The brains behind Bonnaroo talk about their early days in New Orleans, promoting music festivals, and the perks of doing what they love for a living.
Anointed "the American rock festival to end all festivals" by Rolling Stone, Bonnaroo makes its 10th appearance this month. Every year, 75,000 to 85,000 fans swarm to a Tennessee farm, where they pitch tents and spend four days grooving to acts both emerging and emerged. (This year's lineup includes Eminem, Arcade Fire, and Neil Young.) Bonnaroo, recently enshrined as a Ben & Jerry's flavor, accounts for about 25 percent of revenue for the New York City—based events and marketing company Superfly Presents. The $40 million company was co-founded by four young men desperate to avoid the finance and accounting careers for which their college studies had seemingly predestined them. They are Kerry Black (graphic design), Rick Farman (festival operations), Richard Goodstone (marketing), and Jonathan Mayers (programming).
Jonathan Mayers: Three of us were in college in New Orleans. I graduated first, in 1995, and got a job booking talent at Tipitina's, which is this legendary R&B/jazz/rock/funk/you-name-it uptown club. Rick and Kerry joined Tipitina's while still students at Tulane.
Rick Farman: I had promoted bands in high school on Long Island. In New Orleans, Tipitina's was my favorite place. I walked into Jon's office and said, "Let me help you."
Kerry Black: I was a friend of Rick's and had a car, so they hired me, too.
Farman: We did it all: picked up bands at the airport, arranged the catering, plastered fliers around the city. We were in it for the free shows and the concert posters. That was all we cared about.
Mayers: Tipitina's was sold, so we decided to strike out on our own. I started working in the production office of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—that's JazzFest. Rich was a high school friend. He quit his advertising job in New York and moved down to help. We planned to stage shows in clubs and theaters and on riverboats during major city events. JazzFest, for example, runs until 7 p.m. over two weekends. That means tens of thousands of music lovers are looking for something to do in the evenings. We also targeted Mardi Gras. The whole town wants to party then, but a lot of locals would rather avoid the chaos on Bourbon Street.
Farman: We had $20,000, most of it borrowed from family; I still had my bar mitzvah money.
Mayers: We got the name Superfly from the Curtis Mayfield movie soundtrack. You know: "Oooh, Super Fly/ You're gonna make your fortune by and by." It sounded cool.
Farman: Our first event was a concert during Mardi Gras. We'd developed artist relationships at Tipitina's and JazzFest, so we were able to book acts like the Meters and Maceo Parker.
Black: It was the thing to do at Tulane. The theme was "Take Funk to Heaven—Mardi Gras '97."
Farman: We rented a space called the Contemporary Arts Center—basically an empty warehouse. We had just one key and one cell phone. So in the midst of setting up stages and sound equipment, booking acts and advertising, we ran around handing off the key and the phone to one another.
Richard Goodstone: The police picked me up for stapling fliers to telephone poles. It was a combination of that and not having an ID on me.
Mayers: There were gaping holes in the roof. On the day of the concert, we realized it was going to pour, so we bought sandbags to pile up in front of the stage. We got lucky—the rain came pouring down on the stage right after the band had left. We sold out and made a $10,000 profit. We put the money in a safe and slept next to it until the bank opened.
Farman: Kerry and I graduated, and Jon quit JazzFest to work on Superfly full time. We operated almost like a socialist regime. Every month, each one of us would list personal expenses—a car payment, new contact lenses—and take exactly that amount from earnings. The rest went back into the business. We were good at making combinations of bands. We'd get an amazing jazz artist to open for a rock 'n' roll band or a New Orleans band to open for a national hip-hop artist. Then we started getting individual musicians from different groups to play in all-star bands for one-time events. We were recruiting stars like Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Primus bassist Les Claypool, and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, who came together as Oysterhead. Oysterhead went on to record and tour together. But the first time they performed was for us.
Mayers: We had to program creatively, because the competition was tough. Clear Channel was rolling up independent concert promoters, which gave it a lot of clout with musicians' agents. House of Blues had its own performance venues, so it could hang on to all the merchandise and concession sales. We couldn't. In 2001, 10 shows in a row lost money. We'd hit the ceiling financially and creatively and needed a new direction.
Farman: The jam scene, which was our specialty, was also at a crossroads. Jerry Garcia was dead, and Phish was on hiatus. Bands were starting to figure out the Internet. Part of it was the whole Grateful Dead ethos of tape trading. So all of a sudden, bands are realizing, This is a way I can communicate with my audience, and the fans are realizing, This is a way I can access music. We wanted to build on those existing communities.
