I have been booking shows for almost twenty years. It would be easy to estimate that I have been associated with the production of over 1,000 musical performances in my career: shows ranging from national artists in outdoor amphitheaters to unknown regional touring bands at neighborhood bars. At any scale, there is a litany of concerns that must be addressed in order to ensure a successful event. Those worries increase exponentially based on the artist’s celebrity, as well as the number of bands on the bill.
A few years ago, I helped book a festival that had six regional acts—easily my most daunting task in the business. The moving parts that were involved in a production of that size included working with booking agents, tour managers, publicists, contracts, riders, sound, lights, security, concessions, ticketing, advertising, lodging, hospitality, and too many arbitrary factors to list. It was overwhelming.
Many of us have been to a festival or 10. Lately the festival I most look forward to is MerleFest, which will take place, beginning today, April 23, through 26. The “traditional plus” festival in Wilkesboro, NC, was upstarted in 1988 by the late Doc Watson as a tribute to his son, Merle, who died tragically in a farming accident in 1985. Each year the festival boosts the region’s economy by $10 million, and since its onset, it has contributed more than $9 million to Wilkesboro Community College.
MerleFest attracts huge crowds over the long weekend in late April. Guests travel from all over the world to see the scores of bands on thirteen stages spanning more than 100 acres on the college’s grounds. When I considered the financial impact on the community, the continuing increase in attendance and the sheer enormity of the festival—as a talent buyer—I had to find out who puts all of these pieces of the puzzle together and how they make them all fit.
Great fortune would allow me to stumble upon Steve Johnson, MerleFest’s events artists relations manager. The man responsible for this tremendous undertaking was kind enough to put down his clipboards and discuss the guts of booking MerleFest.
Before coming on board at MerleFest in 2013, Johnson ran own music agency and offered booking, management and publicity for a slew of artists. Like most people in this industry, music has always been a part of his life.
“My aunt was the fan-club president for Bill Monroe, the ‘father of bluegrass music’ from the time I was born until he passed away,” Johnson tells.
Because of his family’s affinity with music, he always was involved in music in some capacity or other. Although music has long held a special place in his heart, his career path led him into the medical field.
“I spent most of my life working in hospitals,” Johnson informs. Eventually, all that would change returning him to his roots. “I decided one day that my early influences and bluegrass music was my passion.”
So, he quit and dove into music. After playing in a few bands between Indiana and North Carolina, Johnson made the jump to the music agency. Serendipitously, that jump would open the door to a great opportunity, MerleFest.
Understanding the scope of this festival and the responsibilities that one must consider in order to produce an occasion of this magnitude is simplified by the fact that this is his full time job. “It takes more than 40 hours per week throughout the year to get all the details in place,” Johnson explains. “It generally takes six to nine months to get everything in place.”
When he is not working on the upcoming festival, his thoughts are already centered on the following year. “It’s a process that truly goes all year,” Johnson comments.
Johnson has a massive to-do list. When considering the festival hosts 75 to 130 artists each year, his work becomes hard to wrap one’s mind around. Other tasks entail, but are not limited to, setting up media outlets and coordinating the merchandise area, organizing the details of the festival’s program, and assisting the volunteer coordinator and production manager in ensuring the event is properly staffed. If that is not enough, he sees to the artists’ needs ensuring that their time here is seamless and memorable.
When it comes to booking the artists: “making special music, moments and memories [takes precedence.]”
However, it is clear that the most important part with regards to who performs is to layer the line up with acts Doc would’ve liked to see. The artists comprise the spirit of the festival, and in that way, it becomes a family reunion for performers and attendees alike.
Even as it is apparent that Johnson has his hands full, he shares the credit with “several hundred volunteers and a small staff of full time employees.” His modesty in full display as he emphasizes, “[that] without a team of people working behind the scenes, it wouldn’t be the festival it is today.”
While MerleFest boasts the likes of Dwight Yoakam, The Avett Brothers this year, and in the past has hosted Old Crow Medicine Show, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, and countless folk, country, and Americana, and bluegrass royalty to perform—Johnson has his sights on a few artists he hopes to book one day. High atop his bucket list of performers are Tom Petty and James Taylor. Considering the strength of MerleFest’s essence, its loyal audience, the myriad A-list talents, and all Johnson and his team do year-in and year-out, it’s only a matter of time before they make that dream a reality. Like everything else, they’ll make that look easy, too.
(Author note: William Mellon is quitting the booking game and applying to med school.)
Wilkes Community College
1328 S. Collegiate Dr., Wilkesboro, NC
April 23-26, various times and stages