Interview: Superfly’s Jonathan Mayers, Pt. 1

When I graduated, I started booking this club Tipitina’s, which is this thousand person club, a New Orleans institution and so I started booking that. I stayed there for about a year or so and I met my current business partner Rick Farman and I left Tips. Then I went back and worked for Jazz Fest for about a year – I was an assistant to the production director. But then we were also doing show on our own and we started up this place called the Contemporary Arts Center – where it was just an warehouse and we were four-walling everything bringing in the sound and lights and running the bars and the staging and everything. We started doing shows around the special event times like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and from there we started doing it full-time and doing shows in the all the theaters and clubs.

The business model of being just a straight-ahead concert promoter – you put the band in some theater and you just take the money at the door – didn’t feel like a great business model because there’s a lot of risk, but not a lot of upside potential, so we started really thinking about our business and evolving it.

Inspired by Jazz Fest and some of the great European Festivals we put a business plan together to do a festival and a lot of our programming down there was based on the core of a lot of the jambands. We had good relationships with the whole Phish camp and artists like that, the Ben Harpers of the world. So we put a business plan together to do a big festival around the core scene of the disciples of the Grateful Dead and Phish. We put the business plan together, we found the site, we lined up some of the artists and we got an investor. We put it up on sale and we did no traditional advertising – we had all the artist send out an email blast. We sent out an email to our list. We sold out 70,000 tickets in under two weeks and from there its just evolved.

We’ve opened up the programming, we’ve evolved the programming. You know we are now in our eighth year of Bonnaroo – we’ve had everyone from you know this year Bruce Springsteen, Phish to Metallica to Pearl Jam to electronica to hip hop to jazz, etc. We own the property, we’ve been filming since year one both in HD and  multi-track recording. We have over 300 full sets in our archives. We’ve grown Bonnaroo and evolved it as a brand.

We’ve also just launched with a partner an event out in San Francisco called Outside Lands, in Golden Gate Park – it was in its inaugural year last year, but we’re really excited about that, you know we’ll be in our second year. We’ve done events in Vegas, we’re working on some international stuff, but you know that’s basically our background.

HT: Going back to that first year, did you think it was going to be hard to convince bands to come play a festival in Tennessee in June? And did you think you were going to sell it out?

JM: No, definitely not. My only goal was to put it on and make it happen. I had nothing to lose. I had no expectations. I was naïve and fortunately we’ve had plenty of things that haven’t worked out – it’s all part of the process. Fortunately, that one did, that was an example of exceeding expectations. I definitely wasn’t doing it, like “wow I’m going to make a loot of money.” It was like we want to do something great, do something cool.

HT: You guys sort of revived the American festival after Woodstock left a bad taste in many people’s mouths…

JM: You know what it is; I think that it starts from the top down. If you respect people and treat people well and pay attention to details and care about what you’re doing because you are also the consumer and not trying to take dollar off the table and think about just today. It’s about what do you care about? What do you do it for? What is it all about? It’s like there are many, many people that can book bands and put up a stage, but it’s got to be about more than that, because it can’t just be about I’m going to make the most amount of money – that’s my philosophy.

HT: Can you walk us through the Bonnaroo booking process?

JM: We kind of start from the top down. The headliners, artists like Bruce Springsteen we’ve been talking, we’ve been pitching being a part of the festival for years and finally it worked for his schedule. So we kind of start from the top and it slowly fills out and there are artists that we are always kind of targeting or have a new record out, or there is a buzz.

We have calls and we discuss amongst the group each round who we want to submit [bids for] and each round we try to balance the different genres. It’s kind of a well-rounded festival and we make offers and it kind of slowly fills in like a puzzle and we give a flow to each stage and that’s basically how it works. We start in late summer and we generally announce towards the end of January beginning of February, that’s basically how we work.

HT: So, the booking process starts after the festival ends each year?

