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The Evolution of Bonnaroo

When the creators of the short-lived Itchycoo Park chose Manchester as the site of their music festival at the turn of the millennium, that decision was no doubt met with some raised eyebrows. Who could blame the critics? After all, it was the dawn of Napster and online streaming, and the founders were already dealing with a rapidly changing music industry while targeting an older—or at least, different—demographic than your typical camping festival traveler while focusing on artists popular in the groovy 70’s and the ballad-filled 80’s (think: Sammy Hagar, STYX, John Kay & Steppenwolf).


Not to mention, they chose to do so on a 700-acre farm with very little infrastructure located a half hour outside of the nearest mid-sized city.


And though that particular endeavor flopped famously, the 10,000-person community found its way onto the global map nevertheless thanks to the success of Bonnaroo, which picked up where Itchycoo left off—only with bigger, better and more thoughtful aspirations—in 2002. Only a year after its first go, Bonnaroo drew in such acts as 2003 Flaming Lips, Neil Young & Crazy Horse and James Brown; 15 years following that, it not only continues to thrive, but grow.


Bonnaroo accomplished what Itcyhoo could not: fill a void the festival community was clearly lacking. Nowadays, 100,000 music lovers descend upon Coffee County every June to take part in the fun. Jeff Cuellar, Bonnaroo’s director of community relations and parent company AC Entertainment’s director of connectivity, attributes the success and ability to span the test of time to the creation of community.


“In an age of technology, that deeper sense of connection is what truly separates Bonnaroo from a lot of other festivals that are out there,” says Cuellar, who has been with the organization since it first started. “From the beginning, we realized we were already tapping into a community, and our role has always been to foster it. Yes, putting amazing bands on the stage is part of that mix. Yes, having the elements you have to in order to create a city are all part of that mix. But really looking upon all the elements that allow the people to get together and harmonize in a way that your traditional event does not.”


Bonnaroo has managed to do what once seemed impossible: bring together a variety of music lovers across genres—from pop, rock, R&B, rap and hip-hop to Americana, bluegrass and country—to watch more than 150 acts over the course of four days.


“Our goal was always bringing together artists who have a true commanding of the stage, know how to put on a great show, that are out their hustling and that thrive on the live performance,” Cuellar says. “Early on, we were dubbed as a jam band festival, but we’ve always been more than that—we’ve always been a melting pot of music.”

Beyond Music: Bonnaroo’s Philanthropic Side

Music, however, is only one piece of a much larger, more complex puzzle, Cuellar says. The first few years in existence, Bonnaroo channeled much of its efforts toward establishing a fan base, then between 2007 and 2008, the company fully committed to Manchester by purchasing the land and created Great Stage Park. From there, it was a snowball effect: More and more were added like a post office—Bonnaroo is the only festival with one, not to mention it boasts is own official indicia—built from all recycled and/or natural materials, a compost pad and a permanent stage; the Bonnaroo Works Fund (now a 501c3) quickly followed. Sustainability and giving back have always been a key part of Bonnaroo’s mantra, Cuellar says, and in the first decade alone, it donated more than $5 million to local, regional and national charities and organizations.


In more recent years, there’s been a big shift to quality food with the Oxfam America and Eat for Equity’s BonnaROOTS Community Dinners and more than 50 options available in the Food Truck Oasis; past favorites include Prater’s BBQ, chili poutine, Spicy Pie gourmet pizza, Korean BBQ, tamales and, of course, Baconland whose flights of bacon sell quicker than they can be prepared.


But what about the next 5, 10, 20 years of Bonnaroo—where does a festival of this size go from here? Cuellar says “fine tuning” the current product is always top priority, though he adds that the new partnership—Live Nation acquired a controlling interest in 2015—has allowed Bonnaroo to look at infrastructure in a new way and turn its sights on expansion. Already, permanent toilets and showers have been added, and this continuum may include more audience-curated camping options (not to mention, additional events throughout the year) could help draw in new festival-goers.


“We always have to think: ‘What are those things that we can do that can help foster community and enhance the experience in some way?’” Cuellar says. “In the end, though, it’s mostly about having a great time, doing something good and really having an experience with each other.”


‘Roo Through the Ages

2002 Bonnaroo is held for the first time, selling out at over 70,000 tickets.

2003 All vendors are required to use solely compostable material, making it the first festival to do so.

2004 The comedy tent and Broo’ers Fest beer garden are added.

2006 Radiohead headlines Bonnaroo, giving it more mainstream appeal for the first time.

2007 Bonnaroo purchases the land and creates Great Stage Park.

2008 Bonnaroo Post Office, a permanent compost pad and the main stage are all built.

2009 Bonnaroo Works Fund is officially created; the event becomes the first music festival with a mobile app; headliner Bruce Springsteen brings Santa to town with impromptu Christmas carols.

2010 Bonnaroo Buzz, Bonnaroo’s official Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, launches; musician Jonathan Sexton breaks world record for most hugs in 24 hours (8,709).

2012 Festival sees highest attendance yet: more than 100,000 festival-goers.

2013 Paul McCartney headlines.

2014 Henri (aka Hamageddon), the 4,000-pound, fire-breathing steel pig, is installed at Centeroo.

2015 Bonnaroo Works Fund becomes a 501c3; 7-year-old attendee breaks world record for most high-fives in one hour (2,392).

2016 Bonnaroo turns 15; adds permanent toilets, showers and more.

2017 U2 headlines, along with The Weeknd, Red Hot Chili Peppers and more.