Sound + VISION

Ryan Murphy’s hungry.

He’s been in meetings most of the morning. We ditch our original interview locale of a local coffee shop for a place by the beach that serves lunch. He orders a quesadilla, coffee and ice water. Effortlessly cool as ever, Murphy’s dressed in jeans and a black logo’d St. Augustine Amphitheatre T-shirt. Though we’ve known each other for about seven years, I feel like I hardly know him. Like most friendships that begin in adulthood, the details are rarely discussed.

Most people in Northeast Florida know Murphy as the guy who runs the St. Augustine Amphitheatre and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. He’s brought rock legends, up-and-coming punk bands, classical pianists, standup comedians, bluegrass bands, roots reggae—you name it—to a community that was starving for live entertainment. As the director of cultural events for St. Johns County, Murphy oversees two dozen employees and puts in more hours each week than a truck driver with an Eastern Seaboard route. Over the past six years, he’s learned how to balance the bureaucracy of running county-owned venues while feverishly working to grow St. Augustine into a place that will one day (if Murphy has his way) rival music destinations like Nashville and Austin.

Ryan Patrick Murphy was born in Tallahassee on Sept. 8, 1976. He spent his childhood in upstate New York and middle and high school years in Daytona Beach. Murphy has always been conscious of his surroundings. He booked his first show at 15. He’s been in countless punk bands, like Palatka and True North, which took him on tours around the world. He has a BA in English and master’s degree in bilingual education from the University of Florida. He’s a newly minted husband to Lauren and father to one-year-old Levon. He’s spearheaded huge events like Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road Stopover (2013), St. Augustine’s 450th Celebration (2015) and Sing Out Loud Festival (2016).

Honestly, it’s hard to sum up Murphy in a few thousand words. He’s done so much and brought so much to the area that it seems best to just let him tell you some of what makes him tick.

Folio Weekly: You helped put on the first Harvest of Hope Fest at St. Johns County Fairgrounds back in 2009. How did that come about?
Ryan Murphy: I had two passions. I worked for a record label. I was in bands and traveled. I worked at Fest in Gainesville. So I had all of these connections. The second half of my life was working with migrants—doing these programs and working with Harvest of Hope Foundation. I said, “There has to be a way to blend these two.” I think that a lot of music was lacking activism at the time, and I felt that it would be great to get more musicians and people involved in things that have impact. I reached out to Against Me! and said, “Hey, you guys are one of the biggest bands that I know and that I’m friends with. How would you like to do this benefit?” It struck with them right away and they wanted to help out. I called Ryan Dettra [former St. Augustine Amphitheatre manager]. I didn’t realize that he was working for the county at the time. He said, “We have this fairground over here. What do you think of having a benefit there and booking a ton of bands? You can book half of it and I’ll book half of it.” That’s pretty much how it started. It seemed huge and impossible at the time.

Not long after, you moved here to help manage the St. Augustine Amphitheatre and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.
There was an opening for an assistant general manager and I was already looking to move out of Gainesville. I was very hesitant going from the private sector and the world that I knew and I was trying to go after my passion, which was working in education and working with migrants. It felt like kind of a U-turn. But some of the people who are still working at the Amphitheatre that I’m close with were really encouraging. They told me that it would be a good chance and to just try it out. That was in 2010.

How has being a musician influenced the way you run two music venues?
One thing about being in a band—and this comes up more and more lately because I didn’t realize how formative it was at the time—when I was 14 and 15, starting a band in Daytona, there was nowhere for bands to play. If you were a 14-year-old kid, you were playing in your friend’s house. It struck me that there had to be a place to play [for] all ages. There was no space for young people to feel welcome. So I went to the beach and I rented the Round Room at the Ramada Inn for, like, a hundred bucks for the evening and put on a show there. It was pretty amazing.

You’ve played mostly in punk bands. How has the punk ethos impacted choices you’ve made throughout your life?
What inspired me was more the DIY ethic of it; if something strikes you as being vacant in your community or there’s something that should be there—whether it’s a DIY space or a cool space for kids to go do a show or an activist space—to be able to be inspired by the punk DIY thing at that stage was huge. I learned a lot. If there’s something wrong, you approach it in the most positive way possible to combat that negativity.

A big part of what you and your teams do at the two venues is to make sure that bands feel welcome, with little things like fresh-cut flowers from the staff garden to a pop-up bar with the local distillery. Does that stem from those early days of knowing how musicians want to be treated?
Yes and no. I’m treating humans like humans. That sounds silly, but it’s not. I think most people’s perception of an artist coming and playing a concert is that they’re somehow not human, like a Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Weezer or, like, Robert Plant. It’s amazing. When I do get to meet these people or interact with them, they’re just human beings. That comes from the fact that I think people think that touring artists have this glamorous lifestyle and they don’t. It’s a lot of drudgery and just getting through it. They’re playing these big metal buildings with these big vacant parking lots. There’s a lot of boredom. There’s a lot of sitting around and being away from your family. There’s a lot of people who don’t have families because they’ve chosen that lifestyle. It’s a rough life. Not to say that the rewards aren’t great. So to come to the Amphitheatre or the Concert Hall or anything we do, it’s important for them to feel like people are caring about them and stopping for a second to treat them like humans. It makes them feel like they can let go for the day and when they get on stage, chances are, they’re giving it that much harder because they’ve had a really great day.

