If I asked you what the modern day Woodstock is, what would you say?
I think most would say one of three iconic festivals: Burning Man, Coachella or Bonnaroo.
Sorry Burners, the Bonnaroovian’s win in my book. If nothing more than it’s in the middle of nowhere on a farm with a lot less Silicon Valley millionaires hoping a little dose will make them the next Steve Jobs.
Here’s a few Bonnaroo stats:
Location: A farm in Manchester, Tennessee
Named after: 1974 R&B album “Desitively Bonnaroo”.
Meaning: “A really good time” in the NOLA Ninth Ward Slang.
Number of Build days: 45
Number of Staff: 3000+ (that’s a crap-load of advance work)
LET’S SET THE SCENE
So a few weeks before Bonnaroo this year, I thought it would be an incredible idea to ask the Festival’s Senior Director of Event Production, Kat Tooley to give me a little festival production 101. I figured, if I don’t ask, she can’t say no. Right?
Well, what happened next, blew my mind. Both Kat and the Superfly team– the creative live experience company and co-producers behind the festival — said yes. I honestly was like “Holy shit, I think they think I’m a real journalist”. Hah, no way.
Then I was like, “What the hell do you ask the producer of one of the most notable festivals in the country”?
Here goes. Enjoy. I definitely did.
You ready for this Kat?
Definitely. It’s going to be a blast.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Does that mean you’re a Carolina Panthers fan?
Hah. That’s an understatement.
One of these kids is doing her own thing. Kat in her Panthers gear.
And is it true you used to babysit Steph & Seth Curry?
Kind of. They grew up across the street from me. Their house backed up to a creek, so when they shot hoops and missed, the basketball would go down into the creek. They weren’t allowed to go into the creek, so they’d always come to my house and ask me or my sister to go down and get the ball.
No wonder he doesn’t miss any more!
What was 25-year-old Kat like?
Oh wow… Stubborn and focused. Definitely an old soul. I knew what I wanted to do at an early age. A lot of 25-year-olds don’t. I got married at 27 and had kids at 28. So at 25, I probably felt like I was 35 or 45.
So what is your favorite non-Superfly event?
Any Phish festival. I love Phish.
Would you consider yourself a Phish-Head?
I’m not a total Phish-head where I would take 5 days off of work to go see them, but if there’s a Phish festival that I can attend, I’ll go to it because those festivals were incredible. Actually, the idea for Bonnaroo came from our inspiration from going to these Phish events. At the time they were throwing these amazing festivals and were building these communities for 3 or 4 days on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere. It was like this alternative universe you could be in for a couple days.
It’s like adult summer camp.
Exactly. We actually used a lot of their team the first couple years for Bonnaroo and still do to this day.
Photo cred: Bonnaroo
Speaking of team, what do you look for when you’re hiring a new team member?
The biggest thing I look for is a sense of confidence. I also want them to be able to be self-sufficient, especially in the event world. It’s very fast-paced. Things go very quickly. I personally don’t have the time to sit down and teach every single fine nuance of the job. A lot of it you have to learn through your experiences. I try to look for someone that I think is going to learn from their experiences, learn from their mistakes, and be able to quickly make decisions or quickly course-correct things that go wrong in the event planning process. I’m also a stickler for being organized. Especially now with the tools and technology we have, I want to see someone that’s always organized, can keep me organized as well, and teach me new things.
Kat with the Supefly Team. Some of the best in the festival production world.
If you could go back to NC State and teach a class, what would you teach?
I would want to teach a class on the realities of the music or live event industry. I think everyone thinks that it’s this glamorous, amazing, over-the-top lifestyle, and it’s really not.
I’d be like, number 1: Talking to Agents: not as fun as you think it is. I just think people think that this idea of agents and managers and everything is like living life from Entourage, which it’s not at all. It’s not a lot of glitz and glamour.
Number 2: It’s not riding on private jets or going to an endless slew of concerts for free. I barely have time to go to a concert even if I could, so it’s that type of stuff. You have to be really, really dedicated to your craft, and you have to be really nice and kind and patient because you work with a lot of different people. It’s not for everybody.
Looks pretty damn fun to me. At least for those that can put up with the pain.
Kat with the artist relations and transportation team at Bonnaroo
So what’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve received, and from whom?
It was probably from my boss, Steve Feener. He told me that I don’t need to always have an opinion or be the loudest person in the room. For a long time, I always thought to be able to get my voice heard that I needed to have an opinion on everything. Sometimes, that’s not needed. Sometimes, there’s strength in silence as well, just taking a step back and listening to someone else’s opinion and taking it back and thinking about it for a little bit can be powerful.
I also think that even being a female (especially in the very male-driven world of music festivals), sometimes you want to be like, “Hey, look at me. I have an opinion over here. I know what I’m talking about.”
But you don’t have to do that. Sometimes, silence and thoughtfulness can separate you in the room as well. Coming back with an intelligent, well-thought-out answer is better than just saying something for the sake of saying something.
Actually, that brings up a good point. How often do you get asked about gender disparity in the festival production world?
All the time, especially when I do interviews. I feel like that’s always the first question that gets asked is like, “Oh, how does it feel being a woman in the production world?”
At least it wasn’t my first question. Damn short-sited journalists 😉
Hah. I don’t really notice a lot of gender disparity in terms of the production and operations, especially at Superfly. We’re probably different than most promoters, but the majority of people on our production and operations team are women, so it’s really cool.
