Ashley Capps On This Weekend’s Moon River Festival, Boutique Fests As The Antidote To Festival Fatigue

Ashley Capps
– Ashley Capps
of AC Entertainment, which promotes several boutique festivals including Forecaste, High Water Festival, Homecoming and Moon River.

Ashley Capps is perhaps best known for co-founding Bonnaroo — the massive Manchester, Tennessee celebration that’s laid much of the groundwork for the multi-stage, multi-genre modern American mega-festival model — in 2002. But the industry veteran, founder and CEO of Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, sees himself as much a curator of cultural experiences as he does a concert promoter.

In recent years, as more and more large-scale festivals aiming to compete with the Bonnaroos and Coachellas of the world have risen and fallen from the live music landscape — leading to claims of “festival fatigue” from armchair quarterbacks in the concert industry — Capps has opted to operate outside the margins of the festival bubble. He’s done that by launching or partnering with smaller, regionally flavored boutique festivals around the South and Midwest that target and cater to a more focused, refined class of festivalgoers.

Here Capps shoots the breeze with Pollstar about his other festivals. They include Forecastle, the Louisville flagship festival founded by Derby City promoter JK McKnight in 2002, which AC Entertainment partnered with as co-producers in 2011, and which, in July, enjoyed a record attendance in the neighborhood of 25,000 revelers a day to see headliners the likes of Chris Stapleton, Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse. And Cincinnati, Ohio’s Homecoming, a festival curated by indie-rockers The National in April. That same month, AC teamed up with Americana stars Shovels & Rope to curate Charleston, South Carolina’s High Water Festival for the second year in a row. This weekend, AC brings Moon River Music Festival to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Presented in concert with Americana cult favorites

Pollstar: With Moon River in Chattanooga, Tenn., this weekend, and other similar-sized festivals of yours,  including Forecastle in Louisville, High Water Fest in Charleston and Homecoming in Cincinnati, are these more boutique events an antidote to so-called festival fatigue?
Ashley Capps: It could be. From my perspective it’s really about just fashioning unique experiences. So, size is a component of that. Bonnaroo is an amazing experience, I would say unlike any other, because it’s so fully immersive — it’s a real community of people living together for the weekend — it’s an extraordinary experience, but one that’s difficult to recreate. I’m really thrilled with what we created there, and thrilled to be a part of it, but trying to do it again doesn’t really excite me that much. What I’d like to do is work to make Bonnaroo better and better and better each year. With the other festivals, I think it’s really about zoning in on, ‘What’s the right experience for this type of event?’

I think of great chefs. When a chef’s creating a great meal, it’s not something that scales to huge numbers, because the attention to detail is so important, and so integral to the quality of the experience that it is, by its very nature, a boutique-type thing.

The trend with festivals throughout the 2000s was the multi-genre model which was maybe trying to be all things to all people. Is that what festival fatigue is really about? You can’t really do what you’re talking about, with the chef analogy and have it be like a Cheesecake Factory menu at the same time.

No, you can’t. I think you have to have a more focused and cultivated and curated experience, and that really turns me on. Being able to craft an experience with attention to a lot of different details, and [making it] stand apart from really anything else out there, is a real challenge and really rewarding thing to do. So in looking at these smaller festivals, that’s really what it’s all about: How can we craft an unforgettable weekend for people that stands apart? And a lot of times this involves a type of genre focus. In some ways I think of Big Ears — which is actually a multi-genre thing.

Moon River
(Courtesy of A.C. Entertainment)

Coolidge Park in Chatanooga, TN, the site of this year’s Moon River Festival.

But there’s a Venn diagram when it comes to the audience for Big Ears — it’s genres that collectively appeal to a certain type of listener.
Exactly. That’s exactly right. And other approaches might be what we do with Moon River, with Drew Holcomb, and what we did with Homecoming, with The National, and with High Water, with Shovels and Rope, is working with artists to curate an experience that builds around their aesthetic.

