The Making of Blue Ridge Rock Festival

A sit-down with festival organizer, Jonathan Slye.

Waiting for the band with 50,000 of your best friends you just met. BRRF 2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Alton, VA – Last year I was totally blown away with my first Blue Ridge Rock Festival experience. Covering Two Weddings and a Festival (Part 1 and Part 2) in 2022 was so much fun I had to find out more. I had the chance to sit down and talk with the man who made Blue Ridge what it is, Jonathan Slye. Sit back, pop a cold one (surf if you can) and enjoy this in-depth look at what makes Blue Ridge and what it takes to put it together!! 

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Digital Beat Magazine (DBM): Could you share some perspective on what it takes to coordinate the festival, such as coordinating the bands? Do they approach you? Do you seek them? I know you’re independent, right? Can you give us a little bit of insight into what it takes.

Jonathan Slye: I’ve been looking at different ways to best provide transparency about what it takes to produce a festival, what it takes to book a band. I’ve used some live videos that I’ve done periodically in places like ‘the fan zone’, which you may have seen, to try to shed light. I believe, and part of it comes from personal experience from entering into the industry around 2010, 2011 and struggling to find the right resources, that I could study and learn and equip myself with the knowledge to be able to effectively progress and execute tasks within the industry. A lot of it for me was learning more organically. There was a lot of trial and error, making a lot of mistakes and turning them into opportunities.

I’ve been searching for different ways to equip myself and to learn. I still have a ton of stuff to learn. I want to pass what I have learned down to others. There are so many areas to producing a festival that I think generally gets lost. It’s so much more beyond talent.

So in 2021, I was over the top of the festival. I was managing a variety of different areas and we hired a ton of staff for the first time and things did not go the best, so I stepped back. There were a lot of changes post 2020. I took one step back and really worked on the talent and marketing which has been my main realm. The festival just reached a point where we needed to bring in other people to help oversee the different areas of the festival, at least two dozen areas. We have to think about security, permitting and licensing everything that happens. There’s the health department, you’re looking at production, you’re looking at merchandise, you’re looking at artist relations. You’re also looking at hospitality and transportation. 

Underneath there are so many different side operations. There’s so many different sections of producing a festival and a lot of things that are also probably not the most glamorous. You look at being a vendor director, that’s a position that’s become harder and harder for us to be able to find. Someone needs to come out and manage all the food vendors and all the non-food vendors and make sure they’re licensed with permits. All their stuff is up to date with the state and with the county and making sure they arrive at the appropriate time and they’re fully set up. Then we have to make sure their point-of-sale system is adequate. They need to make sure that the fans are being charged the right amount of money and not being taken advantage of. Making sure there’s proper reporting of sales tax and use tax, for the festival as well as each individual vendor.

There’s a lot of different pieces that go into the festival when it gets to this size. We are independent, which is very uncommon, especially as big as we are. I was following a social media handle called the ‘Festive Al’. In the past two weeks or so, he has reported on four or five independent festivals that have closed their doors. It is becoming less and less independent and more and more corporate. You see corporations wrapping their arms around some of these different independent festivals or the independent festivals going out of business. That’s a whole other conversation for us to dive into as to why that’s happening.

A big piece is the inflation on costs, inflation has gone up 30 or 40% for the event industry, where it’s maybe only gone up 8% on the nation as a whole over the last couple of years. There’s this monumental increase in cost and, at the same time, if you are an independent, you don’t have the buying power to be able to go in and to ‘buy’ artists or production in bulk. We can’t provide toilets in bulk, you know, whatever.

Over on the talent side, the conversation has changed. The agents will approach me and say here are submissions for this year. We’ll have a whole lot of submissions, maybe a few hundred deep. Then there will be some other names that I have in mind that are actually not on the submissions list. Let’s take a Weird Al Yankovic or a Tenacious D that’s typically a little bit more left of center that I will approach directly about trying to come into the to the lineup.

Most of the time now, the agents will come and put together a presentation of their submissions to me for consideration so I can place offers or begin the negotiation from there. How I approach talent may also be a separate interview. I’ve never really been asked too much about how does my talent grid work, what is my philosophy, and how do I maneuver.

