Behind the Scenes: Bonnaroo Music Festival

We sit down to talk with Rick Farman, co-founder of the hugely successful music festival
Hero final bonnaroo header.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

May 13, 2015 | By Thomas McDermott

Rick Farman and his friends organized the first ever Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2002 through their company Superfly. More than a decade later, it's one of the biggest music festivals in the United States — with more than 80,000 people attending each year. They've created such a massive following that in 2008, they were able to set up San Francisco's first large-scale music festival, Outside Lands. We stopped by to talk with Rick about his inspiration for building these events, and to better understand what goes on behind the scenes. 

Thanks for taking the time to talk. What actually goes into creating a music festival? Where do you start?

RICK FARMAN: I think the first thing is a little bit around concept or purpose, right? What is the concept? With Bonnaroo, it’s been about this community of people who want to come together for a real outdoor camping festival. Fully immersive, 24 hours, just build this almost alternative community.

With Outside Lands, it’s very much been the expression of what’s amazing about San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California and encapsulating that and expressing it in a way that creates an iconic representation of it. That's the biggest thing.

What I remember most about driving to Bonnaroo is that you're in the middle of nowhere, but then all of a sudden, it just kind of unfolds in front of you. How'd you guys decide that you were going to host the festival at the Farm?  

RF: It was pure serendipity, basically. I mean, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing because we were all in our mid- to early-20s, and our business was around for only about five years prior to that. We were a regular concert promoter in New Orleans, just doing club and theater shows, and we have this idea of doing a large scale festival and we started to call around to some people that we knew in the industry that knew of sites. 

We started looking at Tennessee because it’s so centrally located. We really wanted to do something that could attract people from all over the country and could be a national event. We started calling some people that we knew that were in the area. One was a staging vendor and one owned a security company. There was a festival at the same site a few years before Bonnaroo that was a failed event, but it did create a dynamic where this site was a little bit on the map as a place where there was some infrastructure and a willing community.

So we were just told, "Hey, you should go check this place out." My partners and I hopped in a car, drove up from New Orleans which was a 12-hour drive or something, and then within probably an hour of driving around the place. We’re like, "Oh, this place looks great." Again, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing but almost right then and there, we cut a deal with the guy who owned it to do the festival there. So looking back on it, it’s pretty shocking and amazing that it actually worked out.

So then how did Outside Lands come about? Was there a different inspiration? 

RF: Outside Lands was really about a reverence and love of San Francisco and the Bay Area and this feeling that it’s so important and historically relevant for an American music market. As we were looking for opportunities and trying to figure out where to build the business, we kept asking, "Why doesn't San Francisco have a big festival?" It's such a logical place. And we realized the only reason that it wasn’t happening is because nobody was doing it.  

It was really just one of those things that seemed like, God, what an opportunity. I mean, there’s no big festival in San Francisco? We knew that there were so many culturally-relevant things that could be expressed within the context of a festival very easily.

Thinking back to the first Bonnaroo in 2002, was there ever a time when you thought, 'Holy shit, what are we doing?'

RF: Yeah. I mean, it is definitely one of those things you look back on and you think, "I have no idea how we did it." So many of the things that we do now we didn’t do back then, and it’s still hard. I still don’t know how it actually happened. The only reason why it worked at all is because the community, the audience, wanted it too. So they endured a lot to have this deep communal gathering, and we have fans that really want this thing to work and if it wasn’t for that, this wouldn't be able to happen.

On the other end of that, was there a moment when it felt like things were really starting coming together?

RF: Well, I think that we felt pretty good right off the bat. There was a point the first year where I thought it was a total disaster because I was in the bubble of the production world and there were a lot of tough things going on. Then I remember this one moment — it was late Saturday afternoon and the headliner was about to go on — and I found my brother and he kept saying, "Everybody is having the best time. This is awesome." And I couldn't believe it; I just said, "Really?" I actually didn’t know. In my mind, at that point, I'd thought we had f**ked it up so bad.

Year two, we came out of the box and sold the festival out really quickly. We sold something like 50,000 tickets the first day we went on sale. That was pretty fun, and it felt like, wow, this thing is pretty solid.

Another turning point was in 2006 when we had Radiohead. It really helped shift the image, perception, feeling of the festival, to a different type of community event. Prior to that, we’d been very much associated, and rightfully so, with the jam band, post-Grateful Dead, Phish hiatus kind of world. That was the community that we were bringing together. But that was deliberate and we were part of that community, so it made sense to us — but like anything and anybody we're always evolving and looking to broaden what the meaning of of the festival is.

We had great live performances and worked with artists that had very strong followings, but I remember us always having to try and avoid being labeled as a jam band festival. But the minute we announced Radiohead, that was just over. We had matured and we were at a different place at that point. And it was also one of the best shows they’ve ever had. They played one of their longest sets ever. I think they played a two and a half hour show, and Thom Yorke was really heavily quoted afterwards saying it was one of their best gigs ever. So it was this magical combination of things that really I think propelled the event to a different level.

What would you say is the toughest part of organizing such a massive festival?

RF:  I think I could just sum it up in that you're doing something that has a very finite timeframe. It only happens once a year. So, you're building up a lot of temporary infrastructure, and then you have to quickly break it down. And so, just that process of always having to build and breakdown, build and breakdown, it hurriedly creates a lot of logistical complexity.

