How Bonnaroo’s Elevated Campground Experiences Are Taking the Festival Beyond the Lineup
Elder music festivals have been feeling the heat with complaints of repetitive lineups, rising prices, and unruly campgrounds, but Bonnaroo is refusing to give in to the dreaded festival fatigue this year. For the Manchester, Tenn. mainstay, moving ahead of the packed festival field doesn’t mean being louder than the competition—it means shutting up and listening to the people who have supported it over the last 17 years.
To show its renewed support for the thousands of campers it considers family, the festival is making sure there’s something for everyone in its expanding community. This year’s Bonnaroo will feature elevated sprawling campgrounds and curated unique and safe experiences for different factions of festivalgoers, as part of a continued effort to celebrate individuality and embrace its roots.
“I think that Bonnaroo was headed in the direction of homogenization,” says Emily Cox, founder of visual design and event production firm Formation and former director of visual design for AC Entertainment (one of the fest’s organizers). “But it’s gotten its identity back this year because they realized that to really be successful and true to what Bonnaroo is, they need to be different.”
Cox has been working on Bonnaroo since 2014 and has seen the festival at its peak and lowest valley.
Originally introduced in 2002 as a haven for jam bands and late-night improvising sessions, Bonnaroo saw a record low attendance in 2016. With expectations close to 80,000 festivalgoers and actual numbers petering out at around half of that (45,537 to be exact, according to the Tennessean), it was time for the southern staple to take a hard look at itself and its lineup choices.
“The booking has changed over the years,” Cox says of Bonnaroo’s most recent shifts, which includes Live Nation and C3 Presents becoming the talent buyers for the festival. This year’s iteration of the lineup includes two out of four days headlined by Phish and a performance by the Grand Ole Opry featuring special guests.
“I’d say this year is like an ode to what it was. I mean, Phish is what started Bonnaroo basically… so, having a jam band on [the lineup] and having programming for all ages, I feel like they did a great job of that this year. And I think that’s why they’re selling more tickets than they have in a long time.”
Getting back to its jam band roots is only one piece of Bonnaroo’s renewed commitment to fans. This year, the festival is also doubling down on its investments in the campground plazas and safe spaces. So much happens outside of “Centeroo” (the main festival grounds) thanks, in part, to Sophie Lobl, Bonnaroo’s director of community and campground experiences. “Bonnaroo’s such a special place,” Lobl tells Fortune. “It’s one of the biggest camping festivals in the world, certainly in the US, which obviously makes it a completely different experience. Campers show up for four days and they don’t leave!”
And while that might seem like an exaggeration, nearly 90% of Bonnaroo’s attendees camp and some of them never leave the campgrounds—no matter what time of day it is. The sense of community that the fest has perpetuated for nearly two decades has only grown and organizers felt it was time to bring some quality programming to the camp plazas.
In 2018, Bonnaroo took the normal festival camping areas from bare bones—toilets, showers, some shade—to give campers unique experiences and around-the-clock programming that included a circus created by New York’s nightclub collective House of Yes, surprise performances and activities curated by Cage the Elephant’s Matt Shultz, ambient sound baths and healing, a Nashville-centric cultural center, and more.
This year will see the Bonnaroo team upping the ante in terms of dedicated safe space, unique programming, and world building for the plazas, which are open to everyone—essentially turning each of them into their own retreat or mini-festival.
“We really have a responsibility to create a world for [the campers] for four days instead of, you know, our standard programming,” Lobl explains about the expanding world of Bonnaroo. “From 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. we have to really go above and beyond to create those outside of the norm experiences. And I think that’s what we really pride ourselves on. Last year was kind of just a brilliant and extremely necessary decision to build the plazas out in the campgrounds.”
All of the plazas and experiences happening this year abide by Bonnaroo’s yearlong code of conduct (“radiate positivity”), but none of these feeds into this more than Hayley Williams of Paramore’s Sanctuary of Self Love. Described to Nylon magazine as a place “for the introvert that’s going to hang out at the festival for the weekend,” Williams’ plaza will focus on how to take care of yourself, with a special focus on mental health and wellness. Williams and her vegan hair dye company, Good Dye Young, worked with Cox on this bringing this experience to life.
“It’s been really wonderful [to work with Hayley],” says Cox about producing the Sanctuary of Self Love. “I’m so inspired by her mission to be vocal about mental health. Her personal struggles with it and that it’s okay… I’m looking forward to seeing how the fans react to Plaza Two (the Sanctuary of Self Love) and the mission of it. [I’m interested to see if patrons] really grab onto the idea of celebrating themselves and [seeing that] everyone’s struggling, that’s a common thing and it’s okay.”
Over the last couple of years, Bonnaroo has been reaching out to all of its community through specialized camping areas like SheROO for women-identifying and non-binary patrons and festival-long support systems like SoberROO. The 2019 festival’s first ever Pride parade and the Sanctuary of Self Love are just the next incarnations of a pledge to radiate positivity and inclusivity. “What I’ve loved about working with Bonnaroo is that I’m understanding the spirit and the culture that the organization promotes and embodies,” Williams told Nylon about creating her inclusive space for all.
What will continue to make Bonnaroo relevant is this authenticity, organizers say. “I feel like Bonnaroo works to excite the mind, body and spirit,” Cox says. “It’s not just like you’re going to a concert. You’re going to an experience, like you’re entering a different world.”
Under Lobl’s direction, Cox and the rest of the creative producers of Bonnaroo won’t be resting on their laurels of a ticket surge and a rehabilitated image. “We need to maximize and capitalize on, on this opportunity we have,” says Lobl, with her sights on the future iterations of Bonnaroo’s plazas and safe spaces. “We have these people that love our festival and we love them coming to share this experience with us for four days. How can we really [inspire them] outside of just what’s on the stages?”
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