I will say I’m really excited and proud of the lineup that we will put forward this year and I’m even more excited for what we have in store for 2024. It’s tricky because out of our talent lineup we’re probably overspending by about 40 or 50% compared to what we’re seeing with other fees because we’re not buying in bulk. So compared to a Live Nation or DVP, we’re having to pay around 40% more on the talent to be able to get them in. And again, that’s not just talent related, that goes all the way down into artist hospitality, fulfillment production or just one offs, you name it, just because of the lack of buying power.

DBM: Yeah, you’re right. I think we could probably get a whole interview on this! That’s the stuff that really interests me because there’s a lot of moving parts. It is a huge undertaking. The next question works well… you have a huge support staff, is that correct?

Jonathan Slye: (chuckles) We have a lot of staff but because of the finances and how tricky it is, we have very few that work on the festival year-round.

I think when you factor in all workers like 1800, probably this year it’s gonna be over 2000 staff that’ll be at the festival. A lot of them work through another company, so like a security guard is working for the security company.

A lot of our department heads and our main staff that would be full time staff for most companies are contractors for us, meaning it’s one of many festivals they’re working on. So looking at our festival director, our production director, our artist hospitality and core staff, we really only have about four year-around staff right now. We have dozens of contractors and then we hire companies and other support staff underneath that.

Having a beer the BRRF way. Photo credit: Dave Pearson 2022

DBM: I expected you to say like the three or four people, so obviously they were wear multiple hats. Could you take one person on your staff and say give us an idea of the different hats that person wears?

Jonathan Slye: So let’s see which one, which one should I choose? Our executive producer, I’ll go with her. She will do a wide variety of things for us. She basically plays the role of CFO, even though she’s not a CFO by experience. She, because of lack of resources, has taken on the CFO duties. There are a lot of duties like accounting. The way that the financial processing works you have this ramp up in September. There are different waves throughout the year. It can be a very challenging to manage finances for a festival. She handles all the financial duties for and there’s a lot within that.

She handles a lot of things regarding the site along with our site operations director, Brian Reeves. She will work with the CAD designer. She will assist in different things that need to happen with the venue. She will be the liaison for the Department of Health. She will take the lead with Mike Hanley, our festival director, in terms of presenting at all the government meetings that are done locally. She helps to manage some different areas of the staff and guides and works along with the festival director, to manage all the department heads so that they can then go on and manage their teams.

She also helps with website updates. She just placed cred orders yesterday or the day before. They handle all the credentials that are getting printed in all the access solutions for the festival. That is barely scratching the surface of all the hats she wears.

DBM: So you’re saying she is not bored?

Jonathan Slye: Yes, yeah, definitely a different task every day.

DBM: So… and going right along with that to some degree, I follow a couple other festival Facebook pages. I have to say that yours is the most interactive I have ever seen. You’re a little bit quieter, and I think Todd is awesome at facilitating conversation. On social media it seems like your press releases or your artist releases are very well timed. What goes into determining when those are made? By the way, I really like the emoji clues just because they kept people talking and guessing and some of the guesses were quite humorous.

Jonathan Slye: The marketing side of the festival has been something that has… I feel weird saying this… but it’s been a little bit of of my brainchild.  I’ll summarize the marketing approach with this. I felt that 99.9% of festivals are all, “Here’s our lineup”. A lot of buzz, excitement, fanfare, then nothing. Dead silent, dead engagement, not a lot of buzz after the announcement. Not a lot of talking or interaction with their audience or with their community to be able to grow closer and understand more what the consumer is looking for and how to best grow and improve the festival. There is little engagement for the next six or seven months until you get close to the festival.

I’ve been trying to cultivate it and make it an active year round conversation with fans as much as possible. I feel like one of the most important things for fans when attending is the lineup. By being able to have so many interactive polls to be able to engage the fans as much as as we do, I think gives us a great insight. Not only does it bond us closer to the fan, it gives a great tools and resources for us to be able to get better, to grow and shape the festival moving forward. I think that is so important.

To be able to have that dialogue to have that engagement and to. help people know what a critical part they have in the festival. They do play a very critical role in making the festival each year and it’s great to be able to have that year round conversation and get to know people like yourself, where I can recognize by name or by Facebook.

