A Conversation with Jonathan Slye, Blue Ridge Rock Festival

“Behind the Show” is an ongoing series where we spotlight the work of people who help make concerts happen! Let us know who we should interview next: [email protected]

This week, we chatted with Jonathan Slye. Jon got his start in the music industry at the age of 17, when he booked his first music festival. Since then, he has hosted 700+ events in the DMV and central Virginia areas. Currently, he is the CEO of Blue Ridge Rock Festival.

Full disclosure, I (Stevie) also work for Blue Ridge Rock Fest doing social media! It was my own idea to write this though, I thought Jon’s perspective and experiences would be super interesting to you, our readers! Interview has been edited for length/clarity 🙂

Getting Started: Spring Jam Fest

Backstage Pass: How did you get your start in music and how did that lead to where you are now?

Jon: My music business journey started when I spontaneously attended a couple of different one day music events. When I was about 15 and had started to garner a passion for music, I wanted to be able to dive in deeper. I was an aspiring vocalist at the time, and when I was 16 years old, I raised the money to be able to go to Camp Electric in Nashville, Tennessee. I was really excited for the private concerts and to learn from the artists, but I felt that perhaps there was a bigger reason why I was there. Sure enough, as things progressed and developed, I started wrestling with my purpose and what God’s purpose was for my life. I felt like it was to use the power of music to impact people’s lives positively, and that became a driving force. I thought about a career in radio, but I felt like there was something I was supposed to do now.

After coming back from camp, I started sending emails to some agents and people I could find on the internet to reach out to, talking about doing a small concert. Long story short, that concert developed into a one day festival that garnered two pieces on CNN, including a featured story on CNN, as well as CBS news, and several other media outlets locally and regionally that captured the story of a 16 year old who had no money and a family that was far from wealthy, and how we were able to come together and produce this concert with no idea. I had just started learning and soaking up as much information I could.

We had an incredible, really unique, special, humbling time for that first first festival. After that, I just felt that this was something special – the amount of people, the togetherness, the comradery, the impact – it resonated with me. I wanted to be able to duplicate that feeling that I had, as well as others had, on a more sustainable longterm basis, so I started looking at doing additional events. And now, fast forward to today, I’m about 700+ events in. But the first one happened when I was 17, in the spring of 2011.

Booking Events as a High School Student

BP: Booking shows throughout high school and into college, how did you balance booking with classes and general life stuff?

Jon: Excellent question! That question in and of itself produces a multitude of exciting stories. Let’s just say that because I went to an aggressive school on a basketball scholarship, my typical day was absolutely nuts.

Thankfully we were able to use computers for some of our classes junior and senior year. I didn’t want people to know how young I was in the industry, or to know that I was just a kid in school and couldn’t be available during the day. I was able to team up with all my buddies to figure out how to hack the internet and break past all the firewalls to get online. I would plant a computer outside of the bathrooms and I would take 10 minute bathroom breaks. I would run, grab my computer, sit on the counter, lock the doors, and just sit there on the computer to respond to emails and other different things. I got good at texting on my flip phone to respond to emails in class. I became friends with the school administrators so I would always make phone calls. Little did people know that I was corresponding with agents in LA and Nashville.

After school, basketball practice, and dinner, I had to balance homework and then do a full time job of producing concerts and music festivals. I’d be up till 3:00 AM and wake up at seven to get ready for school. It was exhausting. I’m not quite sure how I had the energy to be able to do it, ’cause it was extremely difficult. And then it even became crazier when I was doing shows and had to balance shows with what my school schedule was like. Could I get to Maryland by five o’clock to do the show? Or did I have basketball practice that day? Or whatever it may be.

There’s a really incredible series of stories that I kind of wish I could just be a fly on the wall and go back and see them, and relive them, because in some cases it’s a bit of a blur because it was just such a busy, hectic, a bit exhausting, time, but we made it through and now here we are. It was a really amazing time though, met a lot of amazing people and created relationships which I have been able to carry on to this day.

Studying Business in College

BP: Wow! So you studied Business Administration in college. Did you find your classes to be particularly useful to what you were doing in the music industry, or did you already have a pretty good handle on it from your prior experiences?

Jon: Great question. I’d say that there were some tools I learned that did help me. When I got into the music business, school as a whole became difficult for me, but it’s not because I didn’t have a passion to learn. I found that I was staying hungry and staying passionate and listening to podcasts and pursuing knowledge and had that desire to learn, but I found it more difficult to stay tuned in for different courses that did not apply to me. It wasn’t me trying to be disrespectful, I just was craving more; I wanted to be challenged more; I wanted to drive more.

