SGE’s John Reese & Heather Vantress: ‘Wonder And Excellence’ In The Boutique Festival Space
While John Reese surely has some wild stories from the road – tour managing Guns N’ Roses and being on the road with Rockstar Taste Of Chaos traveling punk festival is surely enough to fill a couple volumes – the soft-spoken, tattoo-adorned Synergy Global Entertainment founder prefers to focus on the present.
And who could blame him? The Orange County resident has been way ahead of the curve in developing artist-driven and lifestyle concerts, with SGE now producing events for stars like Eddie Vedder, Travis Barker and Dave Chappelle, to name a few.
“We have our company saying and it might sound cheesy, it’s ‘wonder and excellence,’” Reese told Pollstar. “Everything that we do has to have some wonder to it and everything that we produce has to be excellent.”
Since formally starting SGE 15 years ago, the company has become one of the largest independent festival promoters, with more than 30 events and forecasting between 1.75 million and 2.25 million tickets sold for 2019 over 170 festival days. This year, some events will branch out to multiple cities (or even countries), while five or six all-new events and a full summer tour are planned.
Not only a SoCal endeavor, SGE’s events include the Lost Lands dinosaur-themed bass music festival topped by Excision at Legend Valley in Ohio (more than 100,000 tickets sold in 2018), while Eddie Vedder’s beachside Ohana Festival, Social Distortion’s Surf City Blitz, Travis Barker’s Musink and The Offsping’s Sabroso hold down the fort back home. There are also country events such as Driftwood, 92.3 WCOL Country Jam and Campout, lifestyle events like Adult Swim Festival in downtown Los Angeles, the five-city Scallywag craft beer event and many others.
Reese’s right-hand woman is SGE general manager Heather Vantress, who had previously spent time on Warped Tour in a sponsorship capacity. Warped founder Kevin Lyman knew she had studied Japanese in college and needed someone who could relate English to some J-rock bands on the tour.
“For Kevin, I said of course I would. So I went out and I tour managed a J-rock band, and that was on Taste of Chaos that Reese had partnered on with Kevin,” Vantress, in between tending to a newborn baby, told Pollstar of the traveling punk festival that kicked off in 2005.
“I hit it off with Reese, and he’s got a ton of great ideas. From there they brought me back for Mayhem Festival and that’s when Reese approached me and he’s like, ‘You know, I have this really great idea,’ and we basically just started at his kitchen table.
“It’s been a wild, crazy 10 years, that’s for sure. But I don’t even feel like we’ve hit our stride yet. Is that weird?”
– John Reese
– John Reese
Pollstar: SGE handles everything from production to talent buying on of your events, correct?
Reese: On all the festivals that we own or produce ourselves, we do everything. We start with a blank piece of paper. We book the talent. We have 20 departments within the company. We have a ticketing manager, we have VIP, we have five production managers, we have permit, site coordinators, have strategic budgeting people, we have an in-house creative designer, multiple graphic designers, an IT department.
Heather keeps the trains on the tracks and GMs the company. We do everything in-house. Everything that we can do in-house, we do in-house.
What was the first festival you produced?
Reese: The first I did was in 2004, and it was called the Curiosa Festival. I did it with Robert Smith, and kind of pitched Robert on doing it. There was a big resurgence in The Cure in the mid, early 2000s. Ross Robinson and I had a label called I Am Recordings, so we signed Robert to the label and I became pretty close with Robert and we launched. That was the very, very first festival, touring festival that I ever did.
From that time, in 2005, I really got engaged in the festival business with the Taste of Chaos. I started that in 2005 and it was The Used and My Chemical Romance and 10 other bands, and we did it in arenas all over the United States and then eventually to 21 countries all over the world. It was the first time that we used sponsorship, real true sponsorship within a festival environment, with Rockstar Energy Drink. They were not nearly as large as they are right now when we started with them.
You now have so many events and sell so many tickets, but proudly proclaim yourself in the boutique space.
Reese: Well you know, it’s really impossible to compete on a level with Coachella or on a level with ACL or on a level with Lollapalooza, so we really are in, essentially, the boutique space, I would consider us. We do some really large events, 40, 50, 60,000-person events, but we’re in the boutique space and we’ve also kind of made our mark in the curation model working with artists and putting together events around artists.
This year we’ll do 30 curated festivals, either with an artist partner or with ideas that we’ve come up with.
How do the ideas for the events come up, then?
Reese: We really look at ourselves as the facilitators. We’re the car and the artist is the hood ornament. They can make that car and we can mold it into an artist’s vision with our expertise in doing this so many times. We know what the missteps are and consult and work with them and lead the wagon down the road, if you will.
The artist is the hood ornament. The artist is upfront. We are an artist-driven company.
– Heather Vantress
– Heather Vantress
The artists have a profit participation. If we do an artist curation deal, they have a profit participation in the whole event and that means everything. We have concessions and sponsorship and VIP packages and they’re engaged in all of the revenue streams along with us. Those are the kind of deals that we’re making with artists.
Regarding Surf City Blitz, Mike (Ness) works with us and picks every single artist. Musink, Travis Barker picks every single artist with us. They’re involved and they’re engaged in the whole process. Heather says it all the time, it’s like throwing their birthday party and they like to be involved. Camp Anarchy, we did that with five big punk bands with Rancid, NOFX, Offspring, Pennywise and Bad Religion and they had input on everything that we’re doing on a three-day camp and punk rock festival. Those are the kind of things that we try to do.
