Founders Entertainment, producers of Governors Ball on Randall’s Island in New York, were forced to cancel the third and final day of their festival (June 5) due to fierce storms that rolled through the area on Sunday. This year’s GovBall, the first since Live Nation acquired a majority stake in parent company Founders, was sold out in advance, topping out at 50,000 people per day. Partners Tom Russell and Jordan Wolowitz spoke with Billboard about how they decided to pull the plug on the fest's third day and how they're moving forward.
Billboard: How did you come to the conclusion to pull the plug on the final day of GovBall 2016?
Tom Russell: The weather is something we monitor on a daily basis starting about a week out. As we approach the event, we are tracking it on an hourly basis. On Saturday we saw that the likelihood of extreme weather on Sunday was very high. We were talking with the Parks Department, the Mayor’s Office, and NYPD, as well as with our meteorologist. We were meeting every couple of hours to look at the forecast.
We had a meeting with them at 8 p.m. on Saturday, and were told by the meteorologist that there was an extremely high likelihood of severe weather and lightning storms, so we decided to send out an email that night to all of our fans letting them know that there’s weather headed our way and we’d be in touch with them in the morning. We met again on Sunday morning at 8 a.m. and had a conference call with our meteorologist, who said that nothing had changed, we were still in a high risk area of lightning storms, flash flooding and high winds, and that the strongest likelihood of this weather would be between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m., when we would have the most people on-site. We decided at that time to wait a few hours to see if anything would change... and nothing had changed. At that point, [we all] decided that it was not safe to have day three of the festival. We’re very glad that we made that call, because the site was hit with extreme rain, extremely high winds, there were trees blown over, signs blown down, tents blown down, it was pretty crazy out here. It was a quick storm, but it was extremely strong, and it was truly not safe for anybody to be here when that storm hit.
So what do you do now?
TR: We’ve decided to give full refunds to all of the single-day Sunday ticket buyers, and to give a partial refund to the three-day ticket buyers. We are processing all of those refunds within 21 days, and we’re working as fast as we can with our ticketing partner EventBrite to get those dollars back to our patrons as quickly as possible. We do have insurance, and we are going through that process now. It’s arduous, but one that we are working hard on.
Were you prepared for the rain on Saturday, and is there a number you can put to how much it will cost you to deal with this storm?
TR: We prepared the site for potential weather going into the weekend. We put down more flooring throughout than we’ve ever had before, and Randall’s Island has improved the grounds over the past couple of years to address weather as best as is possible. Unfortunately, when you have extreme weather like we had yesterday, there’s not much that can be done. Hopefully insurance will cover as much as it can.
Jordan Wolowitz: The good news is it was the opposite of 2013, when we had tropical storms pass through the first day of the festival. The grounds were completely destroyed, because we had two more days of a sold-out festival, with fans trampling all over the grounds. The grounds actually are not nearly in as bad a shape as 2013, and the damage done to the site, all things considered, isn’t as bad. We deal with one of the best insurance companies in the business, so we’re fine on that end.
Does having rain in two out of five years make you reconsider your dates?
TR: No. If you look at [Austin City Limits] and Lollapalooza [in Chicago] -- and I single those out because I’ve been to those festivals personally when they’ve had to cancel certain days -- they kept their dates the same. When you are a festival promoter working in the live event business, especially doing big events outdoors, the weather is a shot in the dark. You never know six months out when you announce your lineup and go on sale what the forecast is going to be. Really, it’s just two days out of 15 that have had bad weather, all things considered it’s not that bad. It’s just part of the business.
Was it helpful to have Live Nation as a partner during this year’s run, or did it feel like terrible timing?
TR: Going into the weekend I was in constant communication with Charlie Walker [a partner in ACL/Lolla producer C3 Presents, acquired by Live Nation in late 2013] about all the various scenarios. Having done ACL and Lolla when they’ve evacuated and even cancelled, it was very helpful to be able to get him on the phone and say, “Charlie, what do I do here? What should I do in this scenario or that scenario?” It was really nice to have somebody who has been through this process before to calm us down a little bit and help us prepare for what could happen.
Other than the rain, what kind of run were you having?
JW: Sponsorship revenue was at an all-time high -- by a lot. We had a live broadcast for the first time, on Vice and Live Nation TV. While we had our Sunday cancelled, which was immensely disappointing on a personal level for all the hard work we put into it, for two of those days it was the best year we’ve had. So we’re looking at this with a positive outlook. Any seasoned festival promoter will go through something like this, this was our first time going through something it, but it’s just part of the job. For us at this point, it’s just upward and onward.
So what’s your day like today?
TR: It’s a normal breakdown day, the day after the festival is done. We are unloading all the stages, the vendors are unpacking all their stuff, we’re packing up our trailers to get back to the Founders office, and really working on next year already. We’re working with Parks to get our dates announced, working with staff to get everybody committed for next year.
JW: And I’m already submitting offers for 2017, I have been for a couple months, and I’ve even had three acts confirm in the last two hours. I’m booking away for next year, GovBall 2017 is only 364 days away, so that’s what we’re thinking about.
Does the fact that the Goldenvoice-produced Panorama festival will debut on these same grounds in a few weeks (July 22-24) impact your perspective on how you look at the Sunday rainout?
JW: It doesn't at all. We sold out, 50,000 tickets per day, in advance. From a brand perspective, the people have spoken.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.