Exit Interview

From its blooming gardens, all abuzz with critters, to its refillable water stations and friendly, helpful staff, The Amp is the antidote to the large, lifeless concert venues we’ve all had the misfortune to endure just to see a performer. Indeed, the operation formerly known as the St. Augustine Amphitheatre has earned a national reputation for excellence. Touring artists ask for it by name. How could a venue so large, operating on a county level, feel so inexplicably inviting? The answer is simple, according to Ryan Murphy.

“The magic is this team, this facility and the culture that we’ve created.”

The 42-year-old Florida native has been the director of St. Johns County’s Cultural Events Division—which operates The Amp and the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall—for the last five years. He’s been involved with the program for a full decade. And April 20 was his last day there.

With a handshake and a smile, Murphy sat down with Folio Weekly and reminisced about his grassroots rise-and-grind in the DIY scene and his role in establishing St. Johns County as a power player in the mainstream performing arts. Spoiler alert: Music has been a lifelong passion for Murphy.

“I’ve been involved with music since I was 14 or 15,” he began. “When my friends were able to start driving, we would come to St. Augustine [from Daytona Beach] to go to a record store called Fuse Records. That exposed me to everything that would change my life: early punk rock and anything that was happening in the early ’90s. Around that time, I had started a band, and we realized there was nowhere for us to play. I was like, ‘Man, there’s gotta be a way we can do shows ourselves.’”

His mission thus clarified, the teenage punk rocker turned into a DIY promoter. Murphy scouted every hotel in Daytona Beach until a Ramada Inn took the bait—along with a $100 rental fee. “A month later, I threw a big festival and that was my first … show,” he said. “It was pretty crazy.”

After graduating from high school, Murphy moved to Gainesville to study English and throw house shows. His love for locally owned businesses took root there. He eventually landed a gig at No Idea Records, a punk label whose roster has included the likes of Against Me! and Lemuria among a slew of other notable punk heroes.

Then Murphy got involved with the Harvest of Hope Foundation, a Gainesville-based nonprofit that provides aid to migrant farmworkers and their children. “At some point I realized, after touring for years, I wanted to turn my passions into something else,” Murphy explained.

It was also an opportunity to align his academic and extracurricular pursuits. Murphy’s master’s degree in bilingual education allowed him to work closely with the foundation, while his background in concert promotion and his extensive network were a boon for fundraising efforts. He asked his friends in breakout Gainesville punk outfit Against Me! to play an acoustic benefit concert in Chicago in 2007.

“All the proceeds went to Harvest of Hope,” Murphy said, “like over $10,000!”

And that, like the old Bobby Bare tune goes, is how he got to St. Augustine. Keen to repeat the success of the Chicago fundraiser, Murphy approached local promoter Ryan Dettra, who suggested they join forces for a massive, three-day benefit blowout at St. Johns County Fairgrounds. The Harvest of Hope Fest was born.

“I took all my resources from No Idea and [Gainesville punk festival] Fest,” explained Murphy, “and Ryan took a lot of bands he was working with in St. Augustine, and we made this punk/indie/hip-hop/folk/whatever festival.”

The event ran twice, in 2009 and ’10. Murphy evidently made an impression with county administrators. They asked him to come aboard their Cultural Events Division.

“As painful as it was to leave the Gainesville community,” he recalled, “I thought, ‘You know what? St. Augustine is awesome.’ And so I came here and I’ve been here going on 10 years.”

When Murphy arrived at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre (now The Amp), the venue’s administrators were still trying to find the right incantation to lift the curse of the secondary market. You see, Jacksonville is a considerably larger city and thus the natural hub for Northeast Florida’s entertainment needs. For all its charm and history, St. Augustine is the underdog in terms of cultural events.

“In the music industry,” Murphy explained, “people would say [St. Augustine] is just a suburb of Jax. When I first came here, there was a big country artist who walked out on stage and said, ‘How’s it going, Jacksonville?’ Everybody started booing.”

As Murphy stepped down after a decade, he was proud to report that things have changed. “What’s important to our story,” he emphasized, “is that within the 10 years I’ve been here, we’ve flipped it. Even though we’re a secondary market, we’re getting the primary traffic like Paul Simon, John Legend, Travis Scott or Death Cab For Cutie. And they’re choosing to play here because we’ve put St. Augustine on the map.”

Murphy helped The Amp overcome this near-impossible challenge by leveraging his experience in the DIY world. Under his direction, the venue has become a microcosm of the world that Murphy and his team want to see. It’s a world in which the concert venue collaborates with local businesses and organizations to cultivate a sense of community. It’s a world in which folks brainstorm ways to reduce waste and increase sustainability. (The Amp’s Green Hands Initiative has recently started a revolution by banning single-use plastics.) It’s a world in which there is such a thing as a free lunch—or at least a free show on the venue’s Front Porch stage or at its annual, citywide Sing Out Loud Festival.

“I think if you’re reared in a DIY scene,” Murphy reflected, “you know how to empower parts of a community that are neglected. We had to find our niche and empower ourselves to do this. It translates to working with independent record labels and independent venues. Even here, we are staunchly independent. We’ll work with anyone as long as we think it’s going to be a good show. Empowering the little guy and nonprofits, it’s an important thing to do if you actually believe in the community that you live in. To me, it’s how I live my life.”

Now, after a decade of nurturing the arts in Northeast Florida, Ryan Murphy is moving on, but he has no intention of stopping. His experience at The Amp has shown that the impossible can be possible with dedication and heart. As one might expect, his next project involves planting the seed of the performing arts in a new spot—although the exact location is still anyone’s guess.

“I’m going to be able to create from the ground up pretty much what I helped create here,” Murphy teased. “I’m going to get to build a scene in a place that’s really hungry for it, out of state.”

Will he miss St. Augustine? You betcha: “I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid. It was formative that I found that record store here, played my first show here, coming over doing Harvest of Hope and playing Café Eleven. This place shaped me in a lot of ways.”

As for The Amp, Murphy is confident that it’s in good hands. The venue will only grow from here, and the culture he’s helped create will help others elsewhere.

“Overall,” he concluded, “I’m proud of everything we are and everything that we represent. We have venues coming from around the country asking us how to do what we do. That means we’re making an actual difference. What I’ve done here has shown that it’s possible. It will still be possible when I leave. The magic is this team, this facility and the culture that we’ve created. I want to be able to take that and do it somewhere else. That’s the next step.”