I think what the industry as a whole really needs to think about, is that hiring a woman in a stereotypical female role is not diversification. Hiring a woman in the marketing department does not mean that you’re a diverse company. Hiring a woman to be your VP of Production or to be head of business development…that’s when you become really interesting, and that’s when you become diversified. I think that that’s probably something our industry as a whole needs to work on.
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What is your favorite part of the entire production process?
For me, it’s when you get on-site right before the crowd gets there and things are just firing on all cylinders. That’s what I love the most. Everyone’s on-site, everyone’s a team. You’re working out problems, you’re fixing things, you’re making things better, you’re putting finishing touches on everything. That’s when I really enjoy my job—really seeing the final product get put together. The highs that you get from that are enough to keep you going for months and months and months. That is my favorite part of working an event for sure.
Now that’s a festival! Photo Cred: Tom Tomkinson/Bonnaroo
What do you foresee being the biggest changes in the event world over the next 5 or 10 years or so, and how do you think that will impact your job on the production team?
I think the biggest changes you’re going to see is more technology getting wrapped into events. The creation of RFID, which we use at Bonnaroo and the use of cashless RFID, which we use at Outside Lands, will be huge. I think we’ll see a lot more technology over the next 5 to 10 years, whether it be through ticketing and security and wristbanding and cashless, or social media and different platforms that you can engage with different patrons at the events on.
In terms of festival production, not a lot has changed over the past 30 to 40 years. You still need sales, lights, a stage, instruments, stagehands, and the stage manager. Although not a lot of that has changed there, the technology has. For example: the lighting systems have become much more robust. You can do so much more with the programming of LED lights. Sound has also gotten a lot better. Everything’s going fully digital; nothing’s really analog anymore.
Photo Cred: Jim Wilson New York Times
Here’s a scenario: You’re a month and a half out from Bonnaroo. What are the top 3 things you’re focused on?
I’m focused on working with our production manager on finalizing all equipment orders for the stage. We’re currently right in the middle of our advance with the artists, so we’re really understanding what we’re going to need to provide to all these individual artists onsite in order to give them the best show possible at our festival. That’s a big one.
I’m also working on anything new that is patron-facing, whether it be an art installation or a new type of camping system or camping area. I’m working with those teams to make sure that they’ve got everything that they need to be able to run it successfully and that they’re also within our budget. We’re always making sure that we’re in budget. That’s a big thing.
Now that’s a tent! Bonnaroo’s VIP Camping Experience: Photo Cred: Superfly
Third, I focused on the people underneath me at Superfly who run the artist relations department. They’re just really in the thick of talking to the artists right now and getting everything set for them to come onsite and perform.
So how are you splitting your time between Bonnaroo and Outside Lands right now?
It comes down to time management, knowing what is pressing and what needs to happen immediately. There are some tasks that I need to do for Outside Lands at this current moment that are more important than some of the Bonnaroo tasks that I also have—a budget might need to be approved immediately, or someone needs to get paid.
Once I get on-site at Bonnaroo, if I’m working an 18-hour day, then it’s probably 12 hours to Bonnaroo and 2 solid hours to Outside Lands and getting things ready so I can hit the ground running as soon as Bonnaroo gets closed up. Last year, we did 3 festivals in the summer. We actually had one between Bonnaroo and Outside Lands.
So how have things changed since Live Nation acquired Bonnaroo?
Really nothing. They’re just a really great partner to have. They’ve come in and supported us and really let us run the festival with the same spirit and the same way, the same process, as we have the 14 years before. It’s actually been a really positive relationship, and it’s been a lot of fun working with them. This year feels no different in the planning process than it did in year 8, except we’ve all gotten a little bit older.
And for you, how has the live event industry changed?
When I first started at Superfly, it was Bonnaroo and Coachella really, and that was it. I remember back in the day, amphitheaters were the ones that were making all the money. People had to do a summer tour or a fall tour to see a bunch of artists. Now, it’s more like, “Oh, well, I’ll just go to this festival and catch all these artists.”
It also has gotten a lot more saturated, and I’m not saying that’s a positive or negative thing. I think it’s a great thing; I think it’s awesome when the live event industry’s doing well. And that there’s a ton of new types of festivals as well. Whether it be food and wine, or art festivals, or kids’ festivals, or endurance festivals, like Tough Mudder.
I think it’s great that it’s not just music. Wanderlust is the perfect example that. That’s an amazing festival, an amazing group of people who put it on, and there’s very little music. It’s more about community, being with your friends and having this broader experience than just going to a concert. I think that’s what’s really changed since I first came into the industry, for sure.
In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
I still feel like I have so much to learn, whether it be around supporting a client and the whole client relationship process, or just understanding how to execute a mass event. I work under Steve Feener, who started with Bill Graham 30-odd years ago. I learn something new from him everyday. Obviously, you’re always going to be a little bit insecure when doing something that’s new, and I’m doing something new all the time.
I think you should always be a little bit nervous as an event producer because it keeps you on your toes, which helps to ensure everything is coming together perfectly.
Kat & Jack Johnson’s Touring Manager: Anne Kallevig
Keep being innovative and keep being hungry. I think when we all compete against each other or bring new things to the table, everyone comes out of it with something really special. Continue to be hungry, explore new opportunities, bring in new things, and also be willing and ready to share it with your peers, even if they are competitors. I think the live event industry is very much a community in and of itself. We all need to invest in that.
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