We’re in a golden age for music festivals. Whether your tastes run toward niche genres or more chart-dominating styles, chances are there’s a multi-day event that’s programmed to tickle your sonic fancy. But well-curated festival lineups don’t happen by accident. In fact, music promotion companies such as Superfly have spent years creating (and then honing) a brand with annual festivals such as Bonnaroo and Outside Lands.
Booking artists to fill out festival lineups is a lot like piecing together a complex puzzle: The factors involved range from fan feedback on social-media pages to artist availability to the vibe of the event. “Every festival has a different brand, has a different point of view, in a way,” says Chris Sampson, Superfly’s executive vice president of programming. “And you’ve got to understand and know that audience. The [festivals] that have been really successful have done just that.”
As might be expected, Superfly plans far in advance to nail down high-profile artists for its events. For example, Sampson says that U2‘s 2017 Bonnaroo headlining appearance was already being discussed when he started working at the company in 2010. “The goal is to sell tickets,” he says. “And so you need to focus on, out of the gate, who are those artists that are going to help you sell the most tickets? It starts from that. And then you build the lineup down from there. A lot of the decisions that you make on filling out the rest of the lineup are decided [based on] who are your headliners, and the artists just under those headliners.”
In general, it’s not out of the ordinary for Superfly to start booking a festival a year in advance. “With the proliferation of music festivals all over the world, there’s more opportunity for artists, and so it’s a lot more competitive,” Sampson says. “So you really have to start putting your pieces in play sooner rather than later.” Booking up-and-coming acts is also a long-lead-time process that has to take into account things such as touring and album-release cycles—and there’s a bit more risk built in, adds Emily Roehl, Superfly’s manager of programming. “We try to look at who’s buzzing, whose music we believe in, and go for it,” she says.
How Superfly finds artists to book
Identifying artists that’ll fit in with a festival’s particular atmosphere is key. Bonnaroo’s vibe is community-based and eclectic, and Sampson draws on “trusted friends and sources and colleagues” for music recommendations, and keeps an ear to the ground for buzz. “You have a friend at a record label who sent you a note and it says, ‘Hey, you really need to check out this artist,’ and you do and you love it,” he says. “And you pass it on to some other people in the office, and they all love it. Then you start to see a blog potentially write about it, and you get a sense of, ‘Okay, I really like the way they sound.'”
Superfly’s individual team members also gravitate toward diverse musical specialties—including country, hip-hop, dance music, and indie-rock—and share their fave raves internally, which also helps introduce new artists into the mix. “I always say that it’s not [our] job to be experts in everything—but it is our job to know to talk to the experts and to listen to the experts, to get as much feedback from people as possible,” Sampson says.
Like other passionate music fans, he and Roehl rely on streaming for music discovery. “Everything that’s happening in the streaming world right now, we’re paying a lot of attention to that,” Roehl says, adding that she finds artists via playlists Spotify curates to her tastes. Sampson, for instance, booked Austin-based soul-rock act Black Pumas, who recently signed to ATO Records, for the inaugural version of Denver’s Grandoozy after hearing a song he liked on a playlist.
But wherever possible, Roehl says that she and other Superfly employees also see a buzzed-about band in concert. “We try to divide and conquer between the team and try to get people out there so we just have that in-person experience and see how the band actually is live,” she says.
How to position yourself
It takes a village to launch a band’s career. “It’s really important for artists to put together a really good team around them,” Roehl stresses. “We’re being pitched so many artists all the time, and those relationships that we have with the managers, agents, or the bands directly really go a long way.”
Along those same lines, artists should also make sure that their team is representing them in a positive, professional manner during business matters. “If I like working with that person, if they do a really good job at representing their artists, I’m more inclined to want to work with them as much as I can,” Roehl adds.
Artists that might not yet have a noticeable streaming presence, busy touring schedule, or team don’t need to feel left behind in the festival game, however. In fact, Roehl says musicians shouldn’t be afraid of reaching out to bookers and promoters, introducing themselves with a detailed and organized submission, and they should always keep an open mind to other opportunities that might pass their way.
“We have brand work outside of the festival programming that we do, and something might pop up that’s not a traditional music performance,” she says. “And if an artist is open to something like that, [and] we work with them and we have a great experience [when] we see them live, we’re more inclined to work with them down the road and support their career as much as we can.”
Slow and steady growth is another virtue stressed by Sampson, who notes that artists shouldn’t underestimate the power of building a local audience, and making a name for themselves regionally, before taking the leap to the national stage. “I would tell that artist, wherever she or he lives, to become the best artists they can in that city and make the most buzz that they can in that city,” he says. “That should be their focus. And with that, if they do a good job there, then they have a shot.”
At the end of the day, bands can set themselves up for success by concentrating on building a stable foundation on all fronts—and not putting all of their eggs in one basket. “I always tell young artists that festivals can definitely be an amazing platform,” Sampson says, “but it’s also just one piece of the whole pie, and that they should be focused on building the best live show possible, writing the best songs possible, and really focusing on the relationship with their fans, that connection.” He adds, “If you’re focused on all of those things, and then you start to play festivals, then that will really add up for you—and I think then the festival offers will start coming.”