Event Horizon: Charlie Jennings on Building Bonnaroo
Transforming an empty field into an art-comedy-music megafest capable of rocking the faces off of 80,000 people takes dedication, organization, and an uncanny ability to keep cool when catastrophe strikes.
As rock-hungry fans are fine-tuning their Bonnaroo concert schedules, Charlie Jennings is sweating the small and not-so-small stuff. While mired in logistics ranging from artist accommodations to toilet placement, Jennings and the rest of the operations team at the Knoxville, Tennessee-based production company AC Entertainment and their partners Superfly Presents were doing their yearly scramble to ensure that the estimated 80,000 Bonnaroo patrons have a safe, happy, and rock-filled weekend.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Bonnaroo’s not only big, but it boasts an enormously eclectic range of musicians that span from Paul McCartney to the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as a lengthy roster of comedians, visual artists, filmmakers, belly dancers, and workshop instructors. It’s also one of the few music festivals throughout that country where attendees camp out, which, for festival organizers, means providing round-the-clock amenities like medical services, food options, and hygiene facilities. Starting as an intern at AC Entertainment and now working as the company’s director of operations, Jennings and partners at Superfly oversees nearly every aspect of the festival’s logistics, including the 5,000-person Bonnaroo staff who work on the ground. The secret to staying on top of it all, he says, is simple—just don’t panic.
Charlie Jennings: There are a number of things an event producer would do. You’re trying to find a location for the event that’s suitable, that has the proper amount of land depending on the scope of your event. Something I probably should have said beforehand is determining the scope of your event. Are you trying to do 80,000 people? Are you trying to do 10,000 people? What’s the scale that you’re shooting for and, to expand on that, what is the vision of the event? What kind of genres of music is it? How many days are you hoping to do? Is it a camping festival? Is it something where people are going to come in and go home to their beds or a hotel? There are all these basic criteria that you would try to zone in on as far as the scope or vision of the event. Then you would start to try to figure out, “Ok, how are we going to pull this off? What partners do we need? Are we going to do this ourselves? Are we going to partner with someone else?”
Trying to find a site; that’s a big subject in and of itself. That ties into the community and the city, making sure they’re supportive of the idea of doing a special event. Some are, some aren’t. There are a lot of other criteria that you would evaluate with that—making sure it can sustain the festival and at that point, then you probably start doing some sort of layout to put to paper what your vision is and a budget. Those are kind of the main steps.
CJ: We book the festival as a team. There are about eight people that discuss every single band that’s booked and I think that sort of tug and pull of that dynamic really helps craft an excellent lineup. No one person is booking the entire event. We find that having the different voices and being able to have different perspectives allows us to have a really cohesive lineup that fits well with each other. To add to that, Bonnaroo is a little bit different in that it’s 80,000 people. You’ve got an amazing audience of 80,000 people that listen to all sorts of different types of music and we’re able to feature artists that other festivals aren’t necessarily able to. At the same time, it’s important to make sure that you’ve got a nice critical mass of artists so that it’s really compelling. I think you see that when you look at headliners like Mumford and Sons and Paul McCartney and Tom Petty. Those go pretty well together.
CJ: Absolutely. I think agents have a difficult job to negotiate more aggressively for their bands than maybe they had to previously because the income streams for the artists are much more limited than they used to be. I think we feel that across our business, festivals to regular concerts. There are a lot of bands out there that want to play your event, especially like Bonnaroo where it’s internationally-known and highly regarded. Every band wants to play it. At the same time, there are a lot of festivals out there now and there are a lot of bands on the road, so it makes for a challenging booking process to make sure that you’ve got a really great lineup and you’ve got the bands at a fair price and you also don’t have the same lineup as another festival six hours away or something.
CJ: A lot of our business is gut and based on experience more than any sort of calculation or math that you can do. I think it really comes down to how your lineup is shaping up. What would those bands normally sell in terms of concert tickets? [That information] is available in our industry through a service such as Pollstar and their box office reports. You take that and you look at the viability of your location. How many millions of people are you within X number of hours drive from? Are you close to a major airport? Do you have plenty of lodging or camping as in the case for Bonnaroo? And then you’ve just got to factor, how expensive and how feasible is it for patrons to come to this event and do we have a compelling lineup? I think if you’ve got a great lineup and it’s easy for people to come there and it’s priced affordably for them, there’s a good value for what you’re offering and you’re offering a really great experience beyond just the bands, be it the ease of being able to buy a drink or the visual look and feel of the festival that creates the character of it. I think all of those elements are what helps you know how successful you’re going to be with the event.
CJ: There’s a lot. One element is making sure that vehicles are being searched as they come in. We know we have a list of prohibited and allowed items, making sure that that’s being followed by patrons, making sure that bags are being checked as they come into the venue like you see at other shows, making sure that we’re doing the best we can, have our best efforts in terms of making sure that tickets are not being counterfeited and sold to unsuspecting patrons as active or valid tickets when they’re not. Having a team out there that’s trying to stop that from happening is a big part of it. We use RFID technology. We actually don’t have paper tickets anymore. We use wristbands with a chip in them and those chips are unique to each person and not able to be counterfeited so it’s really significantly reduced our issues with people trying to counterfeit our wristbands and sell them to patrons outside of the festival grounds. We had staff monitoring that, but also having the technology is a big part of making sure that the fans who paid for the tickets are the ones that get in.
CJ: I think organizational skills are a huge part of it. This is, for the most part, a pretty detail-oriented business. Having the opportunity to learn really basic organizational skills and simple things like being able to manage a to-do list and keep your emails under control and things of that nature, which sounds really basic but is incredibly important. I think that’s a good part of it. Try to develop problem-solving skills. A lot of what we do is problem solving really. We’re the middlemen as concert promoters between bands and the venue or the agent or whatever. You’re just trying to make things happen. Being able to problem-solve and do it calmly and collectedly is a big skill, not falling apart under the stress of it all. Those are real-world skills. They’re not exactly things you can learn in a classroom, but the organizational part, I think you can.
CJ: I think it really comes down to finding internships or entry-level positions and working your way up. I think that’s the way that pretty much everybody I know that’s in the business has done it. You start out as a runner at a concert, being the gopher of the day for the band, or you get an internship somewhere. wWork for free usually is how it starts more often than not. It’s sort of an unpaid internship, if you’re in college, then hopefully you can get some sort of educational credit for it. I think you’ve got to be willing to start doing some of the nitty-gritty work and work your way up.
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