonnaroo promoters had to work through the growing pains. That started with better coordination between transportation officials and local police to ensure a smoother operation, going so far as to open I-24 Exit 112 for the festival — the highway’s only exit that opens for a single event. From there, they had to cajole county officials to approve their permits. After all that, they needed to convince scores of songwriters to play the festival located in the middle of nowhere.
“In those early years, it was full immersion,” Capps says. “We were all working seven days a week, living and breathing Bonnaroo and imagining what it could become.”
By year three, Bonnaroo’s team had grown to 2,000 workers that included a mounted security force (Alpha & Omega), contractors to pick up trash (North Carolina-based Clean Vibes, which specializes in festival waste), parking lot attendants (Illinois-based Standard Parking, which parks cars at NASCAR races) and water suppliers (New York-based Deployed Resources, which helps the Federal Emergency Management Agency with hurricane responses). Whenever possible, they hired local companies to perform tasks that ranged from resodding the farm to distributing alcohol on-site.
The flock of well-to-do festival-goers pleased some locals, who felt like it was exactly what the town needed. But some residents saw the festival as a disruption to their small-town’s serenity.
“The windows rattled,” says Pat Berges, who lives on a quiet road on the other side of I-24. To her displeasure, she’s seen “absolutely skunked” guys stumbling down the road, holding each other up as they caused a ruckus. Manchester Police Chief Mark “Yogi” Yother, who’s worked in law enforcement for nearly four decades, says the low-end bass notes can sometimes rumble to the town square nearly four miles away. For all the noise, he says, the local complaints are only intermittent.
“I think everyone understands by now that it's going to be a little bit traffic, it’s going to be a little bit different — the Wal-Mart parking lot's different — they just know,” Yother says. “Some people make their vacation during that time.”
Some business owners — like the J&G Pizza & Steak House — have gone so far as to close up shop during the festival. When he could, Cuellar tried to smooth things over with locals, doing what any good festival-neighbor would do: Dole out free tickets to residents directly affected by the festival to make up for their inconvenience. Not only did he act as an ambassador, highlighting the positive parts of Bonnaroo’s presence, he also helped steer Bonnaroo’s philanthropic donations toward community projects. Need a skate park? Here’s $30,000. The senior center is at risk of shuttering? Here's $12,000. By 2007, Bonnaroo started to let local civic organizations man on-site concession booths, after which they’d keep 10 percent of all sales.
“We're a member of the community as well,” Cuellar says. “We're not just a festival that shows up for four days out of the year.”
In early 2007, New Era Farms LLC, a joint venture between AC Entertainment and Superfly, bought 530 acres from local developer Sam McAllister. To many locals, the $8.7-million deal signaled that Bonnaroo was there to stay. The more promoters invested into Manchester — be it digging a well, installing electricity or erecting a mammoth permanent stage — the more respect they received from local officials. Soon, the festival resembled a city within a city. No longer did vendors just hawk hemp, hacky sacks and artist merchandise. A general store opened that sold marked-up bug spray, cigarettes and toothbrushes. The festival built a clay-and-straw hut to house its own post office; partnered with Relix magazine to print the Bonnaroo Beacon, a daily newspaper filled with performance reviews and programming changes; and even hosted wedding ceremonies. Bonnaroo later started “Soberoo” to offer a support system for addicts who wanted to stay clean in a place where booze and drugs flow freely.
“Illegal substances aren't necessary here,” Cuellar says. “We want a safe environment and for people to have an amazing experience and the community around it. We don't want to be associated with that.”
Though Bonnaroo promoters have never condoned drug use, they don’t necessarily clamp down on it either. If you walk a minute any direction, you’re bound to find weed to your left or psychedelics to your right; a phantasmagoric trip is accessible to anyone seeking an altered state of reality. Given their resources, Yother concedes that the city and county — and to a degree the state troopers who set up speed traps for miles around Manchester — are playing whack-a-mole when it comes to drug enforcement. Local lawmen have written more than 2,900 drug citations, arrested 600 festival-goers and investigated a dozen or so festival-related deaths since the festival began.
Indeed, those figures are infinitesimal compared to the more than 1 million festival-goers who have descended upon the town over 15 years. Knowing it’s impossible to stop the free flow, Yother believes it’s best to target people who see Bonnaroo as a way to further their criminal enterprises: drug traffickers who bring in marijuana, mushrooms and LSD, and scammers, like the scalpers who sell counterfeit tickets to people who are then stranded in the middle of nowhere.
