Why Bonnaroo Will And Should Never Be Coachella
In this piece, Corey Teich explains where Bonnaroo (who’s recent lineup announcement was recieved with mixed feedback) went wrong, and why it will never be, nor should try to be a festival like Coachella or Lollapalooza.
Guest Post by Corey Teich on Medium
There are three music festivals in America, which each set the summer’s tone: Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. The aforementioned ranking is not random; It’s the last decade’s cumulative pecking order in terms of each as a cultural institution. These festivals exist for different reasons; Coachella is an oasis in the desert, Lollapalooza is an icon in one of our most iconic cities. And then there’s Bonnaroo. Not quite an oasis and certainly not in the middle of a city. While technically the youngest of the three, I’d say that Bonnaroo stuck closest to its roots for longer than its contemporaries. Which was hard to reconcile this morning, after reading its 2017 lineup.
Bonnaroo 2017 Headliners & Undercard: U2 (yawn), Red Hot Chili Peppers (again), The Weeknd (nope), Lorde (over-rated), Marshmello (wtf?), Chance (personal favorite, but likely ubiquitous this summer)
Founded in 2002, Bonnaroo quickly made it to Rolling Stone’s 50 Moments that Changed Rock n Roll just one year later. They did it first by booking quality jam bands and they did it next by expanding — Always staying true to what broke them in the first place while taking qualified chances. As the festival moved away from a jam-only environment, it grew into, for lack of a better term, a music-person’s festival. Top acts like Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The White Stripes, Bob Dylan, early debuts by My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses and Bon Iver. Bonnaroo used to be the type of festival that looked past sales or status, relying more on aesthetic. Essentially, and snobbish-ly: Would someone with good taste listen?
Now to be fair, sans the jam aspect, Coachella and Lollapalooza both started off as more intricately curated festivals too. Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction rooted Lollapalooza in Alternative Rock — Coachella’s first lineup featured Tool, Morrisey, and Rage Against the Machine. But as always, leaf subsides to leaf, [and] Eden sank to grief. Coachella and Lollapalooza couldn’t ignore the lure of big bucks. Just a few years later Coachella sold their festival to a rich homophobe, while Lollapalooza needed a boost after going away for several years. Lineups changed and new audiences followed, but I think the key to each’s respective success lies elsewhere: Convenience.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers as to when Bonnaroo got shitty. I say it started last year, when the festival experienced their worst ticket sales to date. (depending on your proclivity to jam music though, this could have occurred even as far back as a decade ago) The last time I went to Bonnaroo was in 2014; Headliners were Kanye West, Jack White and Elton John. Each, artists truly at the top of their respective genres. It was a festival worth going out of my way for. In the years prior, they included acts like Paul McCartney, Radiohead, Phish and Widespread Panic. The two at the start of that list and the two at the end are both significant but for different reasons.
Paul McCartney and Radiohead are significant (I can’t believe I even feel the need to say this) for being two of the most important artists in the history of modern music. But dare I say it: (and dare I sort of steal a line from the Lefsetz Letter) They’re riskier bookings than one would think. Us music fans adore them, but they aren’t going to pull teens with their parents disposable income like a Calvin Harris. Phish and Widespread Panic are considerably less well known amongst a majority of America. However, their fans have proved dedicated enough to travel wherever they are playing.
What I’m ultimately getting at is that Bonnaroo used to be a festival worth going out of your way for. It worked when insider or classic acts were booked, because people like myself were willing to drive 32 hours round trip from New York City. As a three time Bonnaroo attendee, I stand firmly behind my statement that the festival experience is comprised of more than just music. It’s camping, it’s making friends, it’s drinking beers with the guy in the tutu. As much as I yearn for the community Bonnaroo provides, I can find something pretty similar at a local festival like Mountain Jam or All Good. Ultimately the music has to get me there, has to make it worth going out of the way for.
You certainly don’t have to go out of the way for Lollapalooza if you live in Chicago. Governor’s Ball in New York City too follow the same line of thought: People will attend because public transportation goes there. As a result, both festivals are mobbed with high school kids learning for the first time that it’s cooler to be hydrated in the sun than it is to be drunk. Because of their convenience, these festivals too have the leeway to experiment a little — Governor’s Ball booked Tool and Lollapalooza hasn’t completely forgotten its Alternative Rock roots. People are going to attend no matter what, because they’ve both become institutions in cities with efficient mass transit.
