Festival Time

Living by the Bonnaroo Code

Bonnaroo is more than just a music festival. It becomes a community where artists and the audience come together to live and explore new music…even if only for just a few days.

Douglas Mason/Getty

Some would say camping with Diarrhea on a farm in the middle-of-nowhere-Tennessee is Stoopid.

But 80,000 “Bonnaroovians” would politely disagree. The opportunity to hear acts such as Diarrhea Planet and Slightly Stoopid perform, along with the added benefit of mingling with the bands, is part of what sets Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival apart in the crowded festival market.

Rick Farman was a 25-year-old music fan when he co-founded North America’s only 24-hour-a-day music festival. He believes that Bonnaroo gives attendees a chance to unplug from their digital worlds and instead tap into “a deeply layered experience.”

As I chatted with Farman and some of the featured performers, I forgot at times that we were talking about a music festival—it could have easily been something more spiritual.

For many of the acts, Bonnaroo is not just another concert: It is an opportunity to grow their fan base while also breaking free from the mundane routines of life on the road.

More than a handful of the performers I spoke to plan to spend all or a part of their weekend embedded with the festies—partying alongside festivalgoers—as well as seeing some of the artists they have long admired and cheering on their friends.

Slightly Stoopid’s Miles Doughty (guitar, bass, vocals) is planning on watching Elton John and Ice Cube, but he got most animated when speaking of the South African duo Die Artwoord, whose music and videos he described as “sick and mind-blowing, especially when faded,” a term I am told refers to being high.

The diversity in the Bonnaroo lineup is legendary, as embodied by a quick look at this year’s top headliners: Elton John, Kanye West, Jack White, and Lionel Richie.

Sans country and opera, there is something for most every musical palate at Bonnaroo.

”I use Bonnaroo to discover my new favorite acts,” said Joel Cummins (vocals, keyboards) of Umphrey’s McGee—a circuit favorite that headlines several festivals this summer.

It is that chance for musical discovery that has record labels and their marketing machines salivating at the opportunity to get their emerging artists into the event’s lineup. As much goodness and love as there is floating around ’Roo, the bottom-line is that selling records is still a very big deal and much of what drives music festivals.

For some of the lesser-known performers, this summer circuit could make their dreams come true or send a message that the future is less than bright.

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Kyle Henderson, 24, frontman for Desert Noises, quit his job and “went for it” with his bandmates. Henderson described his days working in an office much like I would describe getting a root canal. Bonnaroo is an opportunity for his band to showcase their talent in hopes of never returning to the drudgery of “being a business dude.”

ZZ Ward on the other hand, arrives at the farm with a growing following and some momentum from a successful set at Coachella this spring. At 28, Ward is “excited” to perform at Bonnaroo, viewing the event as an opportunity to acquire new fans while also “catching a variety of acts and learning from other artists.”

While other festivals cater to a crowd that comes and goes, cherry picking the acts patrons want to see, Bonnaroo promotes exploration—expanding one’s palate through musical taste-testing. So the artists and attendees form a community—it is “North America’s largest camping event” after all.

An important aspect of the community is abiding by the “Bonnaroovian Code” promoting good-natured feelings for all participants. One must “prepare thyself” and “play as a team” while also making sure not to “be that guy/gal.” But arguably the most important is “Staying True Roo”—a motto teaching Bonnaroovians to make the four-day festival applicable for the rest of their lives. According to veteran attendees, the majority of people who attend Bonnaroo do act according to these virtues.

Kanye West, however, might disagree. The artist’s last appearance at Bonnaroo was in 2008, and it went horribly wrong. After keeping fans waiting for hours, Kanye delivered a lackluster performance that had the crowd loudly vocalizing their displeasure.

The artist quickly blamed event organizers, and he even criticized the band Pearl Jam for making him late. Yet, in spite of that, he’s back again, headlining this year’s festival.

Farman says he is thrilled to have West back, describing him as a “prolific performer” while also highlighting the inherent goodness that resides in Bonnaroovians. One could argue that providing Kanye an opportunity to redeem himself is the ultimate expression of the festival’s commitment to a “positive spirit.”

As a first-time Bonnaroovian, I too hope to come away with some of the positivity that the festival is famous for, especially as I return to my everyday life as a business dude.