By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.
They rolled into Downtown Knoxville on Tuesday on their decorative “The TENN Roadshow” bus, ready to present their start-ups to a full crowd at the Knoxville Chamber’s large conference room.
Before they did so, however, the founders of the 10 entrepreneurial companies, including Knoxville-based Survature and Vendor Registry, were treated to a special conversation with Ashley Capps, a veteran music and entertainment industry entrepreneur.
During the “Fireside Chat” moderated by Launch Tennessee’s Jill Van Beke, Capps shared the story of how he got into the music industry as well as lessons he’s learned along the way as his company has grown from a local entity to a national player.
“I’d love to say we had a five-year plan that we executed,” Capps said candidly to a group schooled in the importance of business plans. “We did not. It (his company, AC Entertainment) developed organically.”
The roots of the company go back to Capps’ lifetime interest in “anything involving music or the arts.” The successful entrepreneur started as a part-time host of a radio show on WUOT-FM while a senior in high school and continued that role for 31 years.
Today, his company is probably best known for its signature event – the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival held in lower Middle Tennessee every summer – but the company also manages numerous other musical events as well as venues like Knoxville’s Tennessee and Bijou Theaters and The Orange Peel in Asheville, NC.
“I was a music fan, and my first start came from that,” Capps explained.
The AC Entertainment company that we know today grew in many respects out of the founder’s roughly two-year experience managing a local club that ultimately failed, but left him with many lessons learned and in a stronger position to move forward.
As Capps relayed the story to “The TENN” entrepreneurs, the club was very successful in terms of the musical groups it attracted. There was just one problem. Its capacity was 220. “Getting 30 more people (into the club) would have made a big difference in success or failure,” Capps said in a direct reference to making a profit.
“Pay attention to the details . . . all of them,” he reminded the group.
Yet, Capps’ experience underscores the frequent phrase about one door closing while another opens.
On the New Year’s Eve in 1990 when he was shutting down the club and wondering what was next, Capps said, “I got a call to find a place for Wynton Marsalis to play.” Out of the ashes of the closing the club came the concept for AC Entertainment.
There were not many entertainment mentors, so Capps says, “I taught myself everything that I know.”
Describing the club failure as his “biggest wake-up call,” he says that it helped him learn how to focus and manage people. “It was a most valuable learning experience,” Capps added.
A few years later, AC Entertainment made a very positive strategic decision when it elected to move into the management of venues like the Tennessee Theater.
“We were really flying under the radar screen,” Capps said of Knoxville and other cities with unused theaters in their downtowns. “None of these venues were thriving,” he explained, adding that “we had never managed one” before taking on the Tennessee in 1995,
Today, Capps says the theater is one of the most successful venues in the country “because we approach it as an entrepreneurial undertaking,” not as others do with a passive management approach where they wait for booking calls.
The launch of Bonnaroo is another example where Capps epitomizes the saying that “the best defense is a good offense.”
He explained that the industry was beginning to consolidate with a few large companies trying to lock-up musical group tours in their entirety rather than allowing local promoters to handle their cities.
“This would have been the death of independent promoters” like AC Entertainment, Capps said.
His solution was to embrace an old strategy – the Woodstock model – that had continued to be successful in Europe although largely abandoned in the U.S.
“We launched against all odds,” Capps said. “No one in the music business said this was a good idea.”
The results of that decision are clearly evident.