Mayers: We took a break and went to California for Coachella, the music and art festival. That rejuvenated us, and we came home with a new business model. It would be a multiday music and entertainment event where the audience would camp out. We would control all the revenue streams: tickets, concessions, merchandise, VIP packages, sponsorships, and licensing of audio and video content.
Goodstone: When we were brainstorming names, we started flipping through old records and came across Desitively Bonnaroo, by Dr. John. We looked up bonnaroo and found out it was Creole slang for good stuff.
Mayers: We raised money from Coran Capshaw, who manages the Dave Matthews Band, and found a site in Manchester, Tennessee. It was a 700-acre farm with all these access roads left over from a festival of retro acts that had flopped a few years earlier. The place had a great vibe. It was right off the highway. The backstage road led to a Holiday Inn. We negotiated a deal on the spot.
Farman: We partnered with AC Entertainment, a well-known promoter in Tennessee, and started signing groups popular with the jam audience, like Widespread Panic and the String Cheese Incident. Before they went on hiatus, Phish had done a bunch of festivals. They set us up with their production manager and design director.
Mayers: We were going to go with Ticketmaster but thought, Let's try selling tickets through our website. With one e-mail blast, we sold 10,000 tickets the first day and 70,000 in two weeks. We priced them at $100 initially and raised the price to $175 as we got closer to the date.
Farman: Before the festival, we sat down with the local police and municipal officials. We said, "There's going to be a lot of people coming. The traffic will be backed up for 20 miles." They were like, "Yeah, right," because their only experience was that failed event four years before. And we hadn't advertised at all. Not a single poster. We met with them again the Monday after the festival. A lieutenant from the state troopers' office pulled a very stern face on us and said, "I told you you weren't going to be backing up my interstate for 20 miles. It was only 19." Then he cracked up. We learned whenever you do something that's going to impact the community, you have to tell it like it is. We've had a great relationship with the community since. We contribute $20 million to the economy every year.
Mayers: We've sold out almost every year since 2002, and every year it's been profitable. We've expanded beyond jam bands to indie rock, jazz, bluegrass, reggae, hip-hop. There's a cinema tent, a comedy tent, a brewers' village. But people don't just come for the entertainment. It's like this pure, in-the-moment experience. There's nothing like the total immersion of living there. You meet new neighbors and make new friends. Some of the sweetest experiences take place after the music is over, at 3 or 4 a.m. You're hanging out, and somebody picks up a guitar.
Goodstone: We're not just programming music. We're programming some of the most memorable moments of their lives.
Farman: We wanted to grow by creating other events in different formats. Our first was a festival called Vegoose in Las Vegas on Halloween 2005. Vegoose did great the first year and pretty well the next two. But then the economy turned south, so we ended it. In 2008, we produced the first Outside Lands festival, one of the biggest events ever in Golden Gate Park. It shows off the great things San Francisco has to offer: food, wine, a healthy lifestyle. Outside Lands's audience skews more local than Bonnaroo's and a little older: around 25 to 45. It's given us ideas for ways to expand the brand beyond entertainment into areas like food and wine.
Goodstone: We've always signed up corporate sponsors for Bonnaroo. But it's been challenging, because our demographic—18 to 34—is turned off by traditional marketing. In the early days, big companies would ask us how much it would cost to put up this many banners or get a stage named after them. That felt way too artificial. Instead, we wanted to design branded experiences that would make the festival better for the audience. For example, we worked with Garnier Fructis to establish a salon on-site where people can get their hair washed and styled. We do this thing called the Silent Disco, where a DJ wirelessly transmits music directly to headphones we give out. No one else can hear it. So people walk by, and they see a giant dance party taking place in absolute silence. Originally, a headphone manufacturer sponsored that; for the past two years, it's been VitaminWater. We launched a separate marketing division, because companies kept approaching us for help reaching Millennials outside the festival. Our customers are companies like Nestlé, Sony, and State Farm that want campaigns with an entertainment element. We did the Live from T5 concert series for JetBlue in its terminal at JFK. You're waiting to board a plane and—oh, look!—Sarah McLachlan or Taylor Swift is giving a free concert!
Farman: We can't believe we do this for a living. We're music lovers who get to meet all our favorite artists in person and see them perform live.
Black: And we've got a great collection of concert posters.
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