Founders reflect on 'relatively calm,' cooler Bonnaroo festival

Founders reflect on 'relatively calm,' cooler Bonnaroo festival

June 17th, 2019 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Ken Weinstein of Big Hassle Media talks about the origins of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on Sunday. John Prine performed to huge crowd Saturday night on That Tent. He was joined at one point by Brandi Carlile, a Sunday performer. / Photo by Barry Courter

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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Hear the full interview with Ken Weinstein at TheWhatPodcast.com.

In 2001, Ken Weinstein was doing publicity work for the North Mississippi Allstars when he got a call from Rick Farman and Jonathan Mayers at Superfly, a music marketing company in New Orleans at the time, about an idea they were considering regarding putting on a music festival in the summer of the following year.

They met for lunch in New York, and at the very end they pitched an idea for putting on a summer festival and asked if Weinstein would be interested in jumping on board.

"I said, well, I've never worked on an event before. They said, 'Well, we've never thrown an event before.'"

They also told him, "We don't know what's it's called yet and we don't know where it's going to be held," but told him some preliminary planning had been done. Superfly had been talking with Ashley Capps, co-founder of Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, about the project.

"Publicity is always the last phone call," Weinstein said. "Kind of like the health department."

He added that he still has the file on his computer where he keeps his list of ideas and proposals that reads "summer festival."

One year later he was standing on the What Stage at what is now called Great Stages Park in Manchester, Tennessee, with Capps and Superfly principals Mayers, Farman, Richard Goodstone and Kerry Black. The band Phish was about to play the very first Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.

"The principals all had a glass of wine and were looking out over this huge crowd and someone said, 'What have we built?'"

Weinstein has overseen publicity for the event ever since through his New-York-based company Big Hassle Media. He didn't have to do a lot of traditional marketing for the first event because Phish had already produced six festivals of its own.

The band's fans had found ways to communicate through chat rooms and other pre-social media means, and the 60,000 tickets sold out in 15 days.

"We added 10,000 more and those sold out in one day," Weinstein said.

The event was eventually capped at 80,000, which is the number sold for this year's event, headlined coincidentally, or maybe not, by Phish. Weinstein said he believes there are multiple reasons why the festival sold out. Phish being one, but also the improvements the organizers have made over the years.

"You have to get better and make improvements," he said.

Weinstein said the festival has big plans for the future and calls 2019, "Season II, Episode I," because he feels like the first 17 were part of a grand learning experience.

The festival, which this year has enjoyed perhaps its best weather, was not without tragedy as a 27-year-old man was found dead on Saturday night.

Chief Billy Butler of the Coffee County Sheriff's Office said on Sunday that many people were already leaving the grounds and that all of the gates would be open by midnight. He said it had been a relatively calm festival, thanks in part to the cooler temperatures.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.


CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:08 p.m. on Monday, June 17, 2019, to correct quotes to read "glass of wine" and "what have we built?"