Leifer’s humility belies all the hard work she and her team put into running the recently rejuvenated Queens, New York, venue, which they build up and break down every day there’s an outdoor show during the summer season -- not unlike a daily 14,000-capacity music festival -- which runs May through October. In 2013, Forest Hills reopened after a decades-long closure with a Mumford & Sons show, which informed the work that went into the venue ahead of its first full season in 2014. “We learned a lifetime in that first night, because the stadium revealed what worked and what didn’t work,” Madison House Presents’ Mike Luba told Billboard last year. “We didn’t have a permanent stage at that point, we didn’t have any seats, we had no aisles, we had no handrails, the bathrooms were in the wrong places and we had 17,000 people -- our capacity now is around 13,000. There were definitely moments where I was [thinking], ‘If this thing goes the wrong way we’re going to be one and done and that will be it.’"
Since then, the stadium has seen a variety of musical luminaries grace its rebuilt stage, including Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, John Mellencamp with Emmylou Harris, Blondie and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. “In the summer, I go to camp mentally,” explains Leifer. “It’s a nice surprise if I get to show up during a family event.”
The 25-year-old Philadelphia native grew up surrounded by music. Her great-grandmother was a professional pianist, her mother is classically trained and both parents are Deadheads who took their 5-year-old daughter to see Billy Joel and Elton John on the duo’s record-breaking Face to Face Tour. She solidified her love of all things live while interning for World Cafe Live in high school. Helping Sister Hazel set up one day, she spent the whole day with the drum tech assembling the kit. “I was like, ‘This is so cool that this is your job.’ I figured that the musicians did it themselves,” she recalls. “It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s so many people involved in making such a special moment happen.”
At Tulane University in New Orleans -- a city she chose for its vibrant musical past and thriving present -- Leifer joined the school’s pro-Israel organization and co-founded its Declare Your Freedom music festival. One year, they booked Matisyahu, and Leifer got her first taste of the same kind of troubleshooting she now does on a near-daily basis at Forest Hills. “The minute Matis hit the stage, it started thunderstorming, and we all obviously were panicking,” she says. They relocated to nearby college bar The Boot, where the Jewish rapper “ended up having the best time” and extended his contracted 40-minute set to an hour and a half. “I was doing all his hospitality, I was his runner, I did the stage,” she says. “It was nuts, but I was obsessed with it.”
While still in school, Leifer began summer internships with management services company mtheory. For the first few years, mtheory handled management of the Forest Hills -- which has always been owned by West Side Tennis Club -- in partnership with Madison House Presents, which oversees booking and event production. Under the tutelage of mtheory co-founder Jon McMillan and former senior director of strategic and digital partnerships Brian Vinikoor (now vp marketing at Arista Records), Leifer hit the ground running as part of the stadium team. “They didn't really have full-time staff,” she explains. “They just kind of threw me into and gave me a lot more responsibility than I probably deserved and I would have gotten anywhere else.”
After she graduated and Madison House Presents took over all aspects of running the venue from mtheory, Leifer was hired full-time in February 2017, when she “got thrown into the construction aspect of it, in which I had zero experience, knew absolutely nothing,” Leifer says. Working with Forest Hills GM Jason Brandt and Luba (she calls them her mentors, saying, “They teach me every single day”), Leifer got more and more involved in construction projects that have taken over the venue every winter; last year, for example, she helped design and install permanent restrooms. This year, Leifer was tasked with managing the venue’s VIP Speakeasy Suites: club boxes that open up into the stadium floor with a front porch, which had previously been run by a third-party provider. “It was my version of a capital improvement program: hiring staff, budgeting, buying uniforms, and making it a successful program,” says Leifer, who carries extra Speakeasy passes in her work fannypack alongside ChapStick, keys, drink tickets, both of her phones and a Sharpie.
Though Leifer has obviously worked with legendary artists and shows, like Paul Simon’s rain-soaked final concert in 2017, she is adamant that the staff who make sure the venue runs smoothly are the real stars. “It's a home team, is what we call it, and we try and project that vibe into everything that we do,” she says. “That makes the artist want to come here as opposed to the other way around. We're really grateful for all of the amazing bands that have come back once we reopened. A lot of them played back in the '60s and '70s!”
When asked if keeping the lights on at live shows has changed her appreciation for them when she goes for fun, Leifer demurs. “My friends definitely get annoyed with me when I go to shows because I'm like, ‘I'm going to look up this barricade company,' or, 'This site has really good drainage,’” she says. “I definitely notice a lot more things than I ever did, and see it more holistically. But I just love it even more.”
When you're coming up find mentors who want to foster your career growth and are invested in your future. It's a beautiful thing, and I'm incredibly lucky and grateful to have not just one... but three! Jason Brandt, Mike Luba and Brian Vinikoor are all music industry giants who have my back and will support me for the rest of my career no matter where it takes me.
I've learned that nobody has a guidebook. It's one of the most refreshing things I've discovered in the industry. We're all just faking it!
The best advice I've received was from my dad. He's always said, "Keep your head down and work hard. The rest will come if you're passionate."
I knew I was committed to music when I worked my first 100 hour week as an intern and it felt more like an honor than an obligation. I couldn't believe any organization considered me valuable enough to have around that often!
It's good to have a positive attitude, strong work ethic and a sense of humor. With those three things, everything is possible!
What's tough is exhaustion. Being in the thick of "the season" doesn't allow for much beauty rest... But I am trying to make "Winter Fridays" a thing.
I am learning something new every single day, and I hope that never stops!
Spotlight is a Billboard Business series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact email@example.com.