Industry Insider: The Brains Behind Gov Ball

posted by Marjana Jaidi on January 16, 2014

New York City -- Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably seen Gov Ball's massive lineup for 2014. And if you've had the pleasure of attending the festival, you already know how much they've grown over the last three years. From the lineup to the layout, Governors Ball firmly established itself as a top-tier festival with their 2013 outing, with no signs of slowing down in 2014.

Last month, I stopped by the Founders Entertainment office to check in with the festival's founders - Jordan Wolowitz, who handles talent and programming; Tom Russell, who oversees operations and production; and Yoni Reisman, who heads up marketing and sponsorship - to find out how they were able to grow so quickly and what's in store for the future.

How did you guys come together? Tell us a little about what made you guys want to start a festival in the first place.
Jordan Wolowitz: We all grew up in the business, sort of together. Tom and I went to high school together, Yoni and Tom worked at Bonnaroo together. So we all knew each other, kind of growing up. I came from the industry side of things, Tom was on the production and ops side of things, Yoni was on the media and marketing and branding side of things, and we always wanted to work for ourselves and always wanted to do a festival. And you're only young and dumb once, so we went for it.

What are Gov Ball's distinguishing features? What sets it apart from other festivals?
Tom Russell: The biggest thing is that we're in New York City, the biggest city in the country and a city that really has never had a city-centric music festival. Chicago has Lollapalooza, Austin, Texas has ACL, San Francisco has Outside Lands... New York has never really had a contemporary event that features music of all kinds and has something for everybody. So I'd say it being in the heart of New York City is its most distinguishing feature.

Are you worried about competition coming in and doing another festival in New York? Like, when Catalpa came about, was that a concern for you?
Jordan: Yeah, when it came about it was a concern because we were still a smaller festival. We're a big, I guess you can call it, major festival now but when we started it was a one-day festival with 12 acts, none of whom had played a venue bigger than Terminal 5 when they would come through town. And when Catalpa came, they were paying top dollar for bands like Black Keys, acts like that. And so, their intention was to kind of one-up us, if you will. But luckily they failed because they weren't good at what they did. We sort of pushed all the chips in to the middle. You know, 'went all in,' as they say, in 2013 because we wanted to make sure no one else would come in and try to do this.

So is that what made you decide to step up your game?
Jordan: It was a big reason for us accelerating, I think, our growth. We always wanted Gov Ball to be this size, and intended it to be this size, but maybe where we were by 2013 we originally thought we maybe would not be there until like 2014 or 15. So I say it just moved it up a year or so.
Yoni Resiman: It was kind of a slow build proving the concept but, yeah, the three-day, multiple stages was always sort of the end goal.

It was, even from year one?
Yoni: Yup! We just wanted to start slow.

How much can Gov Ball grow in its current location? Is there room, capacity-wise, to expand at this point?
Tom: There are other parts of Randall's Island Park that can be utilized. [In 2013], we took over a driving range and made that a part of our event and used it as the field with two stages. That had never been done before, so it was a longer process making everybody comfortable with that. We'll be going back there again and we're trying to expand our footprint even more just to create more space and spread the crowd out a little bit more so it's more comfortable. And also just have more real estate to do cool shit with. It's a limited amount of space out there on the island and we want to use as much of it as possible so it's as cool and safe as possible. It's a step-by-step process and we'll do as many people as our safety team, and the Island, and the city let us do.

What steps did you have to take after you had that crazy rain last year in order to make sure you could come back for 2014?
Tom: First order of business was returning the park to the condition that it was in prior to us taking it over. After last year's festival and the rain storm, it was a full-on mud pit. You know, we had over 15 acres of just serious, serious mud. So we had to repair that and turn it back into fresh and beautiful grass. So the first order of business was meeting with the city and talking about how exactly we were going to do that. We spoke to three different vendors about repairing the grounds, how they were going to do it, what materials they were going to use, and we picked one that both the island and us were comfortable with. It ended up being a sod vendor that worked for the Yankees among many other companies and we worked with the city and this vendor to do the entire installation and repair the property. We were also able to make a couple of capital improvements to the field so that it could handle, you know, some heavy rain in the future. So it was a longer process and we worked very closely to the city, and the Parks Department, all agencies, and this vendor to make it pretty again.

How long did that take?
Tom: The park was ready to go with full, fresh, beautiful grass by July 15. So it took about a month and that was longer than it should have primarily because June had a lot of rain and you couldn't repair those grounds if it was wet. So you had to wait for the weather to be consistent enough - consistently hot and sunny enough - for it all to dry, and then the work could begin. It took a little longer than we wanted but, you know, we did it right and we shared no expense on repairing things and luckily we are able to come back and make it our home.

