A Conversation with Superfly Productions’ Jonathan Mayers (11 Years On…)
Exactly 11 years ago to the day we ran this interview with Bonnaroo co-founder Jonathan Mayers.
Jonathan Mayers co-founded Superfly Productions in 1997. The New Orleans-based company first gained national recognition that same year by putting on late night shows through its Superfly During Jazz Fest concert series (including its SuperJam performances, such as the May 4, 2000 show that introduced Oysterhead). Last year Superfly, along with A.C. Entertainment produced Bonnaroo. In this interview, Jonathan, talks a bit about his past, looks back to last year and offers some thoughts on what is to follow as well.
Can you outline your responsibilities last year during Bonnaroo. To what extent were you able to take time to enjoy the event that you helped to set in motion?
I’m basically responsible for everything on stage and behind it. My primary job description is booking the festival- myself and Ashley Capps split the booking responsibility. I also oversee the production: sound, light, stage and video, all the crews. I was the artist liaison department as well. We’re fortunate though that we built this great team. I check in around the stage with the artists, managers and agents but everything is pretty well put together so I’m allowed to have a pretty good time on site.
Obviously most people who decide to become music promoters come to it through an initial passion for music. What sort of balance do you strike between facilitating others’ experiences and being able to go out there and enjoy a given show yourself?
It’s certainly a different experience than just being a fan out in the audience. Obviously I love what I do and it’s great to be involved in producing events and be involved with some of your heroes. It’s different though because I’m sitting there on stage watching and I’ve got a million things going on in my head. Even though you may not be doing a specific thing you have to know what’s going on at all places. I definitely enjoy it and I still have those great moments, those musical experiences.
Last Bonnaroo was one of those lifetime musical experiences and it was incredible. It’s important for me. Sometimes you work all day in the office dealing with so many issues that you have to get back to why you got involved in this business and that’s the music because you’re passionate about it and try to have those experiences. As our company has grown and we’ve put this great team in place a lot of my job is preproduction so at an event like Bonnaroo I still have responsibilities but I’m allowed to enjoy myself.
My first gig after college was booking Tipitina’s so outside college this is all I know. When I was fan I would wonder what’s going on backstage, how are they producing the event, it seems so glamorous. Then once you’re in it you realize everyone’s working. It’s a professional environment. You get your job done and that’s the most important thing. It’s that balance of enjoying yourself and being professional. As for being backstage, when I was twenty-one I realized that people are working. It’s not this amazing thing and really the place to be is out in the crowd enjoying the show. That always cracks me up when people say I want to be backstage and then they realize there’s nothing back there. It’s a fine line. It’s important for me to enjoy the end result, the music and the fans, the whole thing, because that’s what motivates you on Monday to work as hard as you do.
Was there any particular performance you took in at last year’s event that really stood out to you for one reason or another?
One in particular was Jurassic 5 because I think it showed that our scene isn’t narrow-minded at all. I was really excited to see the response to Jurassic 5 because I felt it really showed that we can do a lot of different things. To me also at the end of Trey, the event was winding down and we pulled it off, to stand on stage was an incredible feeling. It’s like when you work so hard and start a business and you struggle over it and finally see some of your dreams happening, that was the feeling for me.
What was that experience like when you came out on stage prior to his set for the final performance of the weekend?
It was surreal more than anything because I am a fan. It was our first festival. To put on this magnitude of an event and for it to come off so well and the fans to be happy and the artists to be happy. There were a lot of challenges and a lot of naysayers. So to pull it off just felt incredible and to be working among some of my best friends was an incredible feeling and a bit surreal. There was a high I’ve never had before and you have it at each level of your career. The first time you do a sold-out show there’s a certain feeling, the first time you do a theater show there’s a certain feeling but this feeling was different. For me it felt like all my hard work had paid off and it was something I was meant to be doing.
So where do you go from there to get that feeling again?
Two festivals? [Laughs]
Every year, every season, there’s new challenges. We try to continue to challenge ourselves because that’s what it’s about for us. We like to keep raising the bar for ourselves and keep doing cool projects, like those that came out of Bonnaroo: the CD, the DVD, a second event, all these different things. Every year we’ll look back and say, Wow I can’t believe we just did that, what’s next?’" You got to keep pushing the envelope but you’ve also got to keep that strong foundation, don’t get too far in front of yourself. A year from now there will be stuff that we’re doing that I’ll say, I can’t believe we’re doing this,’ and we’ll be having the same conversation.
Looking back at the DVD footage was there any moment in particular where you said, Wow, I wish I had been there for that.’?