The level of engagement from the artist must be obvious on your end as well.
Heather Vantress: They’re excited to be there and do the show and some want to be a part of every call, see every piece of art, which is exciting. It’s also satisfying on a different level of art for the talent. Who knows festivals better than people that do it for a living and they do festivals in Europe and they do festivals all over the U.S.? So they have all of these great, quirky ideas that they would love to fold in. How we run is, tell us what you want to do and we’ll make it happen.
They’re not just looking to get paid, they’re not just looking to play the next album. They’re looking to have their creative genius on display and we have no ego about it. Whatever you want to do we can make happen, and we’ve done some pretty wacky stuff.
It’s exciting. It’s exciting to see artists that have been around for a really long time take the reins and come up with all these different ways and a really special event with them at the helm.
What separates SGE events from others?
Reese: I think we’re in the right space as far as the boutique business. I think we’re not taking too giant of risks and trying to get too massive. I think Danny Wimmer is unbelievable at what he does in his space at big rock festivals. I think C3 is phenomenal at what they do. Insomniac is obviously better than great at what they do. We’re just trying to trailblaze our space and do really well at the artist curation business and come up with additional creative ideas that are compelling and immersive and something more than just a crowd. We want to do things that light people’s eyes up. We feel like people want to escape their daily lives and go out and have a great day at a fair price and that’s what we try to create.
– John Reese and Heather Vantress
– John Reese and Heather Vantress
Vantress: I feel like the cream still rises to the top. There’s a lot of festivals out there that throw the name “festival” on anything and they think they can charge more or go after sponsorship more aggressively, but I feel like Americans weren’t as accustomed to outdoor, multi-stage, 10, 15 bands on the bill. They weren’t as accustomed to that. They wanted to go to a club.
They wanted to stay indoors for a comfortable two, three-hour night. Now I it’s more than just going to watch bands, there’s also great activations to check out or charities to interact with or multiple stages and make a whole weekend out of it. Like Doheny State Beach where we get to do Sabroso and Driftwood and Ohana, you’re literally on the shore of the Pacific and in the sand. Where else are you going to get to watch Lana Del Rey?
You have to be very concerned about security without it being too intrusive. You have to stay on top of trash. You have to stay on top of art installations and charity components. That, to me, is a shifting trend.
It’s working with a budget, figuring out a way that we can make it affordable and we can make it cost effective for the consumer to come, but we can give them top quality artists that we can afford to make it a sustainable business model.
So I think that’s the shifting trend and the crap will fall by the wayside because consumers don’t want to show up to stinky port-a-potties and trash everywhere. It’s not worth it.
Reese: I’ll add two things to that. The site is super important. So we really try to pick sites that are compelling, sites that people want to go to.
We look for those all over the country. We look for grass and we look for sand and we look for mountains. We look for things where people want to go and spend eight hours and have something to look at, something where nature and the scenic part of it is important.
For us, the single most important thing is execution, execution, execution. We have to execute every single time. We screw up one time and we’ve screwed up. We drill into our team that every single event has to be your best event.
Anything that you’re going to be successful at, it takes effort. That’s why we just don’t want to slap a logo with sponsors. We create worlds for them. We don’t want just a bunch of banners on tents. There’s a lot of thought that goes into everything that we do and every event that we do where we want it to be this immersive, compelling event that showcases everything involved with it, not just the artist, but the brands that are involved and whether it’s the food or beer or whatever it is, or the attractions. We want it all to be first-class.
Are you interested in selling SGE or partnering with a major promoter – perhaps one that often that acquires companies that produce festivals?
Reese: We’ll look at any opportunity that’s right for us ultimately. We feel like we still have some things to do and some things to prove and we just put our nose to the ground and work as hard as we can, and what happens with the hard work that we do is what will happen with the hard work that we do. Right, Heather?
Vantress: From where we’ve grown, it’s exciting to be on anybody’s radar. It’s flattering, but again, keeping our nose down and the blinders on and we just focus on what we do best. To echo Reese’s sentiment, we can’t be everything to everybody.
We are very specialized and we throw a really great weekend with one kind of theme in mind and try not to get too caught up in what everybody else is doing because that’s the point to us. We just do what we do and really, really, really enjoy it.
Then us running so lean, we’re able to turn on a dime. If we have a great idea, we can take it and run with it and we don’t have a board of directors or anybody to run it by. We just get to do whatever we think is going to be great for the fans, so it’s exciting. The timing right now is really exciting and all the growth and everything that we’re doing is fun. It’s super fun.
What’s in store for 2019 and beyond?
Reese: We’ve got some new festivals but we haven’t announced them yet. We’re looking at Surf City Blitz, looking to take that to multiple cities throughout the country at beach locations. We’re also looking at Sabroso. We’re expanding Sabroso with the tacos and the Lucha Libre wrestling and the Offspring and all that. Travis and I are talking about Musink, taking that to other places as well. We’ve got a full summer tour that we’re working on that’s not quite finalized yet that’ll hit 26 markets that we’re launching.
We’re excited about Camp Anarchy, our big punk rock camping festival. We’re looking at potentially taking that to other countries as well. We feel like they’re really well niched and can translate and work in other states and other countries. We’re trying to build, I hate to use the word “brands” because everybody uses that word, but we’re trying to build events – events that translate.