On a 500-acre farm in Manchester, Tn. this weekend, New Orleans concert promoter Superfly Productions is staging the Bonnaroo music festival, featuring more than 50 bands in a three-day event that's already being called Woodstock for the jam-band generation. Whether it turns out to resemble the peace-and-love atmosphere of the 1967 Woodstock or the scary chaos of the 1999 Woodstock remains to be seen -- but if all goes well, the ambition and planning that Superfly has put into Bonnaroo stands to make the local business a formidable player in national concert promotion.
The numbers alone for Bonnaroo are a powerful affirmation of Superfly's relentless grassroots promotion. Seventy thousand tickets for the June 21-23 festival sold out almost immediately -- and Superfly didn't spend a dime on any kind of advertising. They built an impressive advance Web site for the event, and spread the word through their extensive Internet mailing list. That's the kind of brand loyalty Superfly has built up in its five years of producing shows in the New Orleans market -- and the reputation that convinced jam-band juggernauts Widespread Panic, Phish's Trey Anastasio, and String Cheese Incident to be the first major headliners to commit to play Bonnaroo.
Getting their initial wish-list headliners' blessing was just the start of Bonnaroo's journey. Once they had secured the location -- a privately owned farm property -- they still had to win over Manchester officials who were leery after being burned by an ill-conceived and poorly run rock festival in the late '90s. And convincing a small town with limited entry access to accommodate 70,000 people for the weekend is no easy task. (Last week, public officials denied highway permits for two sold-out Grateful Dead "family reunion" shows at Alpine Valley amphitheater in Wisconsin.)
To accomplish Bonnaroo's labyrinth of logistical challenges, Superfly aligned itself with some of the most respected organizations and individuals in concert production. The first move was to partner with Tennessee-based promoter AC Entertainment, which has been producing quality shows in the Knoxville area for more than a decade. For parking concerns, Superfly hired Standard Parking, which frequently handles NASCAR events. They also tapped a diverse team of independent contractors that worked a number of Phish's massive shows, including the 2000 New Year's Eve show in the Florida Everglades that drew 75,000 fans. The Phish veterans include Bonnaroo Project Manager Robb Napior, and Concessions Manager Christine Crowell, who recently handled vending for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
They're all industry veterans who've been around the block -- 47-year-old AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps says that he's "older than all the Superfly guys put together" -- but ask any of them about working with Superfly Productions for Bonnaroo, and the response is the same.
"It's really inspiring to see someone so young doing it so well," notes Napior, while Crowell says, "I can't say enough good things about these guys. I think their enthusiasm and energy is wonderful. They have a vision for what they want this festival to be, and they're making it happen."
So Manchester is welcoming Bonnaroo and Superfly Productions with open arms. It's a watershed achievement for Jonathan Mayers, Rick Farman, Kerry Black and Richard Goodstone, the four twentysomething entrepreneurs who launched Superfly in 1997 with two Mardi Gras shows at the Contemporary Arts Center. Since then, Superfly has anticipated and cultivated the current grassroots jam-band movement, with superb marketing ideas and execution. They started their "Superjam" series, helped bands like the Dirty Dozen and Astral Project reconnect with college-age audiences through Superfly-promoted residencies at the Maple Leaf and Mermaid Lounge. Their most recent masterstroke was producing a two-CD Superfly sampler -- which they gave out free to all patrons at their Jazz Fest shows.
These are heady times for Superfly, and Bonnaroo appears to be a surefire financial success before the first note of music is played. But it's not without substantial risk. AC Entertainment's Capps estimates that insurance costs alone are a quarter of a million dollars, and while Mayers declines to give specific numbers, he acknowledges that Bonnaroo is a multi-million dollar production, and an outside investor is helping Superfly finance the festival.
"It's risk versus reward, and we're putting our neck out there," says Mayers. "This can take our company to another level.
"My biggest concerns are always the stuff that I can't control," he continues. "Traffic is definitely a concern, and making sure people take care of themselves. We've had lots of meetings with the state police, and we're going to have a ton of water and medical staff out there, but any time you gather this amount of people together, just given the odds, something's going to happen."
Here's wishing Superfly success on the eve of Bonnaroo. Hopefully, a festival named for Dr. John's classic 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo has good mojo on its side.
- Were putting our neck out there, says Jonathan Mayers (second from right), who with Superfly Productions partners Richard Goodstone, Rick Farman and Kerry Black is hoping to make a big splash on the national concert promotion scene this weekend at the Bonnaroo Festival.