Even though Rick Farman was born into a family of lawyers, the Superfly co-founder was surrounded by music industry people even before they were music industry people. From seven to 19 years old, Farman attended a summer camp owned by tour manager Jerry Wortman’s family and made friends with people who now hold impressive positions in the live entertainment world, including Gregg Nadel, who is the President of Elektra Records and Mike Levine, who runs CAA Sports.
Farman was introduced to a variety of music by Wortman and others at Camp Baco and after seeing a Phish concert, he asked his dad for a bass guitar and began playing in local bands. As a way to get gigs for his group, Farman started setting up local competitions.
“I set up the battle of the bands for the purpose of having the opportunity for my band to play,” Farman told Amplify. “I pretty quickly realized that performing was not going to be my path. Like most people in our industry. Some people come to that realization earlier in life.”
After setting aside his dreams of becoming a musician, Farman’s first paid position was helping his brother’s college roommate promote shows. He handed out flyers for events at New York City clubs that read “Rick Farman Presents” that got people discounts when they brought the paper in and got Farman a few bucks per head.
In addition to his fellow campers and his brother’s roommate, Farman’s industry connections extended to his family as well. Growing up, his cousin, Julie Farman, was a publicist for Epic Records and even worked with Pearl Jam in the 90s when they took on Ticketmaster.
“She was the first person in my immediate family who wasn’t a lawyer. I was raised by a wild pack of them,” Farman explained. “She was really impactful in making me feel like there was an opportunity in terms of a career in entertainment.”
With all the right mentors in place, Farman went on to co-create a number of festivals with Superfly co-founders Jonathan Mayers, Rich Goodstone and Kerry Black and partners AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo) and Another Planet (Outside Lands). Amplify chatted with Farman to discuss how that partnership came about and how learning the business from the right people makes all the difference in creating good live entertainment.
Can you tell us a bit about the music you started playing?
We were playing stuff that was probably more in the 90s rock, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, maybe even a little Tool. It was in that zone of music. It was a little bit heavy. I was the hippie guy in the band, so I was always pushing them to jam it out a little bit more. One kind of cool connection, is of that group of people that were in the band that I helped get a gig for there are two who are still professional musicians. Cat Martino who works under the name Stranger Cat, she is one of the singers in Sufjan Stevens’ band. It was pretty cool at Outside Lands last year when Sufjan played and Cat was in the band — 25 years later she was playing on stage at my event.
You were mostly into rock then?
In my early teens, I had that time frame when I was listening to Poison. But the first time I was really impacted by music on a deeper level was seeing the band Phish when I was a sophomore in high school. I saw them play at the Capitol Theatre, which is pretty cool because I just went back to the Capitol Theatre for the first time a couple of weekends ago. Pete Shapiro who owns the Cap is a really good friend and collaborator. My cousin Emily Schmalholz works at the Capitol Theatre running all of their private events.
That show that I saw there was no doubt a huge impact on my life. I had never had a music experience like that. The next day I remember calling my dad and asking him if I could buy a bass guitar. I saw a bunch of Dead shows and I was definitely into that early wave of jam music. At the same time, as I started to play more I definitely gravitated to some more heavier stuff. Primus was probably a meaningful bridge in there because I was so into Les Claypool as a bass player.
Where did you go to college?
I attended Tulane (University) in New Orleans. New Orleans is such an amazing mix of cultures and influences. The way that music, food, and art are baked into everyday life there are part and parcel of what the culture is about. People are drawn to celebration and having a good time down there. The whole ethos of how you live your life in that city was an amazing soup for somebody who was interested in music to jump into.
I still had that bug from the early promoting that I did. In the winter of 1996, I saw that a band I was really into was playing at Tipitina’s. Tipitina’s is one of the most famous music clubs in New Orleans and it had gone through a real down time where a lot of the national artists weren’t performing there. They were performing at House of Blues and the French Quarter and that wasn’t as cool or local. It felt a little corporate. But it started to come back a bit and get some national bookings.
Tips always had this tradition of these old school block letter concert posters that I started to see up around town. This one band, Medeski Martin & Wood, was playing at Tips. I walked into the booking agents office since we had a mutual friend who told me who he was. He was a guy who had just graduated college and I asked him if he needed help promoting the show. He said he needed all the help he could get. He asked if I wanted to hand out flyers or put up posters. I started doing promotion for him and I told him which band to book as an opening act, which was Michael Ray who was a local New Orleans trumpeter who had played with Sun Ra. I knew that Ray had a connection to Phish so I figured all the Phish kids would come if he opened.
It was a really special night and instead of doing a couple hundred people, 600 people showed up. He was psyched and asked me if I wanted to help continue to help promote shows there and help him with some of the booking. That guy was Jonathan Mayers, who has been my business partner at Superfly for 20 years now.
How did you guys build Superfly from there?
What ended up happening was new people came and bought Tips that summer. Jon did not get along with them. I don’t think they appreciated the value that Jon was bringing to the table or myself. They looked at us like these kids, but we were kids who knew a lot about what was going on and we were working our tails off. We ended up quitting and over the coming months we had a lot of conversations about working together and what would make sense. We landed on this idea to do some shows during Mardi Gras and so the first ever Superfly shows were Madri Gras ’97. We rented out a place called the Contemporary Art Center which was essentially a really nice art center that had a garage and we rented out the garage. That was the start of the same path I’ve been on for 20 years.
Now you have two of the biggest festivals in North America. Bonnaroo just happened and you guys saw an uptick in attendance. How do you feel this year went?