There were some professors that I was able to have conversations with outside of class that were really helpful in moving things forward, and who helped with collaboration. My sophomore year at Liberty, I teamed up with a bunch of friends to finance some concerts, which became parties. Doing these events bridged the gap and helped me introduce myself to some other business people, which was helpful. Constantly pursuing the right mentors and having the right conversations. There were some professors that I was able to have a lot of conversations with outside of class that were really helpful in moving things forward.

I didn’t finish getting my degree in school; I still have a year or so to go. I ultimately pulled out because business growth was continuing to develop, and I wanted to be able to make the rock festival the best it could be and make sure that we didn’t miss this opportunity to grow it and scale it and seize the opportunity that I found ourselves presented with.

Booking in Lynchburg

BP: So my next question is about booking shows in Lynchburg specifically. It’s not a very well known city outside of Virginia, so what inspired you to host events there and what are the benefits and difficulties when trying to book national acts in a smaller city like Lynchburg?

Jon: What inspired me to book shows here in Lynchburg first, is I came to Lynchburg on a scholarship. Liberty University had seen my story actually on CNN and became aware through different media outlets of what I was doing. They ended up sponsoring a concert series that I was doing in the DMV area, and they came to me with a scholarship offer, so I went to school at Liberty. Having came from doing a multitude of events in the DMV, I saw opportunity in Lynchburg. There weren’t really many shows, and when there were, they were generally at 21+ places, which nixed a lot of the college crowd.

Building Momentum

My freshman year, when I got to Liberty, I had a rock festival I was producing happening about a month and a half, six weeks later. So I throw it out in the hall meeting, “Hey, I happen to produce concerts. Would anyone be interested?” And like 15 guys in my hall said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” So they all woke up early one Saturday morning to drive all the way up to Northern Virginia to do this sold-out rock fest I’m doing with like five or 6,000 people. And they loved it!

The word got out a little bit more that I was doing events because of that experience and because of some other smaller rock and metal shows I was doing in the Lynchburg market. That created this domino effect where I realized I still have a passion for doing this, and I wanted to just give it a shot because people were interested. So I pushed into that and I was able to start doing events at a larger capacity. And it ended up just taking off.

Pros and Cons of Booking in a Smaller Market

Market Size

In terms of challenges, there’s basically no competition in Lynchburg, but you do face the fact that, particularly in genres that are not rock or country, when an artist does a headline tour, they’ll have 30 dates in the A markets, maybe some B markets. We’re like a D market in Lynchburg, so it became tricky. It’s not just a lack of competition where you’re not competing with another market for the show, it’s really a matter of, “Why would we come here?”

Country Acts

On the country side, it could just be as simple as adding an additional date. Country artists tour, a lot of times, for the vast majority of the year. Most of them are based in Nashville, and Lynchburg’s close so they just loop us in within a weekend route. It was much more conducive for bringing in shows.

Rock Bands

In the rock genre, they’ll do multiple headline tours and multiple support tours in a given year. They’re open to adding a date like Lynchburg because the only market we’d be competing with is Richmond, and a lot of times they could do both and still be okay because there’s a two hour or so separation, and we seem to have very little overlap.

That’s why you saw a strong emphasis on the national side of rock and country that I did in my time, because it was something that you could do, whereas the pop realm or the hip hop realm was a little bit trickier to land acts.

Blue Ridge Rock Festival

Artist Announcements

BP: One of the things that’s unique about the festival is that you announce artists one at a time, instead of all at once or in waves, what inspired you to announce artists this way?

Jon: That that comes from my marketing background. I know that I’m really in the minority here, but I believe it’s just point blank, straight up, the stronger marketing strategy, at least with where we are as a festival. I don’t really hope it catches on, so I try not to talk about it too much because I think it’s something unique to us.

One of the reasons why we went that route at first is because we were still booking and developing [the festival]. We didn’t make the decision to start the festival until six months out. We just didn’t have the financing and the budget to tackle it a year out. After 2019’s festival, we saw the potential. We saw the development. We had around 25,000 people across two days. I was able to focus on this year round. One of the things I was so excited about going into this year is that I started the booking almost immediately at the end of last year’s festival. And I felt like the booking was very reflective of that, ’cause we took it to the next level.

