Governors Ball Preview: Organizers Talk 2015 Lineup, Selfie Sticks, Future Plans & More

Governors Ball 2014 Day 2
Forest Woodward/Billboard

Fans attend day 2 of the 2014 Governors Ball Music Festival at Randall's Island on June 7, 2014 in New York City.

In five short years, Governors Ball has not only overcome the odds of launching a successful music festival in New York City, but it's also emerged as one of the highest-profile festivals in the United States.
But for Gov Ball booker Jordan Wolowitz and his team at Founders Entertainment -- which produces the annual three-day event on Randall's Island Park -- seeing the elated faces of tri-state festival-goers who’ve longed for a music fest to call their own has proven rewarding enough.

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“We always wanted this to be the first major festival for New York,” Founders partner/co-founder Wolowitz tells Billboard. “The fact that it’s now so engrained in New York City culture means a lot to us.”
Gov Ball 2015, to be held June 5-7, will feature headliners Drake, the Black Keys and deadmau5. Other major acts on the 70-plus act bill include Lana Del Rey, Florence + The Machine, Björk, My Morning Jacket, Chromeo, Ryan Adams and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds.
Wolowitz says the 2015 edition will be Gov Ball’s biggest year yet in terms of attendance and stature. “If you’ve attended the festival in the past, everything will be better,” he says, noting that event will attract about 150,000 people over three days. “Our stages will be bigger and better, along with the quality of production, food and drink elements, sponsorship activations and art installations. It’s a reflection on the success of the festival.”

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Billboard spoke with Wolowitz and Founders director of brand and media partnerships Alex Joffe about their annoyance with selfie sticks at live shows, why they announced the Gov Ball lineup one day after Coachella, this year’s lack of hip-hop acts on the bill, whether they have plans to expand to two weekends, and much more.
Governors Ball has become one of the highest-profile major contemporary festivals in America in just five years. Did you envision that you’d progress this quickly?

Jordan Wolowitz: It was always the goal. It’s exciting that after five years we’ve achieved what we have. We collectively take as much pride that we can walk around New York now and the average New Yorker knows about Gov Ball, as much as the music industry knows about it. We always wanted this to be the first major festival for New York. The fact that it’s now so engrained in New York City culture means a lot to us.
There was a flood of festival lineup announcements at the beginning of 2015. Gov Ball announced one day after Coachella in early January. Was that a coincidence or was there a strategy behind it?

Wolowitz: Here’s the thing. A lot of festival promoters in the states are ready to announce their lineups very early. But Coachella has a clause in their contract that says they have to be the first contemporary festival to announce in the United States. They hold artists to that and a lot of festivals besides Coachella have acts that are playing Coachella. Sometimes you’ve got to get in line for certain reasons. That is the reason.
So you knew that Coachella was going to announce the day before you did?

Wolowitz: We knew that they had up until a certain particular day to announce their lineup before anyone else. Once they did, then everyone else was free to go up. Our lineup was ready to go. We just had to wait until they announced, along with every other festival you saw announce in January.

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What was your approach to booking talent this year? Has it changed from past years?

Wolowitz: My approach is the same. I try to put together a bill that’s unique and fresh. There are obviously some acts coming back after not having played New York in many years. And in some case there are acts working on new albums. It’s really about putting together what I think in my mind is a unique package of really great artists.
Some people have observed out that Gov Ball 2015 is light on hip-hop acts. How do you respond to that?

Wolowitz: It wasn’t intentional. People pointed to that and I pointed to last year when we had OutKast; Tyler, the Creator; Earl Sweatshirt; J. Cole; Ratking; the Internet -- the list goes on. That’s because last year was a great year for hip-hop. In putting together the bill this year, I thought it was more exciting with what we have than booking stuff in the hip-hop world that might not have been the right year for Gov Ball. It’s just coincidental that there’s a lack of it.
The Governors Ball After Dark series of post-festival shows around NYC has expanded this year. What was the thought behind that?

Wolowitz: The first time we did the late-night shows was 2013. It really was only about three shows at the Brooklyn Bowl. Last year we expanded it to about 15 shows. This year, just the week of the festival, we’re doing about 25 shows around town. That’s not including some gigs we’re doing at hotels and some clubs. We want to increase Gov Ball’s presence throughout the city and not just have it be a noon to 11 p.m. experience on Randall’s Island. We’re putting artists like deadmau5 into really small intimate clubs. Basically all these shows are under plays; they’re artists who are capable of playing much bigger venues around town. We’ve also done shows throughout the year.
Branding has also grown significantly with new sponsors this year like Samsung Galaxy and Bacardi. Talk about that growth.

Alex Joffe: We’re trying to do our best to manage all the interests coming in and choosing exclusively what we feel are the best opportunities for the fans. Our goal is to deliver a top-notch fan experience. And the benefits that each brand partner are set to feature on site it has to really click on a level that’s going to mean it will leave a lasting impression on the fan and they’ll have a sense of enthusiasm and growing loyalty toward the brand. The brands we’re talking about are going to be here for years to come. They see how strong the engagement is by way of on-site activation, social awareness and content capture.

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Coachella and Lollapalooza have banned selfie sticks. What’s Gov Ball’s stance on that issue?

Wolowitz: No disrespect to the selfie stick, but it’s just annoying and obtrusive to the fan experience. I’ve been at club shows in New York and people in the front row are holding up a selfie stick and it’s blocking the view of everyone behind them. I’m all about people documenting their experiences but do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with everyone else’s good time. Not to speak for the other promoters, but certainly our intention in banning them is because they get in the way of other people’s experience.
Have you considered expanding Gov Ball to back-to-back weekends like Coachella or Austin City Limits?

Wolowitz: We’re not really thinking of a second weekend just yet. I think the only two festivals that have seen success with it are Austin City Limits and Coachella -- and they’ve both been around for about a decade longer than we have. Ultra Music Festival tried it in Miami and it didn’t work out well, and they reverted back to the one weekend approach. We take it one year at a time. If demand ever calls for it it’s something we’d consider, but for now we’re just focused on the one weekend and making it the best it can be.

Live Nation recently acquired a controlling interest in Bonnaroo, and also has a stake in other fest producers like C3 and Insomniac. How do to these acquisitions impact indie music fests like Gov Ball?

Wolowitz: We’ll see how it impacts it, because it’s all so new. In the last nine months -- I’m ball-parking here -- you had Firefly, Hangout, ACL, Lolla and Bonnaroo all fold into either Live Nation or AEG. Those deals and relationships are all in their nascent stages, so it’s too early to say what it means for the long-term of those individual festivals. Those festivals are successful because of the people who run them. I assume they’ll take the approach of “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. The live business is cyclical. Twenty years ago you saw all the independent territory promoters get rolled up by the original SFX and now you’re seeing a bunch of festivals get rolled up by the new powers that be.

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Founders Entertainment partnered with Live Nation on the upcoming FarmBorough country music festival on Randall's Island. Have there been any talks about partnering with Live Nation on Gov Ball?

Wolowitz: No, we’ve left Gov Ball alone. The FarmBorough relationship happened organically, because we knew we wanted to do a country festival on top of Gov Ball. I spent some time in Nashville with most of the key people. Not only did I find (Live Nation Country president) Brian O’Connell and his team to be the best possible partner, but he and I hit it off as friends.
Has Founders and Live Nation had discussions about starting up any other types of music festivals?

Wolowitz: Founders is always working on stuff and thinking about other ideas internally. If and when the time comes to discuss, if we ever need a co-promote partner on anything, we might have the discussion. But for now the ideas for growth are pretty much internal.

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