It was a great year. We were really lucky with the weather. We’ve had some of the best weather we’ve ever had at the festival. The whole energy around the event this year was special. I think we had a great year the year before. Even though our attendance was down we did a lot of things in terms of investment and infrastructure and camp ground programming that we knew would take a minute to pay some dividends. Part of it was part of the investment we made in partnership with Live Nation. We saw the fruits of that being born this year.
Another part is, I think the programming was just done really well this year. We got a slightly younger audience this year. It was great to see that younger audience embrace the ethos of the festival. You know, radiate positivity, play as a team, respect the farm. I was heartened by the fact that the college and young professional concert-going audience right now sees these events as an opportunity to engage in community and get away from the doldrums of daily life.
Why do you think that younger crowd showed up this year?
Part of the reason why you’ve seen festival culture expand is tied to the proliferation of digital and social media. As people are more and more sucked in by devices and screens, there is another side to the pendulum. People want tangible, real-world, immersive experiences. I think a lot of these experiences are powered by the fact that you need to be doing stuff to create meaningful social content. It’s not just reading an article and forwarding it. A big part of social currency, a big part of how people define themselves is what activities they’re out there doing. There’s a fine line between being in those things and being too connected to creating media. I think that most people use those tools in a progressive way. I’m a believer that the arch of things runs towards positive impacts on people’s lives and that there are negatives. It’s never a straight line. At the end of the day, you’re seeing more people engage in music experiences for the right reasons and technology is a part of inspiring that in some fashion.
You’re other big festival, Outside Lands, is celebrating 10 years in 2017.
Absolutely. We’re real excited about it. I live in the Bay Area. Our Superfly office out here is in San Francisco. We’re really fortunate to be able to host a festival here with our great producing partners and friends at Another Planet Entertainment. We all feel grateful that we get to work with those folks and personally, that I get to live in this city with them and enjoy a lot of the amazing productions that they put on. It’s really gratifying to work with these anniversary moments and to look back on how you got there. We’re taking a moment to be grateful for the success that we’ve had and reflect on that a bit.
Are you doing anything in particular to celebrate the anniversary?
There are some little touches that we are going to put on the festival this year, but there’s no huge thing we’re going to do to celebrate. I look at Outside Lands like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. It has an established base of amazing elements that we like to update and refresh each year, but the experience is so rich and so deep and so part of the Bay Area community. It doesn’t need to redefine itself. It doesn’t need stunts or gimmicks to make it great. It just is great. We’re always looking for ways to make it better and to continue to innovate in terms of some of the programming and concepts, but nothing that needs to be opportunistic with the fact that it is the 10th year anniversary.
As someone who has been putting on festivals successfully for years, what are your thoughts on the recent high-profile demises like Fyre and Pemberton?
It’s not good for our industry at all. It is disappointing because there are a lot of amazing people in our industry who take very seriously the relationship that we create with the fans, with people willing to spend their hard-earned cash and, more importantly, their getaway vacation time on the things that we produce. It’s disappointing to see people not treat fans and festival-goers in a way that they should be. I think that it is why, in this business, people who come up the ranks in the right way and do things professionally are the ones that the industry should be dealing with. There is room for people doing upstart promotions and I have seen people who have taken their early careers and figured out how to be entrepreneurial and create amazing things. Those are people that saw how to do it right first and had the right mentors and right relationships in the industry. I can understand for consumers that it is hard to understand who is legitimate and who is not. I think it is on the industry to make sure the things that get support from us are vetted properly and the finances of these projects are done in an appropriate manner.
It was unfortunate to see those two things transpire, but we also have to have a little context here. There are hundreds if not thousands of great festival and entertainment events that happen all over the country and many more all over the world. These are very rare instances where you have something happen. On a percentage basis, they are extremely small. It’s not to discount the bad situation that some of these fans were put in. I don’t want to say that that doesn’t matter or that we shouldn’t protect against that, but I do think the amount of media attention and the overall fervor around it just needs to take into account the perspective that this is really rare. Most productions are put on by responsible people who have appropriate finances, who have the right intentions and execute well. I think the general public at large should not feel concerned.
You put on these great festivals every year and have to build the lineups. Is there any act you’re really into right now?
There’s a ton. Probably the favorite that is a band on the rise that the whole Superfly office is rooting for is Portugal the Man. They are one of our big favorites. Over the history of Superfly we’ve had these artists, starting with Medeski Martin & Wood and laddering all the way up to My Morning Jacket, where we have these special relationships and 90 percent of the people in our office were into them. So, we might book them more than any other act. Portugal the Man is one of those bands we all want to see thrive and kick ass.
On the other side of the spectrum, probably the newest artist on the scene who we all dig is this artist Boyfriend, who is this interesting, artistic, provocative, poignant rapper from New Orleans. Her show is like a piece of art essentially. She is doing something really special from a lyrical standpoint to a production, performance standpoint. We’ve all believe their is a huge future for her.
On either side of your business, is there an artist you haven’t work with yet that you would like to work with?
There are still some of the legends. We’ve done a lot of them. Having U2 at Bonnaroo this year was a big a thrill as you could possibly get. But we still haven’t ever done the Rolling Stones. There are a few others like that, but we’ve gotten lucky. We’ve gotten to work with a lot of our heroes, people who inspired us as people and to be in the business. We’re really grateful for that.
Do you have any piece of music memorabilia that you’re particularly proud of?
Not really. I’m not much of a memorabilia guy. I’m not the biggest collector in the world or somebody who cares too much about physical things like that. I probably should care a little bit more. Probably the coolest thing is that I get some amazing photographers to take pictures of my family. Each of the last years at Bonnaroo, two of my favorite photographers in the world, Danny Clinch and Ryan Mastro, have taken pictures of my kids and my family. That’s stuff that I like. When I get those pictures back, I’m like ‘Wow. This is something that is really amazing to get a benefit of the job.’