Big Ears Festival Preview: Behind the Scenes with Ashley Capps

Ashley Capps—the driving force behind the Big Ears Festival—took a few moments to chat with us about anti-algorithms, festival strategy, and how you market an event that offers its audience both Béla Fleck and Diamanda Galás.

Written By

Molly Sheridan

With just days to go before the opening of this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee (March 22-25), Ashley Capps—the driving force behind the annual event—and his team were putting the finishing touches on the four-day line-up of music drawn from an ear-catching range of styles and genres. Capps took a few moments to chat with us about anti-algorithms, festival strategy, and how you market an event that offers its audience both Béla Fleck and Diamanda Galás.

Molly Sheridan: I was about to thank you for making time to chat this close to the festival, but on reflection, you’ve done this professionally for a long time. Maybe this isn’t such a big deal to you anymore!

We’re heading to Big Ears and will be reporting live via FB, Twitter, and Instagram all weekend. Give us a shout out if you’re in town as well!

Ashley Capps: It actually is a big deal for me because in some ways it’s the most personal of all the things that I do. Not merely because it’s small and something that I really care about, but it just involves so much direct interaction with the artists. That’s both one of the things that I love about it and one of the things that makes it a lot more stressful because you don’t have an intermediary that you’re going through. It just requires a lot more just personal hands-on attention. But it’s fine. It’s funny, I was just reading an essay by Zadie Smith last night, this new collection that she just published, talking about the dread and anxiety that basically accompanies any writer around what they do. I think the creative business is just filled with a certain amount of, “Oh my God, am I doing the right thing?”

This year’s Big Ears Festival line-up includes quite a few folks who have also appeared on NewMusicBox or created work supported by New Music USA. So to get ready, we put together this highlight reel of some of our favorite moments from our archive.

MS: I’d like to take it back for just a minute to the birth of the festival. You were already well established in the music field and deeply entrenched in major festival and concert production at that point. What was the big idea for Big Ears when it first emerged—the needs you saw and the goals you had when you put it together that first year in Knoxville?

AC: There are many different threads to all of this. My interest in the music that is presented at Big Ears is something that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Even as a teenager in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was listening to John Coltrane and Stockhausen along with Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. In my early days as a concert promoter, many of the first concerts that I presented were artists—well, some artists that are coming to Big Ears this year! Evan Parker, for one. So for me, there’s a thread of continuity running through all of this that may not be completely evident on the surface.

Even as I got involved in major rock shows and a lot of the bigger concerts and festivals, I’ve always had a great interest in presenting other kinds of music. I first presented Steve Reich back in 1987 when he was on tour with Steve Reich and Musicians. And we operate and manage two of the theaters that are part of the Big Ears experience: the Tennessee and The Bijou. I also own The Mill & Mine with a couple of partners, and there’s always an impetus towards programming all of these venues in a really exciting way. So part of the Big Ears initiative was about that: an interest in presenting all sorts of different kinds of music but doing so in a way that really attracted an audience. In a town the size of Knoxville, Tennessee, getting an audience to fill a 700 or 800-seat theater for many of these acts is very difficult under normal circumstances, so creating a weekend around that experience and bringing in different audiences was one of the ways that I imagined that it might be possible to bring these artists to our theaters and to do so successfully.

MS: That was actually my next question: does this kind of music benefit from this type of fast and furious presentation?

AC: That’s a good question, and I think that there’s probably a little bit of an inherent contradiction in all of that. I sometimes liken the experience to going to a great restaurant. Many great restaurants have a full menu and you’re not expected to eat everything. The menu gives you your chance to put together your own meal. Sometimes you have your chef’s tasting menu, but usually you select your own appetizer and a salad and your entree and so on. If you’re ordering the lamb, you’re probably not ordering the chicken that night, but it’s still a feast. So we’re simultaneously offering an array of options, but I certainly hope people are really participating in whatever experience they choose to have.

MS: So you must pick! In a way, that’s part of a festival’s style.