I think the stuff that I missed the most was being out in the campgrounds because my responsibility was the stage and back so I kind of missed just being out there with the crowd. I want to experience that more this year, getting that perspective on things as well. It’s hard because I’m in this bubble on the production side of things.
How about something you felt was not all that successful and you intend to remedy this coming year?
I think for us from an organizational standpoint, something we want to improve upon is communication. That was the biggest challenge. We were planning the event in the fall last year but we didn’t get the green light to go ahead until the end of January, early February. So it was just rolling into it. This year we have the luxury of time and history behind us.
And then just improving on things like the traffic. That was one of the biggest challenges of last year and that’s something we’ve put a lot of time and effort into improving upon. I think it’s going to be better this year. We’ve taken a lot of steps to improve it, everything from notification on the highway to the trucking companies so they know to stay away from the area, to building a temporary exit off the highway onto the farm, to hiring a traffic coordinator not just to look at our internal traffic but also our external traffic plan, more toll booths- all those thing are going to improve the traffic situation.
At this point what are you most proud of relative to the first Bonnaroo?
The artists wanting the event to return, the landowner wanting the event to return, the fans having a great time, the talent having a great time. That’s hard when you have 75,000 people out there and to have most of them walk away and be pretty happy. So many people were saying this is going to be a nightmare, how are these guys going to pull this off? Then at the end for people to say they pulled it off, that was a great feeling and knowing that going into this year we were going to be able to improve on it so much is a really good feeling.
Did that type of criticism about not being able to pull it off start to grate on you after a while last year?
Throughout my entire career I’ve heard those things and you know what, anyone can do anything, it’s just taking some risks, surrounding yourself with good people and working your ass off. You can do anything but you can’t do anything unless you try it, and our company’s philosophy has always been if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right. So we’ve got the best people in the business and spent the extra dollars to do it right. That’s what you need to do to have people say this is something I’m going to come back to every single year.
What artist that didn’t perform at Bonnaroo in 2002 are you particularly psyched to have on the bill this year?
Neil Young. I’m just a huge Neil young fan and it was such a thrill to have him be a part of our event. At first it wasn’t a reality that there was even a chance it would happen because he wasn’t working but he was someone I’ve always dreamed about having be part of an event. I’ll tell you Tennessee is an amazing schedule, I’m pretty happy. You have to restrain yourself because you have to remember there’s next year and there’s the northeast event. We’re sold out but I still want to put stuff out there. We’ve opened up the event a bit and still remained true to the core.
Aside from the music, what’s new for the Tennessee event?
We’re going to have different activities out there. We’re expanding the Centeroo area for more activities. There will be cool surprises, including some surprises musically as well. The layout is generally the same and we have the same staff but I think we’ve done some things better. We’re trying to make vast improvements on the Port-O-Lets, some of the services we’re offering out there.
You have emphasized that Bonnaroo NE is going to have its own character, how so?
Obviously the site’s different, we’re allowing day trippers, it’s a camping event but people can come and go and that’s going to change the nature of the event. In terms of the performers there’s a little different programming. But also a lot of the activities are going to be different. We’re going to have special events out there.
Will those be tied in to the geographic location?
Nothing necessarily tied into to it being in New York. We have the arcade tent and the film tent down in Tennessee so we said what can we have in New York that will be a bit different.
Can you offer up an example?
Not right now. But we are about to post on our web site a lot of information that is going to answer many of the questions that are out there- in particular the use of public transportation and what we’re going to do about bus shuttling service. We’re working with the Long Island Railroad, we’re going to work with the ferry from Connecticut. We really want to make it as easy as possible for people to come to the event, and to come back and forth to the event. So we wanted to make sure we had our complete plan together before we released it.
Its like last year in Tennessee people took a bit of a leap of faith with us and I think that again we’ve proven ourselves about what kind of event we can hold. I think that’s a good indication of what kind of event it will be and how organized we will be as well.
Last question- have you heard from Dr. John about the name [Note: Dr. John, of course, put out the Desitively Bonnaroo album in 1974. Bonnaroo is reportedly a Cajun term for "a good time."]
I was sitting in front of him for this local awards ceremony and he was laughing about it. His manager called me and his schedule didn’t allow him to be on the event but we’d really like to get him on. He was totally supportive of it and I think he thought it was really cool.
When we first put out the name we were wondering, Is this a cool name?' We thought so but as time goes by I really think it's an appropriate name for everything- "A good time." I think it ties into our roots being in New Orleans and there's a New Orleans vibe about having a good time, being relaxed, going with the flow. People know how to celebrate down here and that's what all this is about, people celebrating and having a good time.