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Bonnaroo opens amid summer festival revival

When the tens of thousands of music-crazy fans gather in the Tennessee countryside this weekend for Bonnaroo, they’ll be part of not just one of the summer’s biggest music festival, but a nationwide revival.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the tens of thousands of music-crazy fans gather in the Tennessee countryside this weekend for Bonnaroo, they’ll be part of not just one of the summer’s biggest music festival, but a nationwide revival.

Just 10 years ago, after the disastrous 1999 Woodstock and the temporary petering out of Lollapalooza, festivals appeared dead. But in recent years, they’ve emerged as one of the music industry’s few cash cows in an otherwise tumultuous environment.

Of course, braving heat, rain storms and traffic can make most any festival a tumultuous experience. But the rejuvenation of the summer festival is best understood as a reflection of changed music-listening habits.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as people started having more access to music, it meant that people were looking for a live experience that reflected that ability to consume,” said Rick Farman, a founder of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which launched in 2002. “When you look at people’s iPods, it’s really diverse what people are listening to.”

Like hitting ‘shuffle,’ fans can toggle through genres at a large festival with multiple stages. This year’s four-day Bonnaroo, which starts Thursday, has more than 100 acts. It’s held each year on a 700-acre site in Manchester, Tenn.

Though the festival, produced by Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, began primarily as a jam-band event, its identity has broadened considerably. This year’s fest will welcome Pearl Jam, Kanye West, Metallica and Chris Rock.

Festivals for every fanIt’s hardly the only gig this summer. The season kicked off with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., a nine-year old summer behemoth that in many ways originated the festival revival.

Still to come is the seven-year-old Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas and the now Chicago-based Lollapalooza. Each has a giant lineup of dozens of acts. Lollapalooza will feature Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and West; Austin City Limits will include Beck, Foo Fighters, Gnarls Barkley and David Byrne.

That still leaves the third-annual Pitchfork Music Festival, put on by the influential Web site; the first All Points West Music & Arts Festival in New Jersey (created by Coachella producer Goldenvoice); Seattle’s decades-old Bumbershoot; the launch of Michigan’s jam band-centric Rothbury Music Festival; the sponsored Virgin Festival in Baltimore; and San Francisco’s new Outside Lands Festival.

There are many more, too, including the traveling Warped Tour featuring mainly punk acts, and the 10-city Rock the Bells hip-hop tour.

Older festivals are also adjusting to the new landscape. In its 49th year, Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival will be produced by the Festival Network, which has diversified the historic Newport’s lineup. Jimmy Buffett, Trey Anastasio, the Black Crowes and Cat Power will play where Bob Dylan famously plugged in his electric guitar in 1965.

Jay Sweet, one of three producers of the Newport, says this is now “a festival country.”

“That’s the business model right now,” said Sweet. “If you can’t do it live, get out of the way.”

He believes that for a festival to thrive, it can’t be limited by genre distinctions.

“We live in a genre-less musical paradigm,” said Sweet. “We are musical omnivores.”

Big concerts, bigger moneyThe land rush for big summer stages has been a lucrative one. According to concert industry trade Pollstar, Coachella grossed $16.3 million last year, Lollapalooza $9.8 million and Austin City Limits $11.3 million.

To make that kind of money, ticket prices aren’t cheap. Four-day passes to Bonnaroo, which include parking and camping, run from $209 to $244, not including surcharges. Like many festivals, Bonnaroo also offers VIP treatment; $1,169.50 buys a pair of tickets with special facilities and snacks. (For $4,000 at Coachella, you can get a posh tent with air conditioning and candles.)

Farman believes providing more amenities to fans is central to the new festival experience. At Bonnaroo, even yoga classes can be had for a price.

“We sort of had this concept that we could buck a lot of the negative trends in the industry, whether that was high ticket pricing, whether that was over-sponsorship, whether that was just not a lot of care being taken for the fans.”

Though terrific headaches can still be found — maddening traffic and heat stroke among them — the organization is clearly better than it used to be.

“Some of the festivals of the ’90s were more about $5 waters or $8 waters and five port-a-johns per 2,000 people,” said Sweat. “I don’t think I’ve stood in line at a port-a-john at any festival I’ve been to in the last two years.”

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Bands are also profiting. Fees can range into the millions for the big headliners or still supply tens of thousands for less mainstream acts.

“For most bands, to be honest, if it’s a good paycheck, you want to go there,” said Stephen Malkmus, the former Pavement frontman whose tour with the Jicks included a stop at Coachella. “It can be an anchor for your tour, make it so you didn’t lose money.”

Whether audience demand will match the increased supply of festivals is one of the big questions of the summer. Ever-rising gas prices also could keep fans at home — or at least at their local venue.

But anyone who truly wants to hit ‘shuffle’ this summer will have to pick a festival and hop in the car.