The Amphitheatre has been working on a Green Hands Initiative to make the venue more sustainable, including refillable water stations, composting practices, aggressive recycling and a staff garden. How did that get started?
As people at the Amphitheatre, we tend to be more progressive as it comes to our lifestyles and our greening initiatives. For me, right off the bat, we’re in a state park at an outdoor venue; it seemed like we would just be total jerks for not caring about this. The largest thing is looking at how to pay for stuff—having to go through the county channels is a slower process, so we had to find ways to pay for stuff. When Jack Johnson came along [in 2014], we were one of a few venues that he was deciding on for his only Florida show. They gave us a list of all of the things that would have to be happening at our venue for that to happen. A lot of those things were what we were wanting to do anyway, so it was perfect. And then some of the stuff was totally new for us. That gave us reason and that gave me justification because that show was going to bring in a huge amount of revenue. It got us the Jack Johnson show and he was blown away by what we did.

St. Johns County owns the two venues you run. How do you balance bureaucracy with running successful cultural entities?
I have an incessant drive to do new and exciting things, but I’m smart about it. I try to be careful about it when it comes to how it impacts other people. I can’t do anything that’s going to risk the entire department because I have a group of amazing people, so I’m not going to try to take us off a cliff. It was kind of a shock working for the county at first, going through some of the processes and understanding how to navigate that. I tend to get along with a good deal of people and I tend to be rational. For the first three years that I was here, it took a lot to gain trust and have the commissioners, administration and the community really trust that I knew what I was doing. When I first came over here, there was a lot of negativity and a lot of baggage that was attached with the place. It was interesting. It was a learning process. It was rough. The last three or four years, it’s been really good.

Most people would enjoy the success they’ve built, yet you’re constantly adding more shows each season and introducing new ideas.
I think what frustrates me a lot is when I see people who kind of squander their positions or their opportunities. I know I’m wired differently and I know it’s never going to be enough. But again, I’ll say that I’ve had to learn from my mistakes and become really thoughtful—whether it be to make sure that I’m totally not sacrificing my personal life for my job or sacrificing sleep. I have a great love for this community. I feel responsible for the people who work with me. I feel responsible for the people who think I’m doing a great job. I don’t know what it would look like to just sit back on cruise control. That just doesn’t compute with me. I think sitting back equates with not caring anymore.

You oversee 24 employees between the two venues. What’s your philosophy on leadership?
It’s been great to not just be around people who are going to agree with me. I think being a good leader is constantly making sure that you’re surrounded by people who challenge you and challenge you in a way that is constructive. I think if there’s one thing that I do best [it] is to listen, listen, assess the situation and try to understand how to take some steps forward. Part of that philosophy is not being afraid to be challenged, not being afraid of facing things, not being afraid of being wrong and not being afraid of being criticized.

One of your employees told me that your nickname at work is “Big Picture.”
That’s true. [Laughs.] I’m trying to think about things two or three steps down the road. Two or three years down the road. I’m trying to think of the people who work with us, the people who partner with us, the people we care about. I’m trying to think about how all of this is going to shake out. You can’t go day-to-day.

How do you find out about new music?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, I have my places that I’ll go to, like NPR is a big one, Pitchfork, Noisey, Consequence of Sound. I’ll just peruse those. I tend to listen to a lot of music and a lot of new music. I guess I look at a lot of online sites, but I don’t think, “Oh, let me just hop over to A.V. Club or whatever and see what’s going on.”

What are your long-term goals for the Amphitheatre and the Concert Hall?
I strive for us to be a music destination like an Austin or a Nashville. Those are huge destinations, but they’re known for their music. We’re known for a lot of things, but it would be really cool if we had a large group of people who knew us for what we do musically.

I looked at the lineup for the new Daily’s Place Amphitheatre in Jacksonville and it’s a lot of the same bands that have played St. Augustine Amphitheatre. Is it frustrating that they’ve chosen to play there after the relationships you’ve spent years building?
A paycheck’s a paycheck. Reputation does come into play. I mean, how much does someone care about their reputation and the experience versus the paycheck? For some, it just makes sense to go up there. There are a lot of acts that are going to appeal to the Jaguars fan base. There’s no way on Earth that I would be bummed that an artist chooses to play up there. We have an artist like Paul Simon, who made a very deliberate choice to play our venue. There are these artists that I think make our venue what it is, like Jason Isbell, Nathaniel Rateliff, Paul Simon and Robert Plant.

You’re currently in two bands, Deadaires and Dredger. Before that, you took about five or six years off from playing music. Was that intentional?
Not very intentionally. Just busy. That’s a big thing that I didn’t realize how important it was to me. Playing music and approaching music and thinking about music from the standpoint of a musician … having toured a bunch, having worked at a record label. I think just feeling like I’m in the trenches again made me feel that much more relevant approaching music. Philosophically, it’s helped solidify how I was as a kid with DIY and punk rock, touring the world, playing in Gainesville and then coming over here. All of those pieces are coming together again. And it’s a way to engage with the local music community other than “this guy who runs the Amphitheatre.”

What are some bucket list bands or musicians you want to book?
I have my dream list of performers that I have to book before I retire, but I can’t really say. I feel like the moment I mention someone, it diminishes the chances. I mean, we’re chipping away at that bucket list. There are a lot of people where I’m, like, “Crap. I can’t believe they’re coming here. I can’t believe that worked.”

What does Ryan Murphy’s future look like?
I think no matter what, music and community are the two things that drive me. When I watch the development of a community—whether it’s on the urban development side or how a community responds to music and the arts—those are things that will always drive me. Having opportunities to move to New York and San Francisco and Portland at different times, I passed. I like the challenge of being some place that might not have all of those things. I don’t know what the future holds. I love St. Augustine and I’m pretty happy here.