Who needs mud? Bonnaroo and music festivals spread the experience online

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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NEW YORK — It’s often joked that more people like to claim that they were at Woodstock in 1969 than were actually there.

For today’s music mega-festivals, thanks to the Internet, such boasting is entirely plausible.

The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which begins its ninth annual installment Thursday evening in Manchester, Tennessee, has — like many festivals — gradually let more of its experience seep out on the Web.

This year’s festival, more than any earlier, need not require a cross-country road trip or four days of camping in the mud. Much of the music at Bonnaroo will filter out through live streaming on YouTube, audio webcasting on NPR and television coverage on Fuse.

A Web-minded vibe was set right from the start: This year’s Bonnaroo lineup was announced through the individual websites, MySpace pages, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of the performing acts. It took frantic Googling to uncover that the headliners would be Jay-Z, the Dave Matthews Band and Kings of Leon.

Nearly 100 acts, including Conan O’Brien’s travelling comedy show, will be spread out over a multitude of stages and tents on the Tennessee farm owned by Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, the organizers of Bonnaroo. More than 70,000 fans are expected to attend the festival, which runs through Sunday.

But perhaps as many, or more, will watch Jay-Z, the National, Norah Jones and many others at YouTube.com/bonnaroo. Thousands more might listen to the Dave Matthews Band, the Flaming Lips and others at NPR.org/music. And still more may catch up watching “Live From Bonnaroo 2010” on Fuse on June 17.

“We are exploring all sorts of opportunities to reach out to fans not simply during the weekend of the festival, but all year long to communicate what the Bonnaroo experience is all about,” says Ashley Capps, co-founder of Bonnaroo and president of AC Entertainment.

But the specialness of the live, in-person experience is the most important characteristic of Bonnaroo and other major festivals. It can be delicate balancing how much to open up festival gates to the Web, and how much to keep offline.

“How to do it is certainly an ongoing discussion,” Capps says. “Not compromising the Bonnaroo experience through these other opportunities is very important. But it’s exciting to discuss and, certainly for people who have not yet gotten to attend the festival itself, to get a taste of what Bonnaroo is like.”

Fan videos will also be posted across blogs and YouTube, and tweets that will likely drive Bonnaroo to among the most popular topics on Twitter over the weekend.

Nathan Followill of the Nashville-based band Kings of Leon, says Bonnaroo is “a festival for music lovers.” The potency of the brand is suggested when Followill says Bonnaroo is “kind of the same style of festival as we are a band.”

While the music industry has declined precipitously in the last decade, live music — and large festivals, in particular — has thrived. Festivals such as Bonnaroo, California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and Chicago’s Lollapalooza have emerged as strong brands that attract eager media partners.

“When we look at this, the festival model is very successful; tickets continue to sell out, there are lots of fans and followers, people who plan their summer schedules around these events,” says Dana Vetter, manager of music marketing programs at YouTube. “We see it as really compelling content and not something we’re necessary trying to replace. YouTube brings reach and more attention to the artists and the festival.”

YouTube has partnered in webcasting San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, which is also produced by Superfly. The Google Inc.-owned site has been making more of a push into live music, most notably webcasting a U2 concert last October to a live Internet audience of nearly 10 million.

In May, Coachella partnered with Verizon Wireless, which streamed some performances live to capable phones. Performances from the festival were also streamed live through Facebook.

Bonnaroo is also trying to develop into an online destination, in itself. Looking to grow the festival into more of a year-round happening, organizers last year launched Bonnaroo 365, a component of Bonnaroo.com that features footage from the festival’s vaults.

No one is claiming any of these online offerings come close to mimicking a weekend at Bonnaroo. But, increasingly, you don’t need to get your feet muddy or your skin burned enjoying the biggest music festivals.

Organizations: Dave Matthews Band, AC Entertainment, Flaming Lips Verizon Wireless

Geographic location: California, Manchester, Tennessee, NEW YORK Leon Chicago San Francisco

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