PR’s Role in Building Bonnaroo

June 4, 2010

It’s no small feat working behind the scenes to put on North America’s largest outdoor festival. With more than 100 artists and 80,000 attendees congregating in the sweltering June heat of Manchester, Tenn., the four-day Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has become a definitive summer festival destination for people around the world.

Jeff Cuellar, director of marketing and business development for Knoxville, Tenn.-based music promotion and production company AC Entertainment — who puts on the festival in conjunction with Superfly Productions — has played an integral role in planning and executing the event since its inception in 2002. In its first year, the festival sold out its then 70,000-seat capacity with 47 artists and no traditional advertising.

Now in its ninth year, Bonnaroo owns the 700 acres of  farmland that the festival is on — called Great Stage Park — and boasts multiple stages covering diverse genres, a comedy tent, a cinema tent, on-site camping, activities and art installations, a vending village, forums on social issues, not to mention its own giant ferris wheel, post office and daily newspaper, Bonnaroo Beacon. The festival was recently featured as a prize on “The Price Is Right” and currently has a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor called Bonnaroo Buzz. This year’s festival, which takes place June 10-13, boasts diverse headliners Jay-Z, Kings of Leon, Dave Matthews Band and Stevie Wonder.

How did you get your start in public relations and marketing?

I started my education at the United States Coast Guard Academy in marine biology.  I wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau and help save the waterways. Then I went to a career counselor to figure out what other options were out there. I took that test that [matches] you with your perfect profession, and it came back for me as a flight attendant or public relations [professional]. I didn’t feel a career being a flight attendant was the way to go.  And, public relations — I didn’t know anything about it. I took one class at the University of  Tennessee and fell in love with it. I finished my education at Tennessee with a BS in public relations, business and Spanish in 2001.

I’ve always had a passion for music, always been a heavy consumer of music and would attend a lot of live concert events. So, that’s where I wanted my focus.

How has public relations helped Bonnaroo build its brand?

It’s almost all about public relations.  A lot of times I feel like the line between public relations and marketing is almost nonexistent. But public relations has immensely helped the festival.  The first year we sold out the festival [by] getting the bands to talk about what they were doing, how they were part of the festival.

Due to the notoriety of our lineup, we’ve been fortunate in pushing the festival. We probably have one of the lowest advertising budgets of any festival.  We focus a lot on publicity and press and media relations. Plus, we’re one of the innovators. No one was doing the size and type of event that we were doing back in 2002. Once we pulled it off and it was successful, people started to take notice.

[Fans] want to spend their time and money to come down and enjoy a community and experience that you can’t get anywhere else. It models itself after some of the European festivals that have been around since the early 1970s and it works.

Discuss the evolution of the festival. It started out as mostly a jamband festival and now encompasses a broad genre of artists.

For us, it was never about being a jamband festival. We noticed that there was a market there from The Grateful Dead to bands like Phish — Phish had been doing their festivals for several years where it was just one band. Its intent was, OK, we’ve got a base of fans that we know will come and camp — I guess you can say the jamband crowd. But, they are heavy consumers of music.  There’s pretty much nothing that they won’t try as long as it’s good live entertainment.
[At the same time] the Internet was starting to really take off and people were utilizing it from a social platform as well with Napster and finding music.  We wanted to take those bands that had a heavy Internet presence and say, “You put on great live shows.  You’re pushing the envelope — you just don’t have a great record deal.”

So for us, it was, “How could we pull together some of this live entertainment and bring it to people that want to camp and enjoy community?” For Bonnaroo, it’s about the moment. It’s about the experiences.

Bonnaroo has its own post office, radio station, daily newspaper — even a Whole Foods outpost. How early does the planning begin to create this mini-city for a week?

It never stops. We may take a breath immediately after the festival and enjoy [our hard work]. But it’s immediately planning for next year and the year after. We’re already working on 2011 and 2010 hasn’t happened yet. We’re even working on 2012, 2013 right now.

Luckily, we’re a well-oiled machine. Now that we own the property, we’re able to make infrastructure improvements to enhance the festival, making it easier, making it better.  This is the fun part: identifying what we can do to make that experience better for every fan.

Through the years, the festival has stimulated the Coffee County economy. How has Bonnaroo built ties with the local community?

Technically, once we bought the land, we became official citizens of Coffee County.  We’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce and were before we purchased the property. So, we have an investment in the community and we give back as much as we possibly can.  A lot of local organizations are out there [vending and] making money and helping their bottom line, so they can take that back to the community.

In addition, the Bonnaroo Works Fund has contributed to the growth of the area. Our goal is to turn Coffee County into a live entertainment industry, and bring companies there that supply infrastructure and needs for large outdoor events.  And with Nashville’s [location and] Chattanooga, Tenn. where it is, it’s a perfect cross section for a company to be based and deploy resources to events all over the country.

Talk about AC Entertainment’s philanthropic efforts and corporate social responsibility.

Since the inception [of the festival], giving back is always one of our key strategies and something that we have deemed as a fabric of the festival.  The Bonnaroo Works Fund was established about two years ago and it gave us an outlet to disperse those funds that we collect either from the silent auction or [from when] we add a dollar onto every ticket.

One of the reasons the Fund was created was that we felt like we were giving [to many various outlets] but we wanted to create something more focused around the vision of Bonnaroo. And we feel like education is a key component. We have been named one of the greatest festivals in the world for the past couple years and every year we strive to find new ways to help make it more green and have potentially zero impact on the environment.  A festival unto itself is not very environmentally conscious because many things have to be brought in, and people are driving.

We do Carbon Shredders, where you can figure out what your carbon footprint will be [if you’re driving] and pay a little extra to the price of your ticket that will offset your impact. We have onsite composting. We forced our vendors to go to compostable materials.

Hopefully, we’ll be on 100 percent solar power here in the next year. We’re trying to eliminate plastic water bottles. We’re constantly trying to evaluate how we do things to be greener and sharing those lessons with our fans. It’s a core part of our festival, and the reason why people come — Gen X, Gen Y and the Millennials are stating they want to have a purpose and be aligned with companies and organizations that are doing the right thing  — and that helps set us apart.

What are some of the challenges of working in such a demanding industry?

The challenges can be the best parts. The challenge we face as a festival every year is keeping it fresh. What can we do that keeps the fans wanting to come back for more? A lot of it is the lineup. If we’re not putting out a stellar lineup, they may not come.  And the cost — you’ve got to keep the budget tight because we don’t know [what will come up].  You have to plan for a sellout but be prepared for something less.

So those are some of the challenges, but what makes it fun is it’s not your typical nine to five. In fact, actually, it’s not a nine to five at all. [Laughs.]  You can’t stay stagnant.

As challenging as that is, it also makes it extremely exciting because you know that every day when you walk in it’s going to change, it’s going to be different.

Getting to know Jeff Cuellar…

If you could see any artist — past or present — who would it be?
Michael Jackson. I had tickets to go see him in London before he died.

What is your favorite thing to do in your downtime?
It may sound crazy, but going to shows and the record store are two of my favorite things to do. I also love the outdoors and going to live sporting events.  Also, my wife and I take a ski trip out west every year and I play Ultimate Frisbee. 

What’s the best part of your job?
Seeing the faces of fans as they leave an event and hearing them say that was the best show they have ever seen. I also love the people I work with.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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