Fast Company

The Temptation Of Superfly

Its genre-busting all-night jam-athons evolved into the country's biggest music festival--and turned Superfly Productions into a real business. Can it stay alive without losing its soul?

Thirty minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve, the intoxicated throng at Tipitina's, New Orleans's legendary rock club, start chanting. "we want the funk! we want the funk!" Guys with shaggy hair and girls in $50 flip-flops direct their plea to Galactic, the beloved local quintet that's playing its first gig in the Big Easy since Katrina. Even the often-sonorous NPR has come to broadcast the occasion nationally. "I didn't think this could ever happen again, but here we are and it's great!" exclaims one ponytailed reveler. When Galactic hits the stage, it launches into a rib-splitting riff, which sets the tank-topped twentysomethings to squealing in boozy glee. At one point, the saxophonist reaches into the crowd and extracts a large cardboard sign scrawled by the radio producers. He holds it above his head and the club thunders with approval. It reads: you are live.

It's a bittersweet moment, at once a celebration of life and a salute to those who succumbed to the storm. But for Rick Farman, Galactic's comanager and one-fourth of the indie-music production company Superfly Productions, the return to N'awlins is pure triumph: "They kicked ass last night!" shouts the thin-bearded 29-year-old, double-fisting a beer and a tequila backstage with his girlfriend. "They had great numbers."

The past nine years have been super for Superfly. What began as four Deadheads plastering the Tulane campus with flyers for local jam bands has matured into the full-service production shop behind the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, the world's highest-grossing, which takes place each June on a sprawling patch of Tennessee farmland. Tonight's post-Katrina headbanging is but a brief return to the sweaty after-hours ethos of Superfly's early incarnation. These days it's all about volume of a different sort: scores of bands, tens of thousands of people, millions of dollars. The numbers have become an end in themselves.

Boys 2 Men

Before the guys behind Superfly kicked off their Birkenstocks, they were a bunch of scruffy kids promoting shows in the bleary, steamy bars and clubs of New Orleans. Superfly made its name in the late 1990s by throwing all-night concerts for the legions of collegians who annually descend there for Jazz Fest. The vibe was gritty, spontaneous, and wholly authentic; musicians from different bands would jam together at shows that started at 2 a.m. and raged until sunrise. Soon, people were flocking to Jazz Fest as much for Superfly's after-hours scene as for the daytime festival itself. "Those shows put Superfly on the map," says Tom Chauncey, the president of Partisan Arts and booking agent for Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. "You would simultaneously call to place your act in Jazz Fest and in one of Superfly's nighttime shows." From 1997 to 2000, Superfly hit its stride; its yearly gross, it says, skyrocketed from around $200,000 to more than $1 million.

But without its own venue to collect the bar revenue--a critical profit center for promoters--Superfly took a pummeling from corporate giants such as the House of Blues. By 2001, the operation had already plateaued. So the gang hit on the idea for Bonnaroo: "We didn't have an amphitheater," recalls Jonathan Mayers, the quartet's prickly strategist, now 32. "So we went to a farm."

As ideas go, the notion of setting a three-day festival 60 miles outside of Nashville--featuring a bunch of bands that had never come close to the FM dial--verged on the insane. But Superfly, which also includes sponsorship wrangler Rich Goodstone and Web guy Kerry Black, was convinced that if it could somehow coalesce the entire diaspora of lightly employed, musically rabid fans, it would have the makings of a franchise. It cobbled together a business plan (paying its accountant with concert tickets), hooked up with Ashley Capps, a regional promoter in Tennessee, and pitched the idea to Coran Capshaw, the powerful manager of the Dave Matthews Band.

Capshaw went for it (he and Capps retain stakes in Bonnaroo), and rumors promptly began circulating online, where jam fans already had an intricate network of sites and blogs for exchanging tour dates, bootlegs, and show reviews. Sensing that cultish, post-Phish types would perform the promotional legwork on their own, Superfly went so far as to pocket its $100,000 advertising budget, bypass Ticketmaster, and throw the tickets up for sale on its Web site. By the end of the day, it had sold more than 10,000 tickets by word of mouth alone; a couple of weeks later, it hit 70,000. It had hoped to sell 40,000.

"Our entire promotional campaign was basically 'Don't come,' " says Farman, the group's de facto CEO whose biggest fear was that non-ticket holders would crash the party (a big problem at the original Woodstock). Bonnaroo One grossed around $9 million; a year later, Rolling Stone would proclaim it the "American rock festival to end all festivals."

Farman, who chipped in $6,500 of his bar mitzvah money to get Superfly off the ground, still marvels at his own success: "We were just a bunch of kids who had never even done an outdoor show. And there we were, producing the largest music event in the country." Last year, Bonnaroo raked in $13.4 million, making it the third-highest-grossing music event in the world after U2 shows in London and Dublin.

Experience Economists

By any measure, Superfly pulled off a tremendous coup in taking its act from trippy nocturnal groovefests to full-blown, mega-sponsored weekends of peace, love, and profit in the Tennessee cow country. "I didn't think mass eclectic festivals could ever happen again," says John Scher, co-CEO of MetropolitanHybrid and former tour promoter for the Grateful Dead. "Superfly not only pulled it off logistically but also made it profitable. It's an extraordinary feat."