JM: Yeah, totally. Despite what some people may say in my office, I actually work. If you ask people in my office they might say differently. Some of these artists, these key headliners we’re talking to all the time. There’s always conversations going on. Bringing agents or managers or whomever down to the fest – that’s what happened with Bruce Springsteen. We brought his manager’s right hand man that does all the touring down to the festival – this was two years ago – and gave him a full tour. We thought that it was going to happen last year, but it just didn’t wind up working out with his schedule.

Now that Bonnaroo is established,  we’re on agents and managers radar and on their schedules. We don’t have a lot of problems with people wanting to play the show fortunately.

HT: Is there an effort not to book bands on consecutive years?

JM: Yeah, it’s trying to keep it fresh, even creatively, cause there is a creative element to it. it’s like why would you want to do the same thing year to year? There are so many great bands out there year to year, you want to evolve, you want to keep pushing the envelope, you to keep it interesting right?

HT: The festival seems to be famous for the late night sets; do you book certain bands with that in mind?

JM: You know with knowing those sets, we definitely like to think about that – who would best fill those slots. Certain artists work better within that context than others. It’s all a very subjective thing you kind of go with your instincts, with what do you think flows best and what makes sense in any particular slot. We definitely give thought to all of that.

HT: And so in the case of Phish, did they come to you and say that they wanted to play a late night or did you pitch them on playing a late night?

JM: Well, they are playing late night on the main stage. We just talked about making it interesting and different. Phish was definitely one of the inspirations for the festival and all the great events that they did, so we really wanted to do something special with them and we’re going to. There’s no rules you know, there’s no  rules.

HT: With the booking of Phish, did you think that you were going to be pegged as a jamband festival again, even though you offer up such a diverse and eclectic roster?

JM: I think that Phish is obviously a great artist to have at our festival, so to me it’s a no brainer. But I think when it goes to the puzzle when you’re booking it, you want [the lineup] to be well balanced because we’ve evolved it in a purposeful way.

Knowing that one of our headliners kind of skews more towards that,  we’re thinking about the rest of our lineup and how does it balance it out. We still have Nine Inch Nails, we have a pretty diverse palate of artist.

What does Bonnaroo represent? You know that’s the question. I think that it isn’t just jambands, it’s about good music and it’s about a great live experience. It’s about having an open mind to things and checking things out. And you know what, if you don’t like it go to the next tent or go to the next stage or go to your tent or whatever.

HT: Everyone can have their own experience…

JM: You know that’s the beauty of music. Sometimes you feel like being mellow, sometimes you feel like rocking out. It depends on where you’re at in your head or your emotions.

HT: You’ve had Radiohead, The Police – does it get tougher every year to get that marquee act?

JM: I think just in terms of headliners that there aren’t that many out there really. So right now I’m thinking about 2010. In many ways the festival gets easier, like operationally – but in many ways it gets tougher. You keep setting this bar and then it’s like what’s next? The key is just to have fun with it, do the best that you can. You got to make sure that you’re aggressive, put it out there, you’re always working you’re always…I like the philosophy of “What’s Next?” because you got to keep moving.

Check back next Wednesday at 3PM for the finale of our in-depth interview with Superfly Presents president Jonathan Mayers.

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5 Responses

  1. Great interview guys! Mayers is the top tastemaker in music today, in my opinion. Can you imagine a band that wouldn’t want to play Bonnaroo?
    This year with Phish is going to top them all, I can’t freakin wait.
    Rock on HT!

  2. masterful interview. this guy has subliminally convinced me to spend thousands of dollars every year to travel across the country from Oregon to Tennessee to spend four days on a farm with 79,999 like minded souls seeking out the great live music experience of the summer. Haven’t let me down in six years and won’t for my seventh this june, based on the work J.M. has done, I am a better person for it.
    the bar is raised again.

  3. Great interview with a lot of insight! It makes me jealous of Jonathan’s accomplishments, but also something I’d like to strive for in my career eventually. I’d LOVE to work for Superfly, they seem to top themselves year after year…

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