Coachella isn’t quite as convenient, but it’s still do-able for day trips from America’s second largest city. What Coachella lacks in convenience it makes up for in esteem. Esteem, not as a musical tastemaker, but as a place to Instagram from. I’ve never been a SoCal teenager, but I imagine that if my parents didn’t fund my trip to Coachella that I’d be pretty pissed off. Coachella at this point is completely risk-averse. Kids didn’t stick around last year for LCD Soundsystem, and I fear the same might happen again for Radiohead. A large part of its success leading up to where we find it now lies in its proximity to LA. It also lies in its shameless booking of the world’s biggest pop acts for longer than both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. (that is not a knock on Beyonce, one of the world’s most important artists, I want to clarify) Both created the perfect formula for a certain demographic that keeps showing up. As Matthew McConaughey once said ‘I keep getting older, but they stay the same age.’
Bonnaroo never needed to be convenient because it always booked the music worth traveling for. It’s important too to emphasize the extent of the travel often required and also of the festival’s requirement to camp. Unlike Coachella and Lollapalooza, there are very few (if any) Bonnaroo day-trippers. Yes you can glamp, but only if you can afford it. What I’m getting at is that Bonnaroo requires an attendee with a certain level of maturity; One able to pack appropriately, to camp accommodatingly, and to travel responsibly. There’s a reason you see few people under 18 every year — Bonnaroo is not a beginner festival. And for those of you attending it as your first, you make serious mistakes like I did: You don’t bring a camel back, you don’t pack baby powder or sun tan lotion, you don’t bring a canopy. What you do is you buy cool looking cut-off jeans from Urban Outfitters because you want to look the part.
Over just a short period of time, Bonnaroo pivoted away from its musical roots and attempted to follow both Coachella and Lollapalooza’s lead. The Weeknd is a pop star, and for all the reasons mentioned previously, the kids aren’t showing up. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers are cool, but they played only a few years ago and haven’t put out a hit record since Stadium Arcadium. And then there’s U2. Part of me kind of respects the booking, because the group has never played an American music festival before. It’s not a particularly bad booking, and it makes me think Bonnaroo might have more balls than I’d previously assumed. But by and large, no one is going out of their way to see U2. Especially not when they’re about to announce a major world tour. Especially not when the rest of the lineup is incongruous with their music. How many people do you think fit in the middle of the venn diagram between Lorde, Chance the Rapper, and U2?
Certainly there’s overlap between Lorde and Chance the Rapper, but the problem is that their fans aren’t attending Bonnaroo in numbers big enough to hit capacity. Both of their audiences are younger, less likely to trek through the Nashville back country for a set probably coming to a town near them.
Bonnaroo will never be Coachella or Lollapalooza because it’s geographically isolated. It’s like the Hawaii of music festivals. (Geography lesson: Hawaii is one of the most isolated/populated land masses in the world) But the difference is that there’s a reason to travel to Hawaii; It offers something you’re not going to get anywhere else. Bonnaroo has begun (potentially already completed) its isolation of snobby music fans like myself. Believe it or not though, there are enough snobby music fans such as I to hit capacity; Me and my contemporaries have done it nearly every year prior. By turning its back on us, Bonnaroo has turned its chest towards Kim Kardashian’s Instagram followers. This is never going to work; Parents who let their children take the subway to Grant Park, or who drop their children off for the day in Indio Valley, are never going to lend out their car for a 16 hour one way drive. These kids are going to see Chance the Rapper, he’s headlining Governor’s Ball. They’re going to also catch Lorde; Watch out for her headlining set at Madison Square Garden whenever Pure Heroine — pt. 2 comes out. But they’re never going to experience the magic of Manchester Tennessee, and I can’t blame them for it.
I’m fearful that I too will never get to experience Manchester Tennessee again, home to my favorite place in the world: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. It’s where on my 20th birthday I saw Eminem and Robyn within hours of each other. It’s where some of my happiest memories — showering off at the mushroom fountain, cooking hot dogs off with a Bic lighter — originate from. It’s where my mind goes when it needs confirmation of bliss in this world. But if Bonnaroo continues their trend of booking music’s most vanilla acts, I’m afraid that my memories will be all that I’m left with. Bonnaroo needs to know that its core will welcome it back; We all make mistakes. The kids are never going to show though, no pop headliners will draw them there. But give us something like 2009, 2012, 2007 again and I promise we’ll return. Because once you’ve been to the farm, it’s always somewhere in your head, wishing you’d never left.