The promoters also managed to align themselves with a music trend that fed right into their business model. "People are interested in a broader range of music now than they used to be," says Chauncey. "What is rock? What is alternative? There's so much cross-pollination." Indeed, at Bonnaroo you can listen to Alison Krauss fiddle away on one day and watch My Morning Jacket grind it out on another. It's the in-person equivalent of Jack radio, the FM format that randomly plays songs from a range of genres and time periods. "We're just programming what our music collections are," says Farman. "When you look at what people have in their iPods, it's everything from hip-hop to indie rock to jazz to folk. A million different things. That's where our program concept comes from."

But after a year-over-year decline that saw Bonnaroo's attendance slip to around 80,000 in 2005--a fall of 10,000 people, with approximately $1 million in lost revenue--Superfly's carefully cultivated cred has come up against the cold reality of commerce. With other major festivals sprouting up around the country, pulling in the Subaru-driving hordes is becoming a nasty competitive challenge. "There's only so much money out there," says Paul Tollett, president of Goldenvoice Concerts, which produces Coachella, a rival festival in southern California. "We're probably already at the saturation point."

Which means Superfly must evolve or risk evaporation. It has already shipped its Bonnaroo model west to Las Vegas, where last Halloween it inaugurated Vegoose, a 45,000-person bash. And now, faced with growing competition from satellite radio, free and fast digital downloads, and the increasingly crowded festival calendar, it's looking for nonmusical ways of reachings its fans. "We're moving beyond the music space," says Mayers. "We want to use Superfly as the umbrella company to build our brand. Real estate, restaurants, hotels, resorts--we're open to everything."

"It's right on trend," insists James Gilmore, coauthor of The Experience Economy, which argues that people will pay for experiences they see as unique and memorable. As services become increasingly commodified, he says, companies are forced to wrap those services in ever more elaborate packages. And just as Armani has diversified from selling suits to suites in its new hotel--and just as Chuck E. Cheese's has made the humble birthday cake the center of a megabusiness--Superfly could make a killing by becoming a lifestyle brand. "There's no reason why Superfly can't create a Branson, Missouri, for the younger generation," Gilmore says, referring to the town that has become the Las Vegas of traditional values. "Superfly should definitely be moving into the hospitality landscape. Bonnaroo ought to be its flagship that points to a whole portfolio of experiences."

Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the leading industry trade publication Pollstar, isn't so sure. "Jimmy Buffett can have his Margaritaville, but what can Superfly sell other than raingear or mud boots?" he asks. Well, we can see it now: the microbrew bar set next to a Costa Rica-themed jungle pool; an indoor Ultimate Frisbee park; hemp bathing suits and PABA-free sunscreen in the gift shop; a "drug-free, all-night rave" followed by a breakfast bar featuring fair-trade coffee and smoothies cosponosored by Odwalla; a hacky-sack on every pillow.

The Hard Shill

Superfly's Greenwich Village office--it set up a New York branch in 2003--has the rote iconoclasm of a freshman dorm room. There's the obligatory picture of the Sgt. Pepper album cover on the front door and a Gov't Mule poster on the wall; Johnny Cash beats himself up on the stereo. But as the partners lounge around the conference room, punching BlackBerrys and pecking at iBooks, they sound more like junior execs at Goldman Sachs than descendants of Bill Graham. Speaking of their stable of sensitive, furry musicians, they use phrases such as "profit center" and "economics of regional promotion" without irony. Farman, whose sartorial dishevelment belies an Apprentice-like intensity, describes their business model with Trumpish candor. "It comes down to numbers," he says. "We sit there and look at our spreadsheet and see how many people we need to draw to make a profit."

Keeping those numbers moving in the right direction has forced Superfly to rethink key parts of its business. Getting 80 bands onstage is an expensive proposition, after all, especially for $170 a pop (at a time when a single Rolling Stones show runs $134). For next month's Bonnaroo, Superfly snagged electro-rock gods Radiohead to top the bill--an exponential leap in name recognition. At the same time, however, the quartet has begun producing in-house gigs for the likes of Microsoft, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Anheuser-Busch, and music apostates MTV2. Arguably, Superfly has used those gigs to help keep Bonnaroo itself relatively pure: It continues to bring in top-notch talent, hasn't raised the price of beer and water since year one, and keeps the advertising onslaught to a minimum. Then again, its motives may be even simpler. "We are in business to make money," says Mayers, who's an eerie visual echo of Billy, the nut-job brother from Six Feet Under. Later, he snaps, "Why do you think businesses diversify?"

Whether Superfly can become a Hard Rock Cafe for the jam-band clan without trashing its brand depends mostly on the fans. Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, thinks kids today will tolerate just about anything. "We live in a very commercial society," he says. "At the end of the day, people are very forgiving regarding commercial enterprise and promotional opportunities." Maybe. But in case they're not, Superfly is hedging its bets carefully. "It's not like we plaster the Superfly name everywhere," Farman points out, referring to its corporate events. "You would never even know it was us doing it."

Jonathan Sabin is a freelance writer in New York. His last piece for the magazine was "The Test Prince of Bel-Air."

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