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Bonnaroo aims for diversity in musical lineup

Jam-band paradise brings more mainstream bands to its stages
/ Source: The Associated Press

As fans head to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this weekend, the show is moving from hippie to hipper in its fifth year.Instead of the usual jam-band favorites, this year’s headliners at Bonnaroo include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Radiohead.The Bonnaroo lineup has always been diverse, but industry experts say the four-day festival is changing to keep up in a competitive summer festival market.Ray Waddell, senior editor of touring for Billboard magazine, said Bonnaroo organizers are smart to add more mainstream bands.“You want to be broad to an extent,” Waddell said. “When you bring in Tom Petty, Beck, Radiohead and Elvis Costello, you’re showcasing a great rock lineup that’s not tied to any niche.”The festival that starts Thursday also features plenty of indie rock this year, with Death Cab for Cutie, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bright Eyes and Sonic Youth.“Looking at the lineup, it’s actually hip,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar Magazine, a concert trade publication. “The bands are coming from a lot of different genres, and they’re pulling major musical players from all these different styles.”Bonnaroo — held on a 700-acre farm in the tiny Tennessee town Manchester, 60 miles south of Nashville — had instant success, attracting crowds who wanted to hear the sort of sprawling improvisational rock performed by Widespread Panic, the Dead and former Phish front man Tre Anastasio.But jam-band concert attendance has waned in the last few years, Waddell said.Last year, Bonnaroo sold some 76,000 tickets, nearly 14,000 fewer than in 2004. This year the festival was capped at 80,000 and sold out Monday.Selling out in order to sell out?But festival organizers say they have no intention of abandoning the music that has brought them this far.Rick Farman, co-owner of festival co-producer Superfly Productions, points to Bonnaroo favorites Anastasio, Phil Lesh, Robert Randolph and Les Claypool as just a few among the many jam bands who are returning this year.“Do I think we will have a slightly different audience? Yeah, probably,” Farman said. “But I think it goes back to the diversity thing. I think a lot of people who have gone to this show before are Tom Petty fans and Radiohead fans.“People’s music collections reflect the kind of programming we do,” Farman said. “I think most people in that iPod generation listen to a lot of things, not just rock music or just hip-hop.”The changes are obvious to Thurston Moore, whose band Sonic Youth will return this year after playing Bonnaroo in 2003 along with headliners the Dead, Neil Young and the Allman Brothers.“I knew that they were trying to ... approach expanding the language of what a jam band could be,” Moore said.“I’m very intrigued by the fact that the headliners are maybe a bit more kind of contemporary,” Moore said. “Or maybe not contemporary, but just sort of younger, whether that means anything.”Tough competitionBonnaroo faces competition from a handful of established summer festivals, such as Coachella and the Austin City Limits Festival, each of which share many of the same performers.Coachella attracted more than 100,000 fans this year with acts such as Madonna, James Blunt and Depeche Mode.But Farman says competition from other festivals isn’t likely to hurt turnout at Bonnaroo — which is still the top-grossing festival in the world, according to Billboard.“To a certain degree these festivals compete with one other,” Farman said. “To another degree I think they might help each other in some ways. I think people now are just getting into the mode of going to a festival event and realizing it’s a great way for them to spend their concert dollar.”Despite the reinvented lineup, Bongiovanni doesn’t expect Bonnaroo to have a radically different crowd.“Bonnaroo’s a destination festival where you have camping on site. You’re pretty much there for the weekend,” he said. “There is a lot of people who are not interested in that kind of experience.”