And that seems to parallel where listening habits have been going in recent years, in terms of your Pandora-style, recommended-if-you-like listening culture.
Yes, it is like something on the order of the algorithms of, if you enjoy this, [you’ll like that]. … I think it’s those connections, and pursuing those paths that are really culturally enriching for people and help expand all of our experiences of the world. In a really grand way, that’s what this is really all about.

Is that more targeted approach a return to the genre-focused package-tour festivals of the ’90s? Those usually played amphitheaters or similarly sized 20,000-30,000-capacity venues, with packages like H.O.R.D.E. Tour, Lilith Fair, Ozzfest and the like, taking a headliner and using a sort of top-down approach programming a bill around them.
Sure. The top-down [approach] is one way to do it. There’s also the way we do it with Moon River and High Water — it’s more like radiating out from a center core. For instance, Shovels and Rope and Drew Holcomb aren’t even headlining their festivals that they helped found. They’re taking a slightly different role in the cultivation and curation of the festival, and I really respect them for that artistic decision, it’s a really interesting approach. And I hope one day they will headline their own festivals, but I think it’s really smart and thoughtful to approach it that way, even though the other way is just as valid. It just depends, there are so many different ways to approach it. And I think the palate that you have there, once you come up with an idea, is enjoyable to work with, and an incredible opportunity to create an unforgettable weekend for people.

In terms of choosing those artists to work with, how does that usually come together? Do you select a band like The National and approach them? Do they come to you?
There are certain artists I think are natural curators, because they’re very open, interested, curious people. They’re fans themselves in that regard — they’ve got an antenna up and they’re really out there developing and nurturing their own taste, which often informs the work they themselves create.

With The National, I’ve worked with [guitarist] Bryce Dessner from The National curating Big Ears back in 2010. And that was the start of sharing a lot of ideas, and it’s been fun. So Homecoming, in a sense, is something that’s just evolved from getting to know the other guys in the band, and all these conversations, and it’s just evolved from those conversations year after year after year.

Drew Holcomb
(Photo: Courtesy of A.C. Entertainment)

Drew Holcomb, founder and co-curator of the Moon River Festival, performing with his band Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors at a previous Moon River.

How do you go about choosing the markets and venues to stage these events?
You’re looking for something that’s conducive to the experience that you’re hoping to create. The city, the location of that city, what that city has to offer in terms of available venues, infrastructure and just the vibe that helps to support the event. And then it goes the other way, too, where because of the infrastructure you have to work with, and because of the cultural history of a city and what that city’s all about, that also can come to bear on the experience of the festival. So we really try to do both of those things. Celebrating a sense of place, and what’s unique about the sense of place that you’re in is one of the major characteristics of a well-curated, boutique festival that allows it to stand apart from any other similar event out there.

Looking at festival fatigue from a promoter’s standpoint, when you have people complaining about overlapping artists and bills at large-scale destination festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, does that put a greater focus on promoting the smaller festivals within the cities and regions they’re happening in?
We hope that everybody will come. Louisville. Charleston, South Carolina. Those are destinations for good reason. Those are great cities to visit. Cincinnati is a great city to visit, and Chattanooga has become a great place to visit, as has Knoxville. They all have their unique character, and part of that character may be the restaurants and shops, the artisans that live there, the recreational opportunities in the surrounding community. All of those factors are something to celebrate in a city. If you look at a lot of the marketing we do for [Forecastle], we try to celebrate what’s unique about the city of Louisville.

Do you think there’s an alarmism behind festival fatigue?
The festival fatigue discussion is an interesting one. Do I think there are too many festivals? Not necessarily. I think scale and vision and uniqueness are qualities that are really important when considering festivals. There’s always room for great ideas. The festival fatigue syndrome is maybe something that’s more oriented toward a more generic, or at least a less focused type of festival that doesn’t have so much of a clear distinction to it.

Does some of the fatigue perhaps come from how many festivals are marketed as national events, and making a social media frenzy over the release of lineup posters, and then people showing disappointment when too many of those posters look the same?

And how many festivals are you going to? If you’re only going to one or two mega-festivals a year, there’s so much else going on in that experience, worrying that the lineups look too similar to a festival hundreds of miles away, sometimes I think that’s from the perspective of someone who’s not actually partaking in the experience.