(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth article in a five-part series focused on internationally known music and concert promoter Ashley Capps, a Knoxville native who maintained his passion for his hometown while building a national brand.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
AC Entertainment has grown in a variety of ways under Ashley Capps’ leadership and, while many communities have benefitted from his passion for music, none has seen the impact more than Knoxville.
In his hometown in the early to mid-1990s, Capps and AC Entertainment had been doing close to a dozen shows a year at the Tennessee Theater when Jim Dick, the venue’s owner, decided he wanted to divest of the facility that needed millions of dollars in improvements.
“By that time, a lot of our business was in many historic theaters that were rundown,” Capps said in citing other cities like Columbia, SC; and Asheville and Greensboro, NC. “I told Mr. Dick that I’ve never run a theater, but I sure knew how not to run one.”
Today, AC Entertainment operates the Tennessee as well as the Bijou (added in 2006) and Chattanooga’s Tivoli.
“They may be the most successful theaters in markets of their size in the country,” Capps believes. What’s the secret to success? “It’s about caring,” he explains, noting that term applies to the artists, their fans, and behind-the-scenes workers who help make the concerts a success.
Caring also includes understanding the needs of everyone, something that led to an eight-year run of shows in Knoxville’s World’s Fair Park.
“Venues struggled in the summer because bands didn’t want to play indoors,” Capps learned. So, starting in 1992, AC Entertainment began promoting outdoor concerts in the warmer months. He estimates that his company scheduled about 150 concerts at the Park during those years.
“Some of the hottest bands of the 1990s played there,” he adds. “Hootie and the Blowfish drew 13,000 people.”
When the area used for the concerts was closed to allow construction of the new Knoxville Convention Center, Capps briefly moved the shows to Chilhowee Park. It was not an ideal venue but, as he and the team thought through options, they drew on a formula from the bluegrass music industry that led to the launch of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival a few years later.
Capps explained that the model adopted for Bonnaroo was bluegrass festivals. This year’s four-day event was the 16th edition of the festival that spanned a 700-acre site in Manchester, TN and featured U2 in its first-ever complete U.S. festival appearance, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd, Lorde, and Chance the Rapper.
Some seven years after launching Bonnaroo, the AC Entertainment team started Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.
“It started from my passion to bring people together . . . seeing downtown Knoxville transform because we bring people together,” Capps said. “I love to imagine the 16-year old who wakes-up to the news that Radio Head is coming to his town. It is transformational for the town. Big Ears is part of that. It’s a world of exploration, mystery and excitement.”
In many respects, Capps says the Big Ears Festival brings him full-circle to the passion of his youth. People come from other countries to experience Knoxville’s great restaurants and historic buildings and hear great music.
“Europeans tell me they have venue envy,” he says. “It was a happy accident that was created and a real privilege to do it in your own hometown.”
NEXT: Selling to Live Nation.