“Man, I’ve even seen this guy from Arizona with a bottle who said he was selling acid drops, where you just put your tongue out, [hand over] ten bucks, and boom, boom,” Yother says. “It was nothing. It was just some random color liquid. So there's just a percentage of people that are criminals. That's why they go. They want to take advantage of good people. We try to take that element out.”
For the rest of each year, Manchester has remained a sleepy city hibernating without the influx of drugs, dealers and delinquents. Gradually, though, the town’s reputation has changed. In conversations elsewhere, Manchester Vice Mayor Ryan French says residents no longer received blank stares when they told people where they lived. Or if people didn’t know, they could say the town where Bonnaroo is — a far cooler alternative than a nondescript highway stop on a lonely stretch of I-24.
“It’s hands-down the best thing that’s ever happened to our city,” French says. “We’re not a tourist destination — except for those four days. We use Bonnaroo for every bit of our marketing statewide and nationally. It gives us a calling card.”
Naturally, French points to the more than $50 million Bonnaroo pumps into Tennessee’s economy each year, roughly double the total tax revenue Manchester raised in all of 2013. While in Tennessee, festival-goers spend $86 a day — with the average one staying four days — on gas, grub, and other festival necessities. In total, those purchases direct more than half a million dollars a year to local tax coffers that helps pay for projects like the $1.4 million 16-inch main that will bring more running water to the farm and surrounding area (Yes, Bonnaroo finally installed permanent bathrooms and showers this year). The best benefit for locals: Ticket fees act as the ultimate hedge against tax hikes in a state that prides itself on staying out of residents’ pocketbooks.
Overall, Cuellar says, promoters have donated more than $5 million to nonprofits through the festival’s philanthropic arm, Bonnaroo Works. What do those charitable contributions look like in Bonnaroo’s hometown? Elementary school students got Chromebooks. The rec center’s back wall has a colorful mural. And not only do promoters pay for the high school band’s uniforms, the band’s members are able to man the concession booths during the festival. It’s a bit ironic to see the local high school’s brass section taking orders rather soaking in the sounds of the Dap-Kings. But by the end of a long weekend, the marching band can raise much of its operating funds for the year, which is better than relying on bake sales and car washes. All in all, local organizations each year take home a combined six-figure sum for slinging beers and pizza slices over a long weekend. Not a bad gig.
Beyond that, Bonnaroo became a source of pride in a conservative county where a third of all voters cast ballots for Donald Trump during the March primary. The Pennington family, which owns the staple Jiffy Burger, a ’50s-era diner with curbside service off Hillsboro Boulevard, added the Bonnaroo Burger to its menu. Created by Cuellar, the decadent $4.35 cheeseburger is topped with lettuce, tomato, mayo, crispy bacon, a fried egg and a deep-fried onion ring — a heart attack on a plate. On the other end of the block, Fantasy 101.5 FM, a radio station that can be heard in Coffee County and several surrounding counties, has used its airwaves to drum up support for the festival. Amber Dotson, the station’s general manager, says past objections to the festival generally came from naysayers who assumed it was an “amoral gathering of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” which she says couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Manchester is a great place to live,” Dotson says. “But a lot of folks lived and stayed in Manchester for generations and generations. They didn’t travel outside the state. They didn’t travel outside the Southeast. So they maybe had negative connotations, but when they got to experience it firsthand, it was eye-opening.”
Manchester, which topped 10,000 residents for the first time in the 2010 census, has even seen people like British expat Kevin Greenwood move there due to Bonnaroo. On the outskirts of town, the four-lane drag dotted with fast-food chains gives way to idyllic Tennessee fields, eventually leading to a gravel driveway that opens to his seven-acre residence. Greenwood, a former DJ who now owns Stagetops USA, a manufacturer of vinyl stage coverings for events ranging from the NFL Draft to Taylor Swift tours to Bonnaroo’s main stage, once paid $15,000 a month to rent a warehouse out in California. In 2008, he was working at Bonnaroo, washing his clothes at the local laundromat, when he found his current home in a real estate magazine for $120,000. Given the proximity to Nashville and other major festivals, the move seemed a no-brainer; he uprooted his life and never looked back.