As a marketing strategy piece, I like it because it gives numerous points of call to action. When you’re producing a festival, you have long marketing timelines. If your festivals are announcing your lineup six months out or nine months out, I feel like you’ll make a huge splash. Everyone will see it and they’ll be fired up and you’ll sell a bunch of tickets, but what do you do to really keep a hyper-engaged audience for all the other months leading up to it? Sure, they get excited a few weeks out as people start to look forward to it, but how can we keep the conversation going with fans for a sustained period of time? And so I wanted to be able to plug in and really embody that fan driven idea in every way possible.

I also think it better spotlights and allows artists to not be overlooked as much. If you’re putting doing a full blown artist announcement or full blown campaign around this one specific release, it’s drawing more attention to that act as opposed to them being the 40th biggest act on the lineup in a smaller font. People don’t see them, they aren’t able to give them the intention that I think that so many of these acts are deserved. I want everyone to see the entire package because we put time and energy and a lot of thought into every single artist, not just the headliners.

Personally, I love the announcements. I love being able to bring excitement and seeing the excitement on people’s faces, so to speak, as we build this lineup, and it gets pieced and put together. So for me, I think it’s a great opportunity. It allows us more time to book, but to still be able to put acts out there for people so they can start to see their lineup, the festival lineup they’re helping vote on and curate.

Blue Ridge Rock Fest 2021

BP: Since this year’s festival was unfortunately postponed, when can people expect updates about next year’s lineup?

Jon: That’s a very popular question. A large chunk of this year’s lineup is booked already. We’ve done some polls on social media, and have used a lot of what fans said this past year about which artists on the 2020 lineup they’re most excited for because we’re bringing back a lot of the 2020 acts for 2021. We’re still gonna do some final polls and get some additional feedback from people.

Right now, we’re working on a couple different, big, potential surprises. As for starting the 2021 launch, we’re feeling it out. We hope to be able to launch artwork, graphics, website, etc. in the next month, month and a half. And then from there, as long as everything is running for that, we’ll put tickets on sale, we’ll start announcing the festival features. And then we hope to have artists out.

I’d love to go as soon as possible. I think this upcoming year’s lineup is by far our strongest yet. I am so excited! It has so many unique pieces to it, and I think our fans will absolutely love it. I’m really, really fired up. I think we are the underdog festival next year, the dark horse with an incredible lineup and experience that we’re going to be able to create. My whole plan is that we can come out and deliver a memorable experience.

But from a business standpoint, even if we put together the best rock fest lineup you’ve ever experienced, in this current climate people might still be hesitant to buy tickets. To announce now would be a poor business move. If I go out and start dropping a ton of artist announcements, people would be thrilled – The reactions on Facebook, the comments, people sharing, and people talking to their friends, it’d be great! But I’m scared that right now I can’t convert this excitement to ticket sales as much, because there’s so much uncertainty on what these next 12 months will look like. So for that reason, while most of the lineup is booked, and I’m really excited to get rolling on it, I don’t feel it’s a wise business decision to do so now. I need people who love the lineup to feel comfortable purchasing tickets.

Life as a Festival CEO

Rewards and Challenges

Rewards

BP: What’s the most challenging part of your work and what’s the most rewarding?

Jon: The most rewarding one is easy. To me, it’s the opportunity to impact people’s lives. Point blank, there’s just little that compares to it. Money and success and fame and all this other stuff that Hollywood and entertainment are always showcasing and highlighting and promoting is great. But for me, it’s not about me. It’s not about one single person, it’s about the community. It’s about impacting people’s lives. To do that for as many people as we can in a meaningful way is what’s really, really important and valuable.

And so for me, being someone who’s running around behind the scenes the whole time, I don’t get to see as much of that from the stage. But a few times I was out there in 2019, looking over the crowd, seeing the reaction, seeing the faces, meeting fans, shaking hands, taking photos, and just having some short, meaningful, real conversations, seeing the responses on social media. The day that we’re doing this interview is supposed to be the start of the 2020 festival.

I’ve been humbled at how many posts I’ve seen on social media of people saying “I’m so sad this isn’t happening,” “I so wish I was there,” “I’m crying.” People I don’t know, people I do know, people I’ve never met, people I only know on social media, all the posts that have tagged Blue Ridge over the past two or three weeks as we were leading up into what was supposed to be our 2020 weekend. And now when I started this 2020 weekend. It’s a lot. It brings some emotion to my eyes, and to my face, and to my heart because I’m seeing what an impact this has and has already had on people. And that means a lot.

