On June 20, 2002, Superfly co-founders Jonathan Mayers and Richard Goodstone, along with partners Rick Farman and Kerry Black, were decidedly small-time players on the national live-music scene. Four days and 80 bands later, the sold-out inaugural Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. (produced in partnership with Ashley Capps‘ AC Entertainment and backed by Red Light Management founder Coran Capshaw) brought them into the big leagues, shepherding the event that, along with Coachella, jump-started the festival scene that has become a cornerstone of the North American music business.
With an estimated annual gross in the $25 million range and attendance at more than 80,000 (the vast majority of whom stays on-site for the entire four-day run), Bonnaroo is arguably the most immersive major U.S. music festival and a perennial sellout. Launched at the height of the jam band boom, it has long transcended its hippie roots by presenting such acts as Paul McCartney, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen and Kanye West, along with Billy Joel, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket and Deadmau5, who will headline the event June 11-14.
Bonnaroo also stood as the largest independently produced music festival — until April 28, when Live Nation announced it had acquired a controlling interest in Bonnaroo and “The Farm,” its 750-acre site, for an undisclosed figure.
The deal was a validation for Mayers and Goodstone, high school friends from West Nyack, N.Y., who went their separate ways after graduation. Mayers attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he later booked famed club Tipitina’s (and hired then-college students Farman and Black), while Goodstone worked in merchandising and licensing in New York — until Mayers suggested launching a concert promotion company called Superfly (he’d been listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield at the time).
Today, Superfly is a multifaceted production/marketing firm with 75 staffers in four offices that also co-produces Outside Lands in San Francisco and custom live experiences for such companies as Pabst, Yahoo and Intel. Billboard talked with Mayers and Goodstone, both 41, at their company’s headquarters in New York’s Flatiron District — a long way from the New Orleans apartment where they started.
What influenced your decision to sell a controlling stake in Bonnaroo?
Jonathan Mayers: We need to continue to invest in the brand, the physical property, and take the fan experience to new heights. We also believe we can host other events on the property. When you marry those things, it’s a very exciting possibility.
You must have had offers in the past — why now?
Mayers: We took a step back and looked at the environment out there: How do we go to the next level? While there were opportunities in the past, we just weren’t ready at that time.
Bonnaroovians are very emotionally connected to the festival. How did they react?
Rich Goodstone: You can never please everyone, but over the next couple of years there will be some great improvements, whether to the facilities or the experience or the entertainment. I think the audience will realize that pretty quickly.
You’ve been talking about holding other events on the property since you bought it in 2007 for $8.7 million. When might that start?
Mayers: As early as 2016, definitely by 2017. Whatever we do will be a world-class event that [taps into] our new partners’ resources and know-how, whether it’s in different genres, like [EDM with Insomniac founder] Pasquale Rotella, or country. Because we own the property, we can do things we can’t do at events like Outside Lands.
What were Superfly’s early days like?
Mayers: We started doing special events around Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, using spaces from warehouses to riverboats, trying interesting combinations. We did that for a couple of years, then started becoming a more traditional concert promoter. But it was hard to make money in that competitive, quirky market, so we brought it back to special events, and that’s when we had a vision to focus on doing festivals.
How did that evolve into Bonnaroo?
Mayers: We were introduced to Ashley Capps and did a couple of concerts together, and we had similar ideas about a festival. So we put together a business plan, found the site in Manchester — the site of a failed festival [Itchycoo Park] in 1999 — started putting together a budget and a team, talking to vendors. I cold-called the land owner, we drove up, and it just felt right. I knew Coran from doing shows in New Orleans, thankfully he believed in it, and the rest is history. I would say we still work with over 90 percent of those folks from the first year.
When you used MusicToday — the direct-to-fan online service founded by Capshaw — for the first Bonnaroo, it was a bellwether of change. What made you think it would work?
Mayers: Our marketing plan at the beginning was enlisting the participating acts to send email blasts to their lists. And the jam band community were pioneers of direct-to-fan ticketing, going back to the days of tape trading. I didn’t have high expectations, but I remember getting the call from Coran: “Have you seen the ticket counts? They’re off the charts.”
When did you realize Bonnaroo could transcend the jam band scene?
Mayers: We always set out to have a festival [not focused on] a particular genre. It also aligned with the iPod coming out and changing the way people consume music. When I was a kid, you listened to a certain genre. Now it’s like, “I love indie rock, I love hip-hop, jazz, funk.” Also, we knew it couldn’t be the same thing each year.
Given the relatively light sponsorship presence at Bonnaroo, is it safe to say you have left millions of dollars on the table? Was that a long-term investment in keeping the event “pure”?
Goodstone: Absolutely. And we’ve made a lot of great brand relationships because of it. They realized we understood what we were talking about and, quite honestly, it caught on within five or six years to where people were calling us and saying exactly what we’d been saying to them a few years earlier: “We want to be authentic to your audience and add to the experience.”
Not everything you’ve tried has worked. How do you process that?
Mayers: You don’t look at those things as failures — it’s “this is how we grow.” And whether it’s a tour or the Great GoogaMooga [a food- and music-oriented Brooklyn festival that was canceled after two unsuccessful years], you’re going to learn and build off of them.
Goodstone: You really only fail if you stop trying.
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of Billboard.