Indiana State University Newsroom

Students gain experience behind the scenes at Bonnaroo

September 4, 2013

Three Indiana State University students experienced much more than people-watching and listening to hot bands and legendary performers at the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

More than 85,000 people flocked to Bonnaroo, a festival that began in 2002 on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn. Inspired by the music festival of the 1990s, the four-day event that featured 150 performances on more than 10 stages.

It was the perfect setting for music business majors Ebonie Lamb, Kelsey Marvin and Mitchell Swafford to prepare for future careers in the industry.

While some would consider it a glamorous internship, the three students quickly point out it was a lot of work.

"Our shifts as interns averaged about 18 hours a day, in addition to one overnight shift," said Marvin, a senior from Woodstock, Ill.

Marvin and Swafford worked with the festival's more than 3000 volunteers, checking them in, taking them to their jobsite and then picking them up at the end of their shift.

"Sounds simple," Marvin said, "but it was a very detailed operation."

Lamb, a senior from Fishers, got a crash course in what it takes to put on a large music festival, from pre-festival preparations through the festival to the aftermath. While Marvin and Swafford interacted primarily with volunteers, Lamb worked with area residents, consumers, vendors and festival staff.

"The area where Bonnaroo is staged is filled with residents that live on roads that get heavily congested during the four-day festival," Lamb said. "Bonnaroo gives those residents free entry into the festival and parking passes as a goodwill gesture."

"It was nice to talk with the families about their experiences with the festival," Lamb said. "Most of the people have been around since the festival started. They like to sit on their porches and listen to the concerts."

Interacting with the residents was just part of her duties. Lamb credentialed vendors and volunteers and gained experience in working with databases, surveys and updating the festival's mobile app.

"I learned various transferable skills," Lamb said. "I improved my communications skills and how to be more precise. My work with databases and email systems makes me more versatile. I also met so many people who are in the industry I want to work in. Above all, Bonnaroo encouraged me to continue my dream and my passion for music."Paul McCartney at Bonnaroo

According to Marvin, the experiences weren't confined to the four-day festival.

"Getting to see Bonnaroo built from the ground up over the course of one week was easily one of the most awe-inspiring things I've encountered," she said. "There is so much that goes into the actual four-day festival that wouldn't have otherwise crossed my mind."

Once the festival began, it was all business for the three students. But working at a music festival had the added benefit of enjoying some great music.

"I was also able to attend part of the Paul McCartney concert," Marvin said. "There was a very specific moment when he was performing "Blackbird" when I realized there was a member of The Beatles 50 feet in front of me -- one of the four men that literally defined rock and roll, and the love of about a million teenage girls' lives. That was the single most amazing moment of my life."

Swafford met Ed Helms, known for his roles on "The Office" and "The Hangover." In addition to acting, Helms is also a musician and performed at Bonnaroo.

"Before he went to perform on the set, one of my coworkers and I talked with him about his music," Swafford recalled. "He is an amazing Bluegrass banjo player."

Swafford also met GZA from the rap group Wu Tang Clan.

"He walked into the Volunteer Headquarters because he had no idea where he was supposed to go," Swafford said. "He asked where he was and if he could get a ride to where he needed to go."

All three Indiana State students aspire to working with music festivals, but through very different paths. Lamb had experience with putting on concerts/recitals, open mic nights and talent shows. Swafford, together with a small group of friends, put on small concerts in high school.Bonnaroo

Marvin was the relative newcomer.

"Prior to my internship I had only ever attended one concert in my life. It was an Avett Brothers concert, but didn't quite reach the 80-something-thousand attendees at Bonnaroo," Marvin said.

All three students credit 2007 Indiana State alumnus and AC Entertainment employee James Shinault for the opportunity to learn the music industry at a large festival."I think one of the best things about my job is that it puts me in a position to give back," " said Shinault, director of Event Engagements with AC Entertainment. "Every experience that I had at Indiana State led me to where I am and I'm always eager to share any experiences that I can with students."

Swafford said Shinault provided guidance at key times.

"While he wasn't around during the festival, he appeared at just the right moment to get things done the way they needed to be done," he said. "James shows how successful you can be while doing something your passionate about."

Marvin was drawn to his management style.

"He would give these cool speeches every once in a while that put our hard work into perspective, and let every intern enjoy at least one performance a day in the pit of the stage," Marvin said. "I don't know that I've ever looked up to a boss as much as I look up to him."

The Bonnaroo experience left a lasting impression on all three students. They gained new friends and a new perspective for their careers.

"No matter how many hours you spend in a classroom, the most beneficial time you can spend is in the field observing, learning and making valuable connections," Marvin said.

Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Bonnaroo


Contact and writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3783 or