SGE’s Maureen Valker-Barlow: From Vans To Nat Geo, A Real Branding ‘Rockstar’

Maureen Valker-Barlow
Chris Barlow
– Maureen Valker-Barlow

Music festivals have come a long way over the past couple decades, with maybe no better indicator of that growth than the early 2000s-model traveling events like Vans Warped Tour, Rockstar Taste of Chaos and Mayhem festivals. Backed by major lifestyle brands, they helped bring music to a large target demo of punk-fan teenagers – but in a way that might be considered a little bare-bones or less sophisticated by today’s standards. 

“Rockstar Mayhem and Uproar, they were very similar to the traveling Warped-style traveling festival. They’d come and put up their tents and take it down and go to the next city,” says Maureen Valker-Barlow, SVP of business development and brand alliances of boutique festival producer Synergy Global Entertainment. 
In contrast, “This year when we’re planning out Disrupt, Rockstar specifically wanted to make an investment in the festival to make sure it felt more immersive,” with 1,000 feet of fence scrim matching the skeletons-meet “The Last Supper” ad-mat to create a living art show at each stop (and plenty of social media opportunities). “When you do it right, the kids will think it’s really cool,” Valker-Barlow says. 
While Vans Warped Tour is no more, a new era of traveling festival may be under way, with Disrupt topped by The Used, Thrice and Circa Survive with some 20 amphitheatre dates. And Warped Tour is in many ways where it all started for SGE’s leadership.
“When I first got into the music business I was actually a chef on the Warped Tour in 2002,” Valker-Barlow says, laughing. Her best friend and former roommate, SGE COO Heather Vantress, met CEO John Reese through Warped as well.  
Now, Valker-Barlow oversees a staff of four with branding experience at some 30-something SGE events touching on every type of subculture from hip-hop to raver to skate punk, with around 2 million tickets forecast to be sold in 2019, with artist-led events for The Offspring, Travis Barker and Excision, along with country, motorcycle and other lifestyle events.
“I’m tasked with not only sponsorship and partnership but also vetting festivals and new opportunities for the business, whether it’s streaming or live broadcasting or things on the developmental side,” Valker-Barlow says. “I’m often the first one it comes through to see if something makes sense for our current business model, and then you’ll get to Reese from there.” 
With SGE on the forefront of not only branding but the increasingly prevalent and apparently successful artist-curation model, her opportunities grow ever-more specific and niche as well.
“Working on something like Ohana for example, it is a very conservation-friendly event, and we try to work with partners who are doing the same thing and like-minded to the festival,” Valker-Barlow said of the Eddie Vedder-fronted festival (co-produced with Live Nation) on the very beach where the Pearl Jam frontman and avid surfer learned to surf.  “This year we’re working with National Geographic and they’re curating an onsite art gallery, and it threads back to our Storyteller activations, with photographers and conservationists.”
New events means new branding opportunities as well, with Diplo’s new Super Mega Ultra Giant Mad Decent Block Party in July featuring Billie Eilish, G-Eazy, Major Lazer, Miguel and many others.
The “What Would Diplo Do” series on VICELAND provided some easy inspiration for Valker-Barlow. 
“Before you know it, we’re debuting the world’s largest bounce house in July at Gillette Stadium. It’s things like that, understanding what artists like and don’t like and really getting into their DNA and really curating it for them. If you’re a real fan of Diplo you’ll know why all these things are there,” she says. 
With fans expecting and responding more effectively to carefully curated and more sophisticated activations, Valker-Barlow says it’s important to work with partners and grow as they do. 
“For many of the brands we work with, we’re a place to come and get their toe in the water in experiential branding and then grow,” she says. “We’ve seen many brands start with us and do one or two events over the course of a year, and then next year come back and do nine events, and then next year do 30 events. We really take the time to hold their hand, walk them through the process, talk about a budget that is palatable for where they’re currently at and then grow with them, similar to do what we’ve done with Rockstar, which was a much smaller company. We’ve done it with everything from Wienerschnitzel to Rubio’s Baja Grill to Kona Brewing.”
The experience and relationships are so vast that SGE is on retainer for booking agencies and helps artist teams find opportunities outside the SGE festival property space.
“We talk to so many brands and go so wide on our outreach that we might not have something in the SGE portfolio that makes sense, but now all of a sudden I have another outlet to take that conversation and money to,” Valker-Barlow says. “We don’t really have to leave money on the table, which is great.” s