Apr 6, 2022 - News

Scoop: Tax tension spurs debate over Bonnaroo's future

Paramore playing Bonnaroo in 2018.

Paramore playing Bonnaroo in 2018. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival

Tennessee has quietly advanced legislation that would allow Coffee County to impose a new tax on tickets sold to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

Why it matters: An ongoing dispute over the tax is the latest issue in a devolving relationship between the county government and festival organizers.

  • After the legislation progressed in recent weeks, Bonnaroo told at least one state lawmaker it may eventually be forced to consider moving the festival.

Driving the news: The idea to enable Coffee County to add up to $5 onto each ticket sold to entertainment events, including Bonnaroo, was pushed by the local government in January. General admission tickets for this year's festival cost $350.

  • The House and Senate have already approved the measure, but the legislation took an unconventional path with virtually no committee debate.
  • The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Rush Bricken (R-Tullahoma), was considered in just one House committee. During that discussion, Bonnaroo wasn't mentioned by name.

The intrigue: The legislation was passed with unanimous voice votes during House and Senate floor sessions.

  • At the urging of festival organizers, the Senate has now requested the House return the bill for further discussion.

The big picture: State Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville) tells Axios he hopes Bonnaroo and Coffee County can work things out. If not, Freeman thinks Nashville would be a great fit to one day host the festival.

  • "I mean, who wouldn't want it?" Freeman says, adding that when the item came up for a vote, he didn't know it was related to Bonnaroo. "The economic impact, the tax revenue generated — I think it would be a really great event for Nashville, and there are properties that could accommodate it."

What they're saying: Bricken tells Axios he agreed to sponsor the legislation after the Coffee County commission overwhelmingly voted in favor of asking the General Assembly to create the ticket tax.

  • "I certainly hope [festival owner] Live Nation continues and builds Bonnaroo along with other events on the farm," Bricken says. "I am proud to have Bonnaroo in Coffee County. It's always been a great event and allows Manchester and Coffee County to showcase our community."
  • Bonnaroo declined to comment on this story, and Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell did not respond to an email.

Flashback: Shortly after Bonnaroo launched in 2002, the festival reached an agreement with Coffee County to send $3 on each ticket sold to the government.

  • When the original agreement expired, Bonnaroo wanted to earmark some of the ticket fees for infrastructure projects around the property, especially a long-sought road widening and bridge project.
  • After Coffee County and Bonnaroo couldn't reach an agreement, Bonnaroo worked with the Manchester city government to annex the property, setting the stage for Manchester to reap the tax revenue generated at the farm. Following the annexation, Coffee County leaders contested the annexation in court and began pursuing the new ticket tax.

Context: Bricken says revenue collected from the new ticket tax can only be used for expenses related to events at the farm.

  • Bonnaroo has been paying the county for festival expenses including medical responders, police overtime and other fees, according to a fact sheet that was provided to lawmakers.

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