Behind The Scene: Rocks Off’s Jake Szufnarowski from Concert Cruise to Mask Medley

Bradley Tucker on June 18, 2020
Behind The Scene: Rocks Off’s Jake Szufnarowski from Concert Cruise to Mask Medley

Rocks Off, the concert promotion company, recently pivoted (at least temporarily) from concert promotion to mask production. Founded by Jake Szufnarowski in 2002, the Rocks Off online shop now offers over 300 designs from social justice slogans to song parodies.

As  Szufnarowski explains, “Anyone who knows Rocks Off knows we take personal expression seriously. Whether it’s our clothes, our haircuts & dye jobs, our admittedly ridiculous tattoos, or just the way we personally pump energy into every event, we are the antithesis of wallflowers. When we saw that life in NYC — and America for that matter — would involve face masks for the foreseeable future, we wanted to find a way to make it fun. Forget hide-and-seek, we’re talking Freak-A-Peek. We came up with 300+ designs, from wholesome (but still eye-catching!) to completely whacked out, and everything in between. Our motto: Keep safe. Keep Stylish. Keep being you.”

Their latest additions are in support of the ongoing protests against police brutality, bearing phrases such as “I Can’t Breathe,” “No Justice No Peace” and “Anti Fascist.” The company has announced that 100% of proceeds from this series of masks will go to the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Fund.

Can you tell me a little bit about what music you were into early on and how eventually that kind of led you into the music business?

As a kid I was into classic rock, punk rock and hip-hop. I played in some punk rock bands in high school, and I loved producing hip-hop stuff for myself and some friends. I started by putting on some shows at VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] halls around where I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. I moved to LA for a while—worked at Tower Records on Sunset—but then I moved to New York and started working at Wetlands in September of ‘94. I started there as the assistant to Larry Bloch, who is the guy who founded the club, and worked full time there during the day as Larry’s assistant and kind of, like, “office dude.” Then, I would work at night doing DJ shifts and doing lights, and I would work in the box office sometimes too. In 1999, I got promoted to talent buyer and I did all the booking at Wetlands until it closed in September 2001.

After that, I started Rocks Off, because I had tons of relationships with bands from my Wetlands days and they had nowhere to play. They all just kept calling me, being like, “Where do we play now? Where do we play now?” Oh, for a little while I went to The Knitting Factory too—I was the talent buyer at The Knitting Factory for six months after Wetlands. So I brought a lot of Wetlands bands to the Knitting Factory. But that was not a great fit. I didn’t really enjoy working at the Knitting Factory as a full time employee. That’s when I started Rocks Off, and then ended up continuing to book tons of shows at The Knitting Factory as an outside promoter for years and years. Around then, too, is also when I started the Rocks Off Concert Cruise series, which I still do. We started that in 2002.

Rocks Off is pretty unique, you don’t really have a lot of competitors. Was that also true in 2002?

Certainly, with the boats you mean?

Yeah, so how did you come up with that? And why was that a better idea than a retail space?

At that time it wasn’t a better idea, it was just a different idea. I was managing this band called RANA, and they had kind of come up through the Wetlands; they had headlined there, and they had sold out the Knitting Factory and Mercury Lounge and CBGB, which were like the mid-level clubs in New York at that time. I was just looking to do something different with them in the summer of 2002. I had known that Circle Line was doing something called ‘The Blues Cruise,’ which was fourth-rate blues musicians for fifth-rate people. It was just really targeted at the old, “after work” crowd. People who were like, “come see and hour-long blues show on a boat before you get back on the train to Mineola or wherever the fuck you came from.”

But I was like, “It would be cool if RANA could do one of those.” I didn’t want to do it on the Blues Cruise, because it didn’t make sense with that audience, and they charged a fortune for their tickets. So I just started looking around for boats, and I finally found this boat owner named Marco Tempesta, an Italian guy from Astoria. I went and met him, and he was sanding the boat himself—it was a really hot day. I told him I had this band, and I had tried calling a bunch of boat owners and they all just laughed at me basically and wanted outrageous sums to rent their boats. [Tempesta] was all for it.

We booked RANA on a Monday night and the show sold out, and they sold a ton of beer. He was like, “Hey, do you know any other bands who’d want to play my boat?” And that’s what happened. That first year we did six shows, the second year we did 28, the third year we did 55, and then in the fourth we did over a hundred. I’ve done over a hundred shows ever since. Now, we work with four different boats.

How does Rocks Off work now? Do you book all the shows?

Yeah, I do all the booking. I’ve got a good production manager, and I’ve had various marketing and admin people over the years, most recently Karina Rykman. It took off to such a big degree that around 2009 we didn’t stop booking shows in venues, but we pulled it back a lot and focused on doing stuff on the boats. I made that my full-time thing. A lot of other venues were opening up in the city, and there was more and more competition for shows on land-based venues or retail spaces.