“It reminds me of England so much,” he says. “It's nice and green. I'm left alone. I don't get bothered. It’s the best decision I ever made.”
On a brisk Friday afternoon this past April, two months before the 15th annual Bonnaroo, Manchester is a ghost town. There are a couple of customers who meander into the Mercantile Café in search of some meatloaf, a few folks eying the long guns at Toliver’s Pawn, Jewelry and Guns and four men awaiting trims at Cutshaw’s Classic Barber Shop.
Inside the Coffee Café, Geoff Moreland stands behind the counter, manning the register of the mostly empty diner. His wife, Lisa, runs out breakfast to a couple of occupied tables. In 2008, the Morelands moved from Florida to Manchester to open the breakfast spot, whose walls are filled with signs with religious puns (“give us this day our daily bread”), vintage Coca-Cola ads and a red Coffee County Central High School Raiders football jersey.
Though business is quiet for now, Lisa says, some of Bonnaroo's 15,000 workers have trickled into their eatery. It’s nothing, of course, compared to those four days in June when their business quadruples. Though it’ll be all hands on deck, Geoff still manages to work a single 16-hour shift as a volunteer parking-lot attendant for the Rotary Club. He always takes the early shift, waving cars into the grassy field, so that he can get a free wristband. (Last year, he says, he got to see both Tears for Fears and Deadmau5 in the same night.)
Though Manchester has learned to dance with Bonnaroo, the once-independent festival has been forced to adapt to a rapidly evolving music industry. Since the early 2000s, pioneering festivals like Austin City Limits, Coachella and Bonnaroo have paved the way for the hundreds of others such as New York’s Governor’s Ball, Alabama’s Hangout, Delaware’s Firefly and Georgia’s Shaky Knees. Along the way, music lovers, many of whom have stopped buying $9.99 CDs, have exhibited an unprecedented willingness to plop down hundreds of dollars for wristbands.
During that time, two of the industry’s largest promoters, AEG Live and Live Nation, have spent millions of dollars to buy interests in those festivals. AEG Live grabbed shares of Coachella, Hangout and New Orleans Jazz Fest; Live Nation snagged Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza and Washington’s Sasquatch. The corporate concert war raged on all the way until April 2015, when Live Nation purchased a controlling interest in Bonnaroo. In surrendering its independence — ironically, to the company that operates Ticketmaster, which Bonnaroo initially shunned — Bonnaroo co-founder Rick Farman pledged the deal would “enhance the festival while preserving the integrity” of the annual event.
“Their goal is not to change Bonnaroo,” Cuellar told me backstage outside his office during last year’s festival. “They just want to help foster it and give us the ability to make it bigger.”
The debate over expanding Bonnaroo’s brand is not new. In 2003, festival organizers tried to launch a second Bonnaroo on Long Island; however, permitting issues forced its cancellation. In recent years, Cuellar says, the staff has considered adding a second weekend, just like Austin City Limits and Coachella have done. Cuellar doesn’t rule that out, though he says going that route would only happen if the Bonnaroo experience remained intact. For now, Capps says, the single weekend model will remain since it’s “part of what sets us apart” from its biggest competitors.
Bonnaroo’s founders won’t discuss specifics about what the future holds for the Manchester farm. So far, the site has played host to several Warrior Dashes, five-kilometer races where participants must jump over fire pits and crawl under barbed wire, during the past few years. French, the vice mayor, suggests half-a-dozen annual events — including one for “country music and things like that” — could be held there. In a Manchester Chamber of Commerce meeting last week, Cuellar said that up to four annual events could come to town by 2020.
“We’ve been working on new event ideas for the site,” Capps says. “I’m sure you’ll be seeing at least one or two new events emerge in the near future.”
Bonnaroo’s team speaks adamantly about preserving the festival’s culture. Unmistakably, though, it’s already taken a turn toward the commercial. For one, ticket prices have more than tripled from $100 in year one to the current cost of $349.50 — that’s before $34.50 in ticket fees and $59.75 for parking and camping. Over the past 15 years, Bonnaroo has grown so similar to other major American festivals that The New York Times recently vowed to no longer automatically cover it on an annual basis. The reason? Readers would be better served by coverage of smaller festivals with more distinct characters. Want to see Haim at Bonnaroo? The group is playing 14 other festivals this summer. Leon Bridges? He’s booked at half a dozen other American festivals in June and July. What about that special LCD Soundsystem reunion? It’s happening in Manchester — and 11 other cities, too.