Challenges

Jon: The most challenging piece is the lifestyle, because you’re always on. You have emails and phone calls and business stuff happening even on the weekend. And that’s why I sometimes joke that I’ll be forever single because it’s very tricky to handle, and my life is very challenging for people to be in. Thankfully I have amazing friends who accept me and understand that. I love people and I want to be there, and I want to be the best friend. Just because you don’t hear from me for a bit doesn’t mean that my heart has changed, I’m just constantly going.

Looking at Blue Ridge Rock with the amount of different areas I’m working in, it’s easily a full time and overtime position. And I have another full time/overtime job. So it’s a lot of work; it’s constant, seven days a week. And it’s really challenging. I think last night was the first night I slept more than four and a half, five hours this week. And that takes a toll on you long-term. I don’t get to go out and play sports and play basketball and do stuff that I still love and to have as much friend interaction as I would desire.

But there’s a pay payoff, and it’s a very meaningful payoff. I hope to be able to make some adjustments here as we cross this mountain. I think we’ve got a couple of hurdles, but we’re almost to a spot where in a year or two, I’ll be able to have a more sustainable workload. That’s my hope and my goal, to be able to focus on life and myself, personally, and not be completely controlled by business 24/7.

Advice

BP: What advice would you give to somebody who’s interested in running their own events?

Jon: I was hesitant to say what my first reactions are, but you have to be able to work like a dog and you’ve gotta be crazy passionate. Another is have tons of money. 😂 See, I don’t, but that’s been one of my biggest hurdles. When the festival was starting, I felt like I literally went door to door to. I don’t come from any money, so I’ve had to work like mad in order to live comfortably while growing and building the festival. I have an amazing partner on the event, who’s been an awesome, awesome blessing, but it’s been so much work to raise the funds. You need money to move in this industry. Starting as a kid at 16 with no money, it took a lot of work to build to where we’re at now, producing this multimillion dollar festival.

I joke about the money side of things, but realistically you need to be passionate. You need to have a work ethic, you need to pursue knowledge. You need to pursue finding the right people that you can center around you to help you learn, to help you grow, to help you to understand. And you want to be a sponge. You don’t want to bulldoze and try to make it happen. I know I kind of did, but it’s a miracle, right? There are so many people that I know that, out of dozens, I only know a couple that have gone in with no experience that didn’t crash and fail.

It’s a tricky industry, and it’s a bit top heavy in terms of success and ranking. It’s fairly corporate driven, particularly in the past few years, though that could change quite a bit now with COVID. I would urge people to seek out, to learn, to grow, to find the right base, find the right mentors. Make sure you’re developing an understanding of what makes the music business work, and have a real sound level of knowledge and understanding before putting in a bunch of money.

Wrapping Up

BP: Do you have a favorite funny or wild story to tell from over the years working in music?

Jon: One of my stories that always gets a lot of laughter is from when I did one of my first hip hop shows; there was a tremendous amount of weed consumption at the event. And, well, being that I look like I’m eight years younger than I actually am, and still being young…. I’d never smoked marijuana. I remember I got secondhand high, badly. And people were coming up to me and absolutely rolling because I was trying to make business decisions. My eyes were bloodshot. I was red. It was like an out-of-body experience for me. I was kinda stumbling around like “Heyyy,” so mellow, giving people hugs, and doing goofy stuff. It was quite a spectacle that my mom doesn’t know about. I had staff at the venue keeled over laughing because they’d never seen little Jonathan go astray like that before. And of course I didn’t do it intentionally, but it was just something that happened. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

BP: If you could see any artists living or dead, who would you most want to see in concert?

Jon: Living or dead, it would be Whitney Houston. She just had an incredible voice. I listen to a lot of mellow music to help me overcome the high stress scenarios that this career path puts me in. I listen to a lot of her music sometimes late at night when I’m just trying to unwind.

In terms of current artists, there’s so many that I’d love. If I could create a show just for me, I’d probably throw Seal and Miguel on there. I see so many rock artists and country artists and I’ve been around those genres so much. Since I’m usually working, I don’t get to go to many other shows. I’d love to see a genre that I don’t spend as much time producing. I’ve never had an opportunity to really dive into the R&B and soul realm. I’d love to see Seal and Miguel. Those are two that come to mind as being great vocal talents, and it’d be a fun show for me to branch out into.


Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Jon! Want to keep up with what Jon is up to? Follow him on Instagram, and follow the Blue Ridge Rock Festival on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

If you work behind the scenes in the live music industry (or know somebody who does) and want to share your story and perspective, visit our Contact Us page to let us know!

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