Festival 2.0: Lineup announcements become the new productivity killer

by Ryan Snyder

National Signing Day for any avid college football fan usually guarantees one thing: a day of lost productivity in the workplace. They scrutinize every post made on the online forums of their favorite teams with utter absolution, disregarding deadlines in favor of every juicy tidbit about the leanings of prized linemen and skill players on the fence between their school and their bitter rivals. But why should sports fans have all the fun? Last Tuesday, mega-promoters AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions created a similar holiday for music fans, as they rewrote the script for the lineup announcement as the country’s largest music shindig, the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.

What was once a moment designed to solicit a singular internet outpouring of WTFs and OMGs has been repurposed into a day-long gallivant. Artist confirmations were doled out once every six minutes on Twitter and MySpace, while online forums and chat rooms went wild with hisses, hoorays and “mehs.” Several artists went the extra mile with their confirmations, including the Avett Brothers with a bizarre video announcement involving levitation, flashlights and nude paintings, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops who shot a grainy silent film in Sheffield, England.

The tactic worked — though a few artists reported weeks earlier through various outlets are mysteriously absent, including Paul Simon and Pavement — but its also possible that it drew too much attention to the lineup. For each of its previous eight years, the festival has been consistently revolutionary, drawing the best possible mix of legendary headliners, critical darlings and avant-garde rarities. But what if, after all of this hoopla, the initial offering just wasn’t that exciting?

After the nine-hour dust storm settled on Feb. 9, that seems to be a common opinion among many loyalists. Online forums buzzed with disappointment and derision at the top of the lineup. This year’s top act according to billing order, the Dave Matthews Band, almost lends the idea that they were a safety booking. Matthews has twice headlined the festival, but tours constantly and is by no means a tough ticket to acquire. Considering the number of unsubstantiated rumors that a major act backed out at the last minute, the pieces fit.

If it seems strange to have the top act so ordinary, the other headliners are even greater cause for pause. Kings of Leon racked up at the Grammys, but is a band with two albums under their belt ready for that large a stage? And to bill them above the legendary Stevie Wonder is almost blasphemous, never mind that Jay-Z and John Fogerty immediately follow. The fact that Kings of Leon have graduated from playing a 45-minute set in front of barely 1,000 people only six years earlier to headlining the main stage seems in imply a bit of hasty self-congratulating on the part of the promoters.

The foibles didn’t stop with the lineup announcement either. A “surprise” was promised the day after the release through Twitter, but blizzards around their home office in New York delayed it, also announced through Twitter. To make matters worse, Superfly head Jonathan Mayers implied penny-pinching when asked in a recent Billboard interview whether he got what he wanted for the money.

“Well, I always like to pay less. But yeah. We got about 90 percent of what we wanted,” he said, instantly creating a new posting signature line for a throng of online detractors. That particularly stings when considering the ticket price has nearly doubled since the first year. It might have been an innocent statement, but it also undercuts the spirit that many ascribed to it in its early days: a great time that’s not browbeaten by overt commercial sentiment.

Yet, contrary to the hordes of nattering nabobs, the lineup is actually pretty strong from top to bottom, especially since more will be added in the coming months. Jimmy Cliff, LCD Soundsystem, Jeff Beck, Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Tenacious D, Kris Kristofferson, Thievery Corporation and John Prine accentuate a diverse and commendable group that appeal to a broad audience. Still, comparisons to the West Coast behemoth Coachella are inevitable and their group towers overhead, particularly with the mindlessly-expensive stage show that headliner Gorillaz bring and the inclusion of the reclusive Sly & the Family Stone. Still, you can’t blame Bonnaroo for taking chances after so many years, but do so with a bit more humility.

(Bonnaroo Twitter screenshot)