We’re focused on improving the festival by every means possible. I think having that ongoing, not stereotypical announce and timeline and marketing and release, just helps us get a much healthier dialogue going on year round.

A young fan taking BRRF higher and higher, 2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

DBM: But one question I need to ask, I’ve heard many comments about ‘the hill’. Have you ever thought of creating, shall I say an exercise video or even a playlist to help people prepare for the hill? Possibly contracting with Denise Austin? Nita Strauss in 2023 would probably actually be a wonderful spokesperson for the workout video.

Jonathan Slye: That’s an excellent idea. That’s a brand new idea and inspiration that you have provided here, Dave. I’ll think on that one!

I know that they’re making some modifications to it this year. It’s very interesting, some people are passionate like, it gives the festival character. We want to provide some additional help and resources. I have not said this on any videos or any interviews or anything like that, but the hill path was freshly cut just prior to the festival last year. We’re making several different little modifications to make it easier for folks and continue to try to tweak and adjust the layout. There is only so much that we can do and I don’t want to go down to a two stage festival. There are other limitations with other locations within the property and I don’t want to go down to a two stage festival. I think the overall body of work is so important for Blue Ridge and I like that we have four stages. I don’t see us going below that any anytime soon. I like that we have four carefully curated stages and to be able to have Stage 3 and Stage 4, we need to have that. We may have a cut through to get to the other side of the property.

DBM: And actually that’s funny, because that was actually my next question. You’ve gone from five to four stages. Last year, it was two mains with no overlap and then the other two far away, with a fifth smaller stage not far from the mains. What are we going to notice in the change in stages?

Jonathan Slye: I basically had to take what Stage 5 was last year in terms of unsigned great rising talent. It was a little bit more hardcore. It had some some great bands in the hardcore space. I’m basically having to take what Stage 5 was and make it happen within the four stages that are there. At present, we’re going to have the two main stages. They are basically the same as they were last year, side by side, alternating with no overlap. When one stage is done, there’s a five minute break, then the next stage. It’s the great scenario because as you saw last year, while one main stage is going and playing their 30 to 60 minutes set length, the other stage can set up with ample time to get ready to go. I love that format. I think also keeping it there where people do not have to walk as much and they can sit there and enjoy and see plenty of bands throughout the day. I love the alternating side by side, main stage set up.

Stage 3 and Stage 4 will basically alternate with very little to no overlap for the first half of the day and then overlap becomes unavoidable. One tends to go a little bit more the Testament, Exodus, traditional heavy metal route and the other one tends to go a little bit more metalcore, Warp Tour, Pierce The Veil, The Used, etc. We still have some hardcore bands in the lineup this year and we were still were able to put in some great unsigned talented bands.

There are a couple of tweaks I’ll make to next year, but I plan to keep with the four stages with just a couple more tweaks now that I’ve have had the first year under the belt at four stages.

DBM: There’s got to be a horror story where, at the time it occurred, everybody was face palming and saying “I can’t believe this is happening”, but now that it’s 2023, looking back you can say, “Dang, we handled that really well or better than expected” or there was actually a positive that came out of it. Do you have any stories like that?

Jonathan Slye: Probably a lot of stories like that, but also a lot of stories where, looking back I would have wanted to handle things differently.

DBM: Well, you can talk about those too if you want.

Jonathan Slye: I look back to the COVID time period because that was just completely uncharted waters. Not knowing, we took such a significant financial loss in 2020. For us, hundreds of thousands of dollars lost was everything, I mean that was so, that was so much. The reason we took that loss is because even though we didn’t have to pay the bands we got stuck with a lot of costs that were incurred that were nonrefundable. This was because of how deep we were into planning the 2020 festival.

2019 had been the breakout year with us not announcing until close to the festival. I think it was only like four or six weeks out that we finalized the lineup. To go in and to be two days and go up to 12,000 tickets a day was a big jump. And in 2020, we were already sitting up at I think like 18,000 tickets a day when the festival was pulled down. That was prior to releasing the top 10 or 12 bands. I felt like we were on pace to really get up close to 30,000 a day. When we were well over 30 a day in 2021, I had sensed that was coming just because of the foundation that had been laid in in 2020.