AC: The interesting thing about the array of options is that it creates an audience interaction and a dynamic that is pretty exciting. It also gives people an opportunity to explore in a way that you can’t necessarily do otherwise. There are probably two or three things that you’re bound and determined to do; this is the reason you came to the festival. But then there are things that you’re interested in, and now you’ve got an opportunity to explore them between the other events that you know you want to see. Then you meet people and they share their passion and excitement about something you’ve maybe never even heard of and you decide, “You know, I get to see this artist regularly. I’m going to go check out this show instead this time and hang out with my new friend.”

The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

So there is a social dynamic, but there’s also an opportunity for intellectual and aesthetic exploration that is pretty unique. But I have to agree, at some point you can make yourself miserable at a festival if you’re constantly thinking about all the other places that you could be rather than where you are. The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

Big Ears playlist

Whether or not you’ll make it to Big Ears, you can feast on this playlist featuring music by artists who are part of this year’s line-up.

MS: Stylistically, Big Ears stretches all over the map with intention. Now, we’ve been talking about the blurring of genre for a long time now, but what are the aesthetic guideposts you use when putting these artists together and then how do you talk about that with ticket buyers?

AC: That’s a challenge! In a way, this goes back to the impulse behind the creation of the festival to begin with, because I would be at Bonnaroo, for instance, and talking with musicians and hearing all of these influences coming from all over the place that were showing up in the music. I knew it was there, but it just started hitting me over the head. You start to realize how, for artists, there’s this very rich world of cross-pollination and influence, and people drawing inspiration and ideas from all over and you hear that in the music—sometimes in very subtle ways and sometimes in not so subtle ways. To me, it’s exciting to start to follow those threads and to think about, “How did we get here? Where is this sound coming from? Where are these ideas coming from?” So the programming at Big Ears is kind of based on following some of those threads. And that’s not to say that everything at the festival connects with everything else at the festival; it certainly doesn’t, at least not in an obvious way. But I think that there’s a rich cross-pollination of ideas—these threads of influence that are woven throughout.

MS: But you’re not necessarily explicit about that when you’re talking to the audience that you hope to attract?

AC: Not necessarily. You know, I kind of make it sound like it’s this very academic process, and it’s not like that for me at all. And it’s not forced. It’s just something that I’ve been noticing for a long time. But when it all comes down to it, a lot of the booking is a combination of a lot of different ideas and opportunities. Then you see where all of that leads.

MS: Some things you only learn through experience. As the festival has experimented, what have been the lessons as assumptions meet reality?

AC: We learn from the audiences, as well as from the artists, every year. It sometimes does become difficult to explain why these things coexist at the same festival. On the one hand, I like to think of the festival cultivating a very open-minded and exploratory aesthetic and that the people who come—and generally I think this is true—are very open and very interested in the various aspects of what the festival has to offer. The interesting thing that I’ve occasionally discovered is that certain audiences don’t want to go there! They don’t want to explore that little tangent or they don’t want to share their world with this other audience that they feel may not be appropriately appreciative or that their engagement with it is maybe too superficial. There is an element of tribalism behind all of this. People gravitate towards a certain thing and they identify with other people who like that thing, and sometimes it becomes very insulated and protected. It seems kind of obvious to me now, but it’s one of those things that occasionally takes me by surprise. It’s completely contrary to the motivational aesthetic behind the festival.

A far bigger challenge is simply to get people to embrace their curiosity and dive right in. I just had a conversation with someone yesterday who said, “Oh my God. I don’t know what to do. There are six or eight artists on this festival that I love, but I don’t know who the others are.” And I was like, “Well just go see the six or eight things you want and then figure out what else you want to discover. It won’t hurt; no damage will be done. If you walk into something and you actually hate it, you can walk right back out and go do something else.” So encouraging audiences to kind of embrace that spirit can sometimes be amusingly difficult, besides the fact that going to see eight or twelve concerts over the course of a weekend is probably plenty for most people.

MS: How do you encourage that though when as a society we’re getting more and more locked into our “if you like, you might also like” algorithms? How do you excite or engage people to go exploring things they don’t know, get them out of the house and off the phone long enough to send them on this adventure? Is that getting more difficult as the years go by?

