Can U2 Save Bonnaroo From Declining Attendance?
When U2 announced its 2017 tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, the itinerary revealed that the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival had landed the Irish band’s first-ever (and only) U.S. festival appearance. By live music standards, it was the biggest get of the festival season—rivaled only by Beyoncé’s since-canceled headline appearance at Coachella—in a critical year for the Manchester, Tennessee, event. One of the world’s most captivating live acts, U2 will perform its landmark 1987 album in its entirety—the kind of major draw that the festival, which is scheduled to run June 8-11, could use.
According to Nashville newspaper The Tennessean, Bonnaroo’s daily attendance hit an all-time low of 45,537 in 2016, and 28,156 fewer tickets were sold than in 2015. That decline cost Live Nation Entertainment, which acquired a majority stake in the festival in 2015, and its partners, festival co-founders A.C. Entertainment and Superfly, an estimated $9 million in ticket sales.
Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that Live Nation approached the top touring band managed by the head of its Maverick division, Guy Oseary. But Live Nation global touring division president Arthur Fogel, who is promoting and producing the Joshua Tree Tour, says the negotiations that led to U2 joining Bonnaroo were hardly dramatic. “I wish I could make it sound really exciting and dynamic, but the truth is it came up as an idea that I presented to the band,” says Fogel, explaining that Bonnaroo’s June dates fit within the group’s seven-week run of North American football stadiums.
Although Live Nation declined to comment on what U2 will be paid for its Bonnaroo appearance, industry sources estimate that the paycheck is in the neighborhood of $3 million.
Whether U2’s anthemic ’80s rock will bolster Bonnaroo’s attendance by drawing an older demographic than millennials, who’ll be coming to see Chance the Rapper, Lorde, Flume, Major Lazer and other headliners, isn’t the only question mark hanging over the 2017 festival. Although last year’s 40 percent decline in attendance was blamed on a lack of enthusiasm for headliners LCD Soundsystem, Pearl Jam, and Dead & Company, extreme heat conditions and competition from other Nashville-area events also contributed. According to Billboard Boxscore, Bonnaroo grossed $12.8 million, which placed it fifth among the top 10 festivals of 2016, behind Coachella (No. 1, with a $94.2 million gross); Outside Lands (No. 2, $25.8 million); Stagecoach (No. 3, $25.4 million); and Governors Ball (No. 4, $15.8 million). Were it able to hit its daily capacity of 75,000, it could have been No. 2 or No. 3.
Nashville booking agent Jordan Burger, who attended Bonnaroo in 2016 and has four bands playing this time around, says there was an upside to the sparser crowds: “The lines for the bathroom weren’t insane, and I was finally able to see the stage.” If Live Nation has played its cards right, Burger will spend a lot more time waiting to get into the men’s room come June 8.
This article originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Billboard.