I think we handled COVID the best that we could. We offered refunds, we had some fans that that held on. When we pulled everything down, lot of people were frustrated. I remember I was living in a small apartment in Lynchburg with several roommates and I had nothing in my room and I did the video and told everyone, ‘hey, it’s being pulled down’ and people were very upset. It was a very political issue, but we had no choice but to move forward with canceling. There was no way that we would have been able to feasibly put 30,000 people in a property together in the midst of in 2020 given so many limitations. Getting companies involved and logistics and safety of personnel and getting the bands to come and play, it was just too much. We got a lot of heat. We also got some understanding at the time. I think very few if any festivals played. Trying to do a festival with 25 to 30,000 people in a pod type scenario would have not worked well either, not with rock and metal where it is about the crowd surfing and moshing and being interactive. Pods also take up so much more space, We’d have had pods from here to Kingdom Come if we had tried to fit 30,000 people.

I think ultimately we did the best that we could in that situation. Maybe we’ll do another interview because I have some others that I think would be great to flesh out. Maybe next time, we’ll answer that question again.

Piling on the BRRF community 2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

DBM: Oh, I would love to have another interview because you’ve given me some ideas for questions that I wasn’t allowed to go off on a tangent with. I think you just answered the success story question too. Maybe this is more appropriate – Is there anything that what has happened since 2017, that you could have never imagined happening in these six years?

Jonathan Slye: Oh, wow, great question. You know, I always dreamed really big. I just believed that there was something, I think starting from 2017, there was something, almost magical on the grounds that evolved and just the community and the vibe and the experience. Even though 2017 had challenges, I thought that something special was happening and you know it was.

It was amazing to just feel that community and to begin to experience that community even more as it surged forward that first year. To still be in small town Virginia and to have not relocated because… that’s one of the things that I’ve never talked about as well… and that’s another topic potentially for a future interview, is that there’s been a lot of pressure to relocate to a bigger city, let’s say Richmond, or Martinsville or Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, or something along those lines. There’s been pressure to move for a lot of reasons and to still be in the small town of Alton, VA, that I think has a population of 2000 some. And to bring in the likes of Slipknot and Pantera and Shinedown, is a really humbling thing.

While I thought that we could get to the names that we have. I think getting to the overall body of work and getting the attendance and having a shot at being number one in the entire country as well as potentially the entire continent this year, that’s something that’s hard to fathom. It’s really, really humbling and amazing, just to see. It’s been great to start to be able to have more time this year. There’s a lot more to do, but to actually be able to market the festival this year. We have a poster out and we have navigated the politics. The poster wasn’t out as early as I would have liked, but I got to actually need to work with and spend time with fans and go and promote at shows and such this year. It’s something I’ve really valued and am really grateful for. Hopefully with camping sold out, we can we can keep chugging away here and soon break even.

DBM: OK, before we go, is there any additional information you’d like to share with our readers?

Jonathan Slye: Blue Ridge is about the community. I mean, I think it’s been amazing to me how many people will come to Blue Ridge and will leave with lasting friendships or relationships. That’s something that we are really, really, really proud of. It’s something that is bigger and deeper than music, it’s relationships and friendships. Everyone’s united together in music and then just becomes something that is far beyond just the singular weekend. That’s something that is really, really, really special.

Lastly, hotel packages are available! The reason I say that is because we’re out of camping and so we partnered with Fuse. We only put them up three or four weeks ago. I wish we would have done that a bit earlier, but we just wanted to make sure we had the best company possible. Fuse does this at every major festival seemingly, it’s unbelievable. Their list is across the entire country. What they’ll do is they’ll allow you to get a hotel room in Greensboro or Raleigh. If you fly in or just you drive in, you’re in a big city. You get a discounted hotel room and then they drive you to and from the festival each day. Remind everyone of that option just because, now that camping is sold out, the hotel packages are the main focal points. Just continue to build awareness and let people know, hey, there’s a great opportunity and value here. We don’t want to have anyone turned away from the experience. That’s my shameless plug for letting people know that there is a lodging option still available?

DBM: Well, thanks a lot, Jonathan. And look forward to talking to you next time and maybe see you in September.

Jonathan Slye: Alright, that sounds great. Take care.

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