March 14, 2022
Ashley Capps is a self-described "music lover, festival creator, curator, producer, and a recovering and occasionally backsliding concert promoter." He's currently the guiding force behind the Big Ears Festival, and was one of the founders of the massive Bonnaroo Festival. Unsurprisingly, he's a close conspirator of our friend David Breskin.
I’ve been at it for 40+ years, amazingly enough, and there have been countless highlights. I think I’m most proud of having created some special spaces and unique environments for audiences and artists to come together to experience great music – in a context that stands apart from the norm. I’m also proud of having done it in my own backyard, in the southeast.
The first of these was in the late 1980s, here in my hometown of Knoxville. I opened a very small club (220 capacity) called ellA Gurus (after the Captain Beefheart song). It’s likely the only club in the world where Garth Brooks, Derek Bailey, King Sunny Ade, Wynton Marsalis, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Lacy, and the Neville Brothers, to name but a very few, all once played.
I’ve founded two major festivals that have proved to be iconic: the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, a rock festival, now 20 years old, and the largest camping festival in North America; and Big Ears, founded in 2009, which takes place mostly indoors in a dozen venues – historic theaters, churches, warehouse spaces, galleries, clubs – all within walking distance in downtown Knoxville. On the surface, the two experiences couldn’t be more different, but they share some key similarities, along with loyal audiences and an open and curious spirit.
I’m also proud of playing a major role in helping to activate and ultimately renovate and operate the two great historic theaters, the Tennessee and the Bijou, in downtown Knoxville, which has had a transformative impact on our city.
I’m usually the conceptualizer and visionary, but also the connector and facilitator… and the decider. I suppose I’m a micro-manager. I DO “sweat the small stuff” and obsess about details. I tend to have strong opinions, but I’m also an eager collaborator and welcome the ideas of others. I see creating events as a very collaborative and creative process.
My love of music – and its impact on those around me – goes back to my earliest memories. As a kid, around 3 or 4 years old, I went through a phase –a short one, I suspect - of waking my parents up in the morning by cranking up the “Purple People Eater” on my little red plastic record player that only played 45s. That was the beginning of my career. Not that much has really changed.
My parents loved music too. My mom had studied classical music and played piano. My father was playing drums in combos around town when they met. My dad’s record collection included Miles, Ellington, Brubeck, Gil Evans, Lee Konitz and Ray Charles. I still have his records. And I vividly remember the day he brought home Meet the Beatles. They took us to concerts at a very early age – Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, Brubeck, the Symphony. Later, they would also take us to see our favorites, like Paul Revere and the Raiders and Herman’s Hermits.
My older cousins were a big influence too. They introduced me to Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys and the Godfather of Soul. My oldest cousin, Christine, snuck me off to a Sunday afternoon, fully-integrated James Brown concert one time when she was babysitting me. This was the early 60s, I was 7 or 8. It totally blew my mind – the music and the audience.
I took the obligatory piano lessons, learned to play saxophone, marched in the school band, and became obsessively curious about music. I loved the Beatles and the Stones as well as Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. Then came Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, Zeppelin, Quicksilver...and Zappa.. A pivotal moment came when I discovered “Absolutely Free” in the local record store. It had been opened, the store owner hated it, and he gave it to me when he saw me eyeing it. He said it was the worst thing he had ever heard, which got my attention. Beyond the music, Zappa had that Edgar Varese quote on all of his records then: “The present day composer refuses to die.” Who was Edgar Varese? I went to library to find out and the floodgates opened…Stravinsky, Coltrane, Sun Ra, Terry Riley, Ornette…
While still in high school, in 1973, I was offered the opportunity to host my own weekly radio show on the new local NPR station, WUOT-FM. On Friday nights at midnight, I could play any music I wanted for two hours, as long there weren’t any dirty words. The station also had a tremendous library of jazz and classical music, which provided a real education. Later, I created a show called “Unhinged,” that I produced for 20 years. (As a friend recently pointed out, Big Ears is like “Unhinged” come to life as a festival).