“[Bonnaroo’s] bookings used to be somewhat exciting, if exciting means special and special means rare and rare means meaningful; they aren’t anymore,” New York Times music writer Ben Ratliff wrote in a March article titled, “Why We're Not Making Plans for Coachella and Bonnaroo.”
I’ve attended Bonnaroo three times — once in 2007 as a fan, backstage in 2011 as a photographer and in 2015 as a reporter — and the festival has undoubtedly grown more corporate. The first time I went, the festival’s merch booth was already hopping and they sold beer at festival prices; however, it maintained a relatively grassroots feel (SweetWater, one of the few craft beers sold that year, seemed like a natural fit given its heady marketing). In my last visit, the well-oiled Bonnaroo machine was in full-tilt: $25 baby onesies bore the slogan “Bonnaroo State of Mind,” digital security sensors had replaced some volunteer wristband checkers, artisanal food trucks with grass-fed burgers overshadowed the $1 grilled-cheese hawkers, and a craft “Broo’ers” garden offered a couple of dozen drafts at a premium cost. Every year that passed, promoters have found ways to further commodify Bonnaroo’s free-spirited ethos — the very thing that drew people to Manchester in the first place — to the point that festival-goers are now forking over a month’s rent to experience a modern Woodstock.
Bonnaroo’s positive vibes have proven to be profitable. Enter Live Nation, the publicly traded company that made $7.2 billion in revenue in 2015 — including its highest-grossing summer ever — in part thanks to the more than 60 festivals it runs. However, in the year after the Bonnaroo acquisition, the company’s stock price fell 20 percent, a scenario that could put pressure on the company to harvest more money from 530 acres it owns in Coffee County. More festivals there would, at the very least, mitigate the risk of having a single festival go awry, which electronic dance-music festival producers SFX Entertainment learned the hard way last year when it had to refund a full day’s worth of TomorrowWorld tickets. It was a death knell for the five-day festival and a factor in the company’s bankruptcy filing last February. Though Bonnaroo has never had to cancel a date, it’s not out of the realm of possibility either — look at New York’s Electric Zoo in 2013, where organizers were forced to cancel the festival's final day after two attendees died after overdosing on MDMA.
The doomsday scenario of Bonnaroo leaving town — one that could happen since, after all, Capps and company no longer control the festival — lingers in the minds of Manchester residents. After last year’s festival ended, Josh Peterson, the Manchester Times publisher, penned a column whose central question was based on a conversation we had just outside the overpriced beer garden: Could we survive without Bonnaroo?
By “we,” of course, he meant the people of Manchester — from the lifers like Lonnie Norman to transplants like the Morelands. “Had Bonnaroo ceased to exist in Manchester after one or two years — sure, the county could have recovered almost as if it had never come,” Peterson wrote. “But after 14 years it really isn’t that simple.”
It’s never that simple for small towns dependent on tourist attractions — be they beach towns, ballparks or Bonnaroo — to keep their communities afloat. In 1951, when President Harry Truman dedicated the U.S. Air Force Arnold Engineering Development Center, Coffee County locals were over the moon at what that meant: jobs. They were no ordinary jobs. They were well-paying, year-round, cutting-edge jobs. They were the kind of jobs that turned salt-of-the-earth Tennesseans into scientists who developed fighter jets, rockets and space shuttles. They were the kind of jobs that, in turn, would develop the town of Manchester into something just a bit bigger.
"This is part of our effort to make our air power the best in the world — and to keep it the best in the world,” Truman said on June 25, 1951. “This applies to the planes of the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. It applies to our guided missiles and all the future developments that science may bring. The purpose of our Air Force is to help keep the peace of the world. This is our fundamental objective.”
Sixty-five years later, peace looks far different in Coffee County. The rockets take a back seat to rock stars like Jason Isbell calling for peace and harmony in the face of terror. Those defiant cries, as important and inspiring they are, leave town when the guitarists close their cases and the campers pack up their tents. And in that regard, Manchester is a tourist town: Bonnaroo's attendees ride high out of town, vowing to come back with more dollars the following year. Left behind is uncertainty. Left unspoken is an uneasiness about whether the good vibes — and good economic times — will last until the next big act comes town.