The Greening of Rothbury: Post-Show Analysis Part 1, Rothbury vs. Bonnaroo / by Jason

Rothbury Mission Statement

It's been 5 days now since Rothbury ended, and I'm still caught up in the post-festival bliss that you get from a really great out-of-mind-and-body experience. This was my sixth big camping festival, and the first one where I felt that just about everything right. I had more fun at this event than I've had at any of the past festivals, even Phish's IT festival. But this is a green review, not a review of the festival in general, so let's begin. If you want to read more about the music and see some much higher-quality photos of the event, check the official JamBase review here.

Back in April, I interviewed Sarah Haynes of the Spitfire Agency about the greening of Rothbury. I've done interviews with plenty of festival organizers in the past, and they all talk a good game, so I was a bit skeptical when she told me everything that the festival would be doing. But as we got closer and closer to the festival, the press releases just kept rolling out. Solar schools, a food drive, fans offsetting their emissions, seminars on environmental issues. I started to get excited a few weeks ago. Would it all work out as Sarah had promised me?

Sarah Haynes in front of the compost pile at Rothbury.

In a word-yes! That's not to say there weren't some wrinkles, but they were all entirely forgiveable, especially considering that this was a first year festival. We'll get to the minor quibbles later, but for now let me repeat what I wrote on Sunday--congrats to Sarah, AEG, Madison House, the Double JJ Ranch, and all the hard-working green volunteers for pulling off what may go down as the first ever really green festival, especially at this scale.

Some people, especially folks who are familiar with some of the great work that has been done by Bonnaroo, may ask what made Rothbury different from other festivals. After all, Rothbury is not the first festival to use biodiesel, or compostable cups, or offer free water, or work with the Conscious Alliance to do a food drive, or do most of the other things that happened here. So here's my take: the difference between Rothbury and its closest competitor, Bonnaroo, is one of marketing and commitment. And since comparisons to Bonnaroo were rampant throughout the festival from just about everyone I talked to, I'll address the issue head-on.

Bonnaroo has long been the green festival leader, especially in behind the scenes activities, but outside of their green village, they've kept their greenness under wraps, well hidden from the fans. People come to Bonnaroo to party, and while they're there, maybe they'll recycle their beer cans. Superfly has gone to great lengths to green the event--when I last visited Manchester in 2007, the event featured compostable cups and plates, compost stations, organic cotton T-shirts, high-quality carbon offsets, and lots of work with the local community to make sure that Manchester saw tangible benefits from hosting North America's biggest party. But practically no one knew about this stuff. It wasn't until my second day at the festival that someone at the tiny green info booth told me the cups were compostable, and the compost stations were scarce and poorly explained. None of my friends, most of whom were decidedly non-green thinkers, knew or cared about the green aspects of the festival, and the whole green agenda, despite a very real and sincere effort from management, never really caught the attention of the hard-partying crowd. To me, that's a failure of marketing.

On the other hand, while Superfly is committed at the top levels of the organization to greening the event, greening still seemed to me to be of secondary importance to putting on a great festival, as if music and the environment were somehow mutually exclusive. I guess the best way to say it is that Superfly is committed to greening Bonnaroo, but not 100% fully committed, willing to bet the farm (as it were) on the idea. To me, it seems that management has some fear that the fans might react badly if Bonnaroo came out too visibly in support of a green agenda and the festival would get labeled as "too left of center," if that's possible. So much of the good green work that Bonnaroo has done - and there is a tremendous amount of great work being done there - goes unheralded, relegated to a page on the website instead of being brought out front and center for the fans while they're at the festival. At the same time, it doesn't feel to me like Laura Sohn, Bonnaroo's greening coordinator, has been given the same kind of free reign that AEG gave to Sarah Haynes. This isn't to say that Laura isn't as good at her job or doesn't care as much--it's just that to me it seems there is definitely a point at which Superfly is willing to say "that particular green product or idea is cool, but it's going to cost too much." It's a different attitude from Madison House, who might approach the same product or idea with "that's cool and it's important that we do it, so we'll figure out a way to make it work in our current budget."

As an example of my point about the difference in the levels of marketing and commitment between these two very green festivals, let's compare the mission statements of the two. Rothbury bills itself as a "party with a purpose" and on the website, they give us the following mission statement:

That's pretty strong stuff, but talking about something on your website isn't really the same as taking action. I was pleased to see that they had this mission statement posted in at least one very prominent location in the center of the festival grounds, where the largest possible number of fans would be sure to see it. To me, that's marketing and commitment. As for Bonnaroo--well, I know from personal experience and conversations with the crew that they believe strongly in this stuff. But they don't really let it show, either on the website or at the festival, outside of the hippie feeling Planet Green. So it shouldn't be surprising that try as I might, I couldn't find a mission statement for Bonnaroo.

If you were to draw a matrix and compare all of the things that Bonnaroo and Rothbury actually DO--the compostable cups, the extraordinarily high waste diversion rates, the efforts to involve their respective communities, the offsets and carpooling and contracts with Mr. Busdriver, and all the other good stuff, you'd be hard-pressed to pick a leader. But while they're neck and neck on paper, Rothbury wins hands down when you actually go there to experience it, because the festival really seems to have captured the attention of the audience, or at least a big portion of it. And as we'll see in the interviews I did at the festival (transciptions coming soon, I promise!), many of the bands also climbed on board the big green bandwagon. For me, that's where the difference really lies--the fans and artists at Rothbury really seemed to get it, and they seemed to enjoy it, too. At Bonnaroo, I couldn't even get my own friends to separate their recyclables.

And with that, I'll finish my comparison of the two. Lest you think that I am being unfair to Bonnaroo or overly glorifying Rothbury, let me leave you with this thought: As a concerned environmentalist and an avid music fan who wants desperately to see the music scene get greener, it's in my best interest to see festivals and artists competing visibly to see who can be the greenest. And as a journalist, one of the things I can do is help spur that kind of competition. In other words, it's round 1 for Rothbury, but I fully expect Bonnaroo to strike back hard next year and I can't wait to see what Laura and the Superfly crew dream up now that the gauntlet has been thrown. You've got 11 months, gang--git'r'done!

In my next post, I'll dig into the nitty gritty of the greening efforts at Rothbury. I hope you like the smell of compost!