The radio gig was a stepping stone that led me to promoting and producing concerts, starting in 1979.
There are so many. I never actually had a mentor, in the traditional sense. I never really worked for anyone, as a promoter or in the music biz. I was never an employee. I never had anyone tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, or how I should or shouldn’t do them. I just jumped in and tried to figure it out, for better or for worse. I made a lot of mistakes, but there were many who helped along the way – artists, friends, collaborators, and partners – and some had a deep, lasting influence. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with some very smart, creative, sometimes truly extraordinary people, each step along the way. Too many to name. I’m very grateful for those relationships.
Bonnaroo, of course, changed everything. It intensified and elevated all of the work I had done up to that point and laid the foundation for everything since. It was a bold venture that defied the conventional wisdom of the time. It is difficult to imagine now, but this was 2002 and almost no one in the music biz in the US thought launching a rock festival was a great idea. The history was not encouraging and, even worse, memories of Woodstock ’99 were still fresh in people’s minds. Also, my partners in Superfly and to a lesser degree, my own company, AC Entertainment, were flying way under the radar as promoters – we were the little guys in the midst of a wave of consolidation in the industry – so very few took us seriously and thought we could pull it off, but we did.
We found a great partner in Coran Capshaw, a former promoter himself and by then the very successful manager of the Dave Matthews Band, and we launched what overnight became the largest camping festival in the Americas. It was an unprecedented success. That first year, we sold out - 70,000 tickets - in only 12 days, with zero advertising. We did it on the internet only, by word of mouth via bands’ websites and email lists (remember: this was 2002, the internet felt new, there was no social media). Suddenly, our world was a very different place.
The real challenges – and the greatest rewards – were yet to come. Booking the bands and selling the tickets was merely the first step. The planning and logistics required – we were building a temporary city with the infrastructure for 80,000 people to live, work, and play safely together – were beyond anything we had imagined. But we looked beyond even that. We wanted to create an unforgettable environment. How could we capture people’s imaginations, fuel inspiration and curiosity, and nurture a sense of community and shared experience? Bonnaroo became a rich, wide-ranging creative palette where we could ask these kinds of questions and explore and experiment with new ideas.
It was full immersion. We put together a remarkable and talented team and Bonnaroo continued to evolve year after year. It was an experience like none other - countless, unimaginable hours working together – and it forged a deep comaraderie. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to running away and joining the circus. And it set a very high bar for all future endeavors.
There are always obstacles and frustrations. They are part of any creative process and you learn from and build upon those challenges. I think many of my personal frustrations have come from trying to force things, trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Sometimes you need to forge ahead, but sometimes its best to step back and gain a fresh perspective. Then you can often find the best path forward. Sometimes a little patience can resolve a lot of conflict.
Like everyone, I rely on my laptop and my phone, probably more than I would like. But I still have a strong analog streak. When I really start to focus and immerse myself in a project, I turn to pen and paper to brainstorm and flesh out ideas. I keep journals. I read real books printed on paper. When I listen to music, I prefer to do so very actively and attentively, without distraction, so great headphones are also a valuable tool.
Oh, my. It’s insanely difficult to be a promoter these days, and the music business is tougher than ever. But there’s always opportunity, in any field, for people who are deeply committed and do great work. It’s easy to be glib and share the usual platitudes about success, but work in music requires a special dedication to survive, much less thrive. The key to success is to find work that you love to do, day in and day out. The journey really IS the destination.
I’ve often listened to music with headphones of some kind since I was a teenager. As part of my work in curating musical events, but also in simply relaxing and enjoying music for pleasure, I like to immerse myself in the experience as fully as possible. I strive to listen deeply to the nuances of a musical performance, in all of its richness and detail. I want to be transported in space and time. The LCD-Xs allow me to achieve that experience effortlessly. It’s like an aural window into the moment of creation. It feels like being there.