Road to Roo: A Great Way to Find New Talent or Another Popularity Contest? - Festival Week on BTR


My Morning Jacket at Bonnaroo 2008. Image From Wikimedia Commons.

The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival takes places every June in Manchester, Tennessee and has become one of the largest bastions for live music since its inception  in 2002. This year, there are some mind-blowing acts sharing the Bonnaroo stage that span countless genres, including Eminem, The Black Keys, Girl Talk, Primus,The Strokes, Ray Lamontagne, My Morning Jacket, Lil Wayne and Gregg Allman just to name a few. Also this year, the folks putting together Bonnaroo did something a little bit different to promote the festival in a very revolutionary way. What I’m talking about is the Road to Roo, a contest that Bonnaroo put on earlier this year to find the next big thing in music that only a few people have heard of.

The way it worked was listeners had the opportunity to download a free track from their favorite underground musician for one-time only. The act with the most downloads would win an opportunity to perform at this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, sharing the stage with some of the biggest artists ever to record a note. Fans had to download their chosen track between April 4th and April 15th for it to count towards the contest.

Road to Roo consisted of two rounds, with the first round being the public vote. Anyone with a facebook account who “liked” the official Bonnaroo facebook page automatically gained access to the voting website to download the free track of their choice. After all the downloads were tabulated, the top eight artists were considered the finalists.

During the second round, a series of panel judging conducted by Bonnaroo talent and production representatives selected two acts out of the final eight to play at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this year. These two winners are very different female musicians, Kellee Maizeand Andrea Belanger. Kellee is a rapper and singer from Pittsburgh, PA who likes to bust out rhymes and lyrics about feminism, spirituality, environmentalism and societal issues while at the same time, making you dance your butt off. Over the past year, Kellee has had over 2 million views on Youtube and over 400,000 album downloads. This MC from the Steel City has also opened for hip-hop acts Wiz Khalifa, Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

Andrea Belanger is a singer/songwriter from Fall River, Massachusetts who plays a beautiful acoustic guitar and has been compared to folk musicians Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. She is currently a student at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston and has opened for The Wood Brothers, The Low Anthem and The Greencards. Oliver Wood from The Wood Brothers has been quoted in calling Andrea “My favorite opener ever.” At only 20 years old, she won’t be old enough to grab a beer at Bonnaroo, but fans will have the opportunity to raise their glasses to her when Andrea and her band hit the stage.

While Road to Roo has afforded independent musicians like Kellee and Andrea the chance to shine on one of the world’s biggest stages, others argue that, due to the way its formatted,  it’s simply a popularity contest. Michael McNamara, guitarist from Bridgeport, CT jam-funk band Relative Souls who also participated in the contest, has a different view than probably Kellee or Andrea would.

“It’s basically a popularity contest, as are most contests with bands. Whoever has the most fans and exposure gets the gig regardless of what they have to offer the festival. All you can do is try,” said McNamara.

“It’s a catch 22, festivals are in it to make money, so the more heads the better. They never sell out so it’s all about draw, which is a shame for bands who are fantastic but haven’t made a name for themselves.”

Contests like Road to Roo always walk a fine line that they can’t avoid, between being an open arena for unknown artists to achieve a chance to make it big and, at the same time, winners being decided by a popular vote. What’s unfortunate is that there is really no way to get around it, making these types of competitions a double edged sword for promotion.

Congrats to Kellee and Andrea on getting the opportunity to play one of the biggest music festivals in the world, but no matter what happens, bands like Relative Souls will always be left waiting for next year.

Written by: Rob Duguay