It’s kind of the anti-algorithm. Too many algorithms tend to be reductionist, and I like to think of the festival as being expansionist—that it grows out from instead of in.

AC: That for me is what makes the festival such a rewarding thing to be presenting, because in a sense it’s kind of the anti-algorithm. Too many algorithms tend to be reductionist, and I like to think of the festival as being expansionist—that it grows out from instead of in. It’s less of a snake eating its tail and more expansive, at least in my mind. I hope that’s what it is. As people engage in the experience, I hope it becomes somewhat addictive and I hear enough from people who do have that experience to know that on some level or another it’s really working. I go to festivals regularly and I often discover that the highlight of my experience is often something that I had no idea about before I got there.

MS: It seems like that’s an opportunity that’s fading along with our physical record stores and bookstores. We’re staying home more and yet we’re still hungry for those kinds of experiences.

AC: I hope the festival is in some way filling that void—the social community center that a great record store or a great bookstore can be. This is one of the reasons that we have conversations and panels about the music at Big Ears, because I do think it’s important to talk about the experience and to have the artists talk about their music and to have others talk about what the music and the experience means to them.

MS: Considering the broader social issues getting a lot of discussion over the past year or so, is there any direct intersection with the festival this year or are you more explicitly focused on the presentation of the music?

AC: I feel like the festival expresses a certain diversity that I’m very proud of. I’ve become more conscious of trying to do that in the last couple of years than I perhaps was initially, but it’s still something that comes pretty naturally. I’m still to this day somewhat shocked, for instance, that contemporary female classical composers seem to be overlooked—in a lot of the mainstream programming, at least—because to me they’re writing some of the most extraordinary music of our time. So these are things that we are certainly aware of in the programming at Big Ears, but I don’t book artists simply for that reason. There’s so much great music being created by so many different people out there—certainly by women and artists of all ethnicities—that it’s pretty easy really. I do feel like that’s part of breaking down the boundaries and the barriers and the silos that is at the heart of the Big Ears aesthetic.

MS: So to the programmers who say, “Oh, well we don’t know who to program. Where do you find these people?” You’re saying that’s not been your experience?

AC: No! There are so many great artists. If I struggle with anything, it’s what to put the weight on because really the plate overflows. I am certainly not struggling for ideas for artist to present in any way.  I feel like we’re still just scratching the surface.

Keep Listening: More from the Artists

MS: Big picture question to wrap things up: How do the types of music you present at Big Ears fit into the larger music landscape? Considering the type of presenter you are and your career experiences, I suspect that you’re seeing much wider field trends. Are there lessons—either to apply to Big Ears itself or perspectives that might help individual artists themselves—that are not trickling down from the broader industry that you think would be valuable?

The element of surprise is always to me the secret sauce in any great festival experience.

AC: Last year or the year before, Tom Morris of the Ojai Festival told me—and I think he meant it as a compliment—that this festival is a new music festival produced like a rock festival. My first reaction was, “I think that’s a compliment!” because I think he was talking about the sheer energy that comes from the variety of offerings and the way people are intermingling and interacting with one another. And my second reaction was, “Well, that’s kind of the only thing I know how to do.” So I love the idea that this might be some kind of brilliant insight, but of course that’s the way I would do it.

I do think that there is a certain aesthetic that we bring to the presentation of the music that hopefully demystifies it in some way—takes it out of the rarefied atmosphere that it’s sometimes performed in and opens up the experience for people. That means different things under different circumstances with different kinds of music.

The element of surprise is always to me the secret sauce in any great festival experience. We always strive to present the music at the highest level—so we don’t want to go into a rock club with something that really belongs in a theater—but we do strive to present music in a context that really enhances what the experience is about. There is a tremendous amount of thought that goes into which artist performs in what venue and why and what that experience is going to be like. So it’s not completely serendipitous, even if it might appear to be when you look at the schedule.

I’m excited about the whole festival and how people respond to it. In many ways there are rules, but I can’t tell you what they are because we kind of make them up as we go along.