We've been doing it for a long time now and I’d like to think we're really good at it. It's a dynamic thing. You're never going to get it a hundred percent right and you can always get better at it. I think it's almost like planning a wedding. There's this emotional curve that you go on which is basically — you do all the planning, it happens really quickly, and even in the moment of it, you're still trying to get a sense of what's happening and have the right memory of it.

So, that curve that you go on is just an inherent challenge in large-scale festivals and that’s probably the thing that we focus on the most, just how to be really balanced and really efficient every time we do it.

What do you think sets Bonnaroo apart from other music festivals?

RF: I think the part we love the most is when we have the opportunity to create a dynamic that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The super jams are a big aspect of that where we're in the middle of producing, and we're putting people together that never would've otherwise.

So putting artists side-by-side or back-to-back — whether it's Chris Rock going on before Metallica and introducing them, or Stevie Wonder going on before Jay Z and hearing him say, you know, like I can't wait to tell my mom that Stevie Wonder is watching my whole set. Those are the things that I think kind of stick out as the most important and gratifying from a program introspective.

It seems like the stages at Bonnaroo are definitely set up to foster that kind of atmosphere.

RF: Yeah. I mean, Bonnaroo is unique among festivals right now because a lot of bands tend to come and hangout for the weekend. And through that, a lot of interesting relationships have developed amongst the artists themselves, amongst the artists and audience. So, that’s pretty cool to see.

What are your favorite experiences at Bonnaroo? 

RF: There’s always that moment where you get the opportunity to just look out at the creation and look at people having a great time and you have those very grateful, pinch yourself moments, like, wow, this is what I get to be a part of, and I’m part of something that people are really enjoying and that’s super gratifying and deep.

For me personally, I’ve had a lot of really nice moments with my family. At my events, my parents who are in their mid-70s come to Bonnaroo every year and have a blast. My brother comes every year. That’s really cool.

As for Outside Lands, I would say, some of the memorable stuff is just sitting there with a really good glass of wine, some oysters or whatever it may be and hearing this mix of music come off the stages while being in Golden Gate Park — this amazingly beautiful place.  That feeling of, "I can’t believe they let us use this place," and that whole mix of great drinks, great food, hanging with some friends, watching a great band — hopefully that’s what every fan is experiencing, right?

Fortunately, especially over the last bunch of years, we’ve got to the point that we’re hosting, but we’re able to see the festival from more of a experiencing it standpoint rather than having to worry about the nuts and bolts producing of it. It's just a great feeling to know that we’ve got an amazing team of people who have got our best interest in mind and are taking care of business so that we're all able to enjoy it and be great hosts.

So you've been able to start experiencing it from more of a fan's perspective?

RF: Yeah, more and more. Again, it’s all wrapped in a bow of us being a host. As you can imagine, you just have a lot of people that you’re making sure are having a good time and you can never quite leave the "Oh, I got to fix this, hold on," mentality or if I see something that I wish was better, I’m taking a note on it but, for the most part we're at a point where everyone is having a really great time hosting each of our events now. I’ve always had this goal at Bonnaroo that in five years I wanted us to be really good at it, and at 10 years, I wanted to be able to just show up. And I wouldn’t say I quite got there at 10 years, but I did get pretty close.

How would you say you measure the success of a festival?

RF: I think it just comes down ultimately to, did the people that came have a great time? Are they buzzing about it? Are they talking about it with an energy that's equivalent to what we put into it? So it goes back to what I was saying before about at Bonnaroo, do people feel part of the community? Did they feel like they got out of their day-to-day life and their sort of world of connectedness, digital connectedness and get back to something simple like making a new friend that just happens to be camped next to them. Seeing that post event, seeing the flood of people reminiscing and talking about it from that perspective is what you’re looking for. If they’re talking about something else, then we didn’t do such a good job.

Outside Lands is the same thing. People feel like they walked away with a true San Francisco experience. So for people that live here, it's all about, do they feel like, "Wow, living here is deeper for me now," you know? I think what we’re really looking for. It’s a non-quantitative measure of success — that’s what it’s about. The same goes for our staff, the same goes for our partners, our vendors, the artists, every business that’s part of it. We want them to walk away and think, "Man, I’m really glad I got to be a part of this thing."

Do you think that people come to Bonnaroo for the lineup, or more just to be part of the experience?

RF: I think the nature of a festival, and especially the kind of festivals we’re talking about, land more towards being about the whole experience. Because you can always go and see Paul McCartney, or Elton John, or Jay Z, or Neil Young. But the chance to see them at a big festival? It's a different dynamic for sure. And I think that this is even more and more relevant in today’s digital world, today’s social media world, where I think that it's what people are going to expect and demand from great entertainment experiences in the future. They want something that's more immersive, more interactive, more deep than something that’s very one dimensional or cookie cutter.

I think that the reason that you’ve seen such a proliferation of festivals is that there's been a very distinct cultural and generational demand for them. And I don’t think people are looking for a single channel experience. I think they’re looking for something a little deeper than that and I think you’re seeing that in a lot of different avenues, and in a lot of different forms of entertainment. [H


Thomas McDermott is a Creative Producer at Huckberry.
Follow him on Instagram.

Images © courtesy of Superfly