What’s interesting about what you do at Rocks Off is that, because you have access to different size boats, you can scale the capacity to the bands. You don’t always have to book a small band on a huge boat and potentially not sell enough tickets to make any money.

Exactly. Then we can work bands through the system, so they say. We’ve had plenty of bands who have started on the 100-capacity boat, and then a few years later they’ve moved up to the 200, 400, and then 600-capacity. And then, every now and then it works backwards. You start a band on a big boat and then it works its way down. It is cool to have all those different options, and then it’s cool to have options on land too, we book shows every from Saint Vitus to Irving Plaza as well. I’ve got the luxury of only booking shows that I want to deal with outside of the boat. The boats are how I make a living, and club shows are how I have fun.

Is it all the same bands that you’re working with that play in the different shows you book and promote?

Yeah. There’s a certain kind of network of bands who play on the boats every year, and sometimes that changes too. You’ll have a band who’ll play a bunch of years and then you won’t hear from them again for a while. The one band who’s played every single year on a boat is The Slackers, a New York City Ska band. They’ve been one constant—they’ve never broken up, they’ve never taken a year off. This year may be the exception. It’ll be kind of wild, our 19th season and we might not have a boat show.

We were supposed to have our series kick-off on in March. Saturday, March 14th was the season kick off with Major Lazer, which was going to be a really huge event. It was such a big event we had to do a lottery for the tickets. We missed that just by a couple of days with the COVID thing. Fingers crossed we’ll get to do something at some point in September or October, because I would be sad to not be able to do a boat show all year. But what can you do?

How did your season change when the pandemic started? What led you to start making these really creative rock and roll themed masks?  

The season changed with the pandemic—in hindsight we can just say it shut the entire season down, but in the moment it felt like, “Okay, we’ve got to take a month or two off,” when we first got the shutdown notice. I don’t think anybody realized at that point, when they first told us we had to stay at home for a little while, that we probably wouldn’t be doing any concerts all summer long. It sort of quickly became evident as March turned into April. It started being like, “Oh boy, okay, this is different, this is going to last a long time.” And then you started seeing things in the New York Times like, “Hey, concerts might not be back till fall 2021.”

Optimistically I would like to say that’s probably not going to be the case, that people will be going back to shows before the end of the year. Maybe not huge scale shows, but it became evident pretty quickly that this season was going to be toast, and that we weren’t going to be able to get anything done—at least not in the way that we used to, and certainly not enough to sort of support us through the fall and winter. Usually what happens is we really bust our asses for the spring and summer and fall and are able to mostly take the winter off; that doesn’t look likely now.

I was kind of like everybody else: sitting around, watching Tiger King, binging shows on Netflix, trying to figure out what was going to be next. Then, I had an idea. I saw a merch company that I used for a fairly expensive and popular T-shirt line that’s anchored by, of course, the unicorn humping the dolphin. I got an email from our merch company saying that they were making facemasks and I was like, “This could be cool,” so I came up with five or six designs on a Saturday afternoon. One was a guy sticking a cheeseburger into his mouth, so when you put the mask on it looks like your mouth is full of a giant cheeseburger. I did the mouth of Joe Exotic from Tiger King’s boyfriend, which is all of his crystal meth teeth—I call it “meth mouth.”

I did a few others, and I kind of just posted them on my Facebook, and then I came home that day and realized we had a ton of orders. So then I started making more and more designs. We got up to over three hundred different designs and the masks just started taking off. It was pretty exciting—it still is pretty exciting—to see that people are responding well to it, and they’re good quality masks—the print is good and they’re comfortable and they’re thick, but not so thick that it really restricts your breathing. I jog in them, which is nice; I had a much heavier mask before and when I would go jogging in it would exhaust me pretty quickly.

Have you been getting good feedback from the Rocks Off community? Have you made any masks based on any feedback, or things people want to see?

Yeah, I’ve had some people reach out to me and be like, “Hey you should do this and do that.” We did one that said “eat the rich,” one that said, “I have antibodies”—my friend wanted to use that to get laid. Turned out his antibody test came back negative, so he wasn’t able to wear it, but we ended up selling a bunch of those. Another friend asked me to make one that said, “I’m just getting groceries” and that was when you weren’t supposed to leave the house unless you were getting groceries, kind of early on in the stage, and that one took off like wildfire. We sold like twenty five of those, and I thought I was making it just to sell one to him. There’s been a bunch that I’ve made that I’ve just been like, “Man, this one’s really gonna connect,” and it hasn’t. It’s mostly the ones that I didn’t think would really connect that did.

Is there anything you want to add.

Yes. Go to a protest, wear your mask, and do your best to stay socially distant. But, socially distancing doesn’t mean being socially irresponsible, and it’s your duty as an American to be out there in the streets marching for Black Lives Matter.