Governors Ball Emerges From the Mud: Fest's Booker Talks 'Cracking' NYC, Weather Prep

Governors Ball Crowd

Governors Ball Crowd

Prior to the successful launch of Governors Ball in 2011, some in the music industry had lost hope that New York could have a large-scale music festival to call its own.

“Our business had grown accustomed to saying that a music festival could not succeed in New York City,” Tom Windish, president of The Windish Agency, tells Billboard. “They said New Yorkers were too lazy to travel to one.”

Governors Ball producer and promoter Founders Entertainment -- which includes operations director Tom Russell (former Superfly operations director), booker Jordan Wolowitz (a veteran of Atlantic Records and ICM) and sponsorship director Yani Reisman -- have proven that theory wrong. Since beginning as a one-day festival that drew 18,000 people, Governors Ball has grown to a three-day music event that attracted 135,000 people in 2013. This year’s edition is expected to draw 150,000 fans.

“They’ve built something that now has a legacy and can continue to grow and evolve,” Marty Diamond, head of East Coast music at Paradigm, tells Billboard. “I give big props to people who take risks like this. It’s no small endeavor to mount a festival. They market and program it really well, and they’re committed to development, as well as big acts.”

The 2014 Governors Ball, to be held June 6-8 on Randall’s Island, will feature headliners Outkast, Jack White, Vampire Weekend and the Strokes. Other major acts include Phoenix, Foster the People, Skrillex, Spoon, Blur's Damon Albarn, Neko Case, Disclosure, James Blake, Grimes, Janelle Monae and NYC locals Interpol, TV on the Radio and Sleigh Bells. There'll also be a set from former Swedish House Mafia members Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso.

Both the Windish Agency (the 1975, Washed Out, the Naked and Famous) and Paradigm (Interpol, La Roux, Monáe) have numerous acts scheduled at this year’s festival.

Founders Entertainment’s Wolowitz spoke with Billboard nine days ahead of this year’s sold-out fest about his booking strategy, why past New York festivals have failed, improvements made at Randall’s Island following last year’s storm, and a top-secret festival his company is planning for 2015.

Billboard: You’re a little more than a week away from this year’s Governors Ball. What stage of preparations are you in right now?
Jordan Wolowitz: It’s definitely crunch time. Our production team went to Randall’s Island last Saturday (May 24) and starting laying down the steel for our stages and getting the trailers out there. As the talent buyer, booker and overseer of all things artist related, it’s a lot of last minute advancing for the production and headliners, and locking down guest lists. We’ve been sold out for some time now, so a lot of people are trying to get in last minute.

Governors Ball had some big headliners in 2013 with Kanye West, Guns N’ Roses and Kings of Leon. What was your booking strategy for this year’s festival?
It’s similar to how I approached 2013. I have these artists in mind right away when I get going. I take things into consideration, like when the last time they played New York, how many tickets the show sold, and whether they’re scheduled to release a record in time for the festival. There’s certainly some science to it, but a lot of it is our love of music and booking things we like. One of the best things about music festivals is that in the age of Spotify, Rdio and a la carte music listening, people have more diverse palates in music than ever before. They really want to go to these festivals and explore and digest new music.

In a Billboard music festivals roundtable earlier this year, you said Governors Ball had “cracked the code for putting on a successful contemporary music festival in the New York City market.” Elaborate on what you meant by that.
In our first two years, we weren’t one of those festivals that tried to book Paul McCartney, Jay Z and the Black Keys. We wanted to grow it more methodically. We’re also from New York, so we understand the market. People who had tried doing New York festivals in the past tried to do them in New Jersey or Long Island and call it a “New York City” festival. If you live in New York, you know that doesn’t work for New Yorkers. They’re suckers for convenience and the location had to be in New York City and easy to get to, which is why we wanted to be on Randall’s Island.

Why do you think other promoters haven’t succeeded in sustaining a long-term music festival in New York?
I’ll use All Points West as an example. It was branded as a New York City festival, but it was in Liberty State Park in New Jersey. It wasn’t geographically far away, but mentally for a New Yorker it was still New Jersey -- it might as well be in Toronto at that point. It wasn’t convenient to get to and that site had its own operational hurdles. It was also in 2008 when the economy bottomed out and festivals weren’t part of the vernacular of the live music fan. By the time we came around, I feel people were more accustomed to going to festivals in this country.

Is Governors Ball profitable at this point?
Yeah. A lot of festivals lose money their first couple of years because they start with headliners that cost seven figures, they have massive production and they overspend on marketing. When we started the first Governors Ball three years ago, it was a few guys in their mid- to late-20s who couldn’t afford headliners that cost more than $150,000. We only needed to sell 12,000 tickets that first year to break even and we sold 18,000. It paid off and allowed us to continue on our own path without being influenced by outside forces.

Last year’s Governors Ball experienced a bad rainstorm that muddied the field and caused some postponements. What did you learn from that experience?
There’s only so much you can do when a tropical storm passes through town and there are 50,000 a people per day trampling on a grass field. You just have to expect the best and prepare for the worst, and have all your operational plans locked in and ready to go. Mother Nature is the one and only thing, for the most part, that a festival promoter can’t control. But we’re certainly expecting better weather this time around.

The good that came from it was that it forced us to make some drastic improvements to Randall’s Island that nobody had done before. We resodded the whole island, so there’s all new grass. The foundation of the park was already in bad shape when we got out there for the festival, because of Hurricane Sandy eight months prior. We also invested some new drainage systems, so is another huge rainstorm passes through it will drain much better than it did before.

How much did those renovations at Randall's Island cost you?
It was a few hundred thousand dollars. We’d heard some worse stories from other big festivals, so it was less than we thought. But we were prepared in advance and had our insurance in place, so everything was fine. We’d like to be here for decades to come, so making the investment in this was a no-brainer.

What’s the advantage of a bigger artist playing Governors Ball versus a headlining concert at Madison Square Garden of Barclays Center?
It’s different with each act. If you look at Kanye West last year, he started the rollout of his “Yeezus” album with Governors Ball. He kicked it off with a sold-out headlining slot in front of 45,000 or 50,000 people, and then launched the “Yeezus” arena tour in the fall. With Outkast this year, frankly, I think it’s a safer play for them. In terms of what they get paid, headlining a night or two at Barclays Center or the Garden is pretty similar to Governors Gall. But instead of playing to 14,000 people, like they would in an arena, they get to play in front of 50,000 people.

New York is an important market for touring acts. What does the exclusivity clause for Governors Ball entail?
It really depends on how much the band is playing. If you’re a brand new developing act playing the festival, oftentimes I’ll waive the radius. But if you’re an artist getting paid a fee commensurate to a major-level headliner, we’ll demand a certain level of exclusivity.

Are you in the process of booking the 2015 Governors Ball?
Yeah, artists are routing 18 to 24 months in advance now. We’re already booking some of the bigger acts and in negotiations with some others. The 2015 festival isn’t for another year, but we’re only seven months away from announcing its lineup.

Is Founders Entertainment working on any other music festivals?
We will be announcing another festival for 2015 besides Governors Ball. I can’t divulge too much about at this time, but we can soon.

Outside of Governors Ball, what’s your personal favorite music festival to attend?
The one I most admire is Bonnaroo. I went there every single year, from 2002 when I was a senior in high school until the first Governors Ball in 2011. There’s nothing like it in this country. When you get on that farm you feel like you’re in a totally different world.