What about on the fan side? What did you have to do in order to keep them happy and make sure you got them back for the next year?
Jordan: We got a lot less complaints than you would imagine. There were some people who, if they came specifically to see Pretty Lights or Kings of Leon and they could only go Friday, they were obviously going to be upset. Even though we brought Kings of Leon back Saturday, maybe they couldn't come that day. But for the most part I feel like we really went above and beyond to satisfy the fans as much as we could. Overall their feedback, I think, was pretty positive because while there was mud and the grounds weren't in pristine condition, it was the third wettest June day in New York City's history and they know that that wasn't our fault [laughs], you know? So, I think our obligations were to do what Tom was just saying: to restore the park to pristine condition and we sent out an email blast and notified our fan base about it so they'd know that Randall's Island looks normal again. And then our obligation going into [our] next year is to make the festival bigger and better, which is what we're doing. Booking the best lineup possible, new and improved art instillations, better food and drink setups.
Yoni: At the end of the day there is only so much you can do. When the ground is all mud, the ground is all mud. If there weren't restrictions with the island we would've dropped sand or hay or done stuff like that but we couldn't. We did everything we could do and luckily our fans had positive attitudes about it. You either just enjoy it or it blows, one or the other. Enjoy the mud, it's the only option really.
Jordan: Tropical storms make things difficult.

Was it a tropical storm?
Jordan: Tropical Storm Andrea.
Yoni: It had a name. That's when you know it's serious.

That is serious. So other than those improvements you just mentioned, how do you plan to grow and evolve over the next five years? Where do you see yourselves in five years?
Jordan: In terms of Governors Ball?

Is there more?
Jordan: Yeah, well in terms of our company [Founders Entertainment] there's more. We're launching another festival next year that'll be announced in early 2014. But as the question relates to Gov Ball, it goes back to what Tom was saying. We are going to incrementally increase the footprint as much as we can on the island, which will allow us to potentially put in new stages, put in new performance tents, maybe have curated food villages - just patiently and appropriately expand our footprint, which will allow us to add new things.
Yoni: We're looking to do some cooler art stuff than what we've done in the past. Ideally, this is a new idea we talked about yesterday, bring on a celebrity chef to provide some type of high-end food experience. This is New York, so a lot of the chefs live here and work here. That would be cool, we'd love to do that. Work with our sponsors to provide other types of cool experiences that add value to the patrons' experience of the festival.

Are you allowed to tell me where the second festival is going to be?
Jordan: It is going to be in New York.

Oh, in New York! Same venue?
Jordan: Maybe.

Okay. Well here is a question I planned before you said that: If you could start a second festival in another location, where would you want to do it?
Jordan: Like, in a vacuum? Or knowing what the festival landscape looks like?

Taking into account the festival world.
Jordan: I don't know.
Yoni: We're looking at some viable options.
Jordan: We can tell you off camera. [laughs] We don't want to give anybody ideas.

I know you guys go to a lot of festivals and you see different elements and what people are doing. What elements have you seen at other festivals that you've liked and want to, or have, applied to Gov Ball?
Tom: We went to Osheaga this summer, the beginning of August, which is a festival in Montreal. Jordan and I went, it was their tenth year, and they use a really beautiful park there and they, in my opinion, perfected the layout of that event. The crowd flow was really seamless and easy and even though it was a totally sold-out event, it felt comfortable. They put a lot of emphasis on food, they put a lot of emphasis on security, on bathrooms, on flooring - really on everything. They just did a really really good job and we looked at that event and came back and said, "let's up our food game a little bit. Let's up our security game a little bit. Let's up our bathrooms." There are always ways of doing things better and that's the real value of going to other festivals, especially ones that have been around for a little while. They know what works and what doesn't, they know what their fans want, and music festival fans, across the board, they want similar things. So we tried to learn as much as possible from them.
Jordan:And I think that a lot - no, not a lot - a few good festivals really take on the identity of their location. When you're at Outside Lands in San Francisco it just feels like it. Obviously because you're in Golden Gate [Park] but they have this food and wine element that is so in line with the vibe of that town. Same when you're down at Coachella; you just feel like you're in this little mountain oasis. With Gov Ball, we want to make it seem you're in Gotham City, in the Big Apple. It's just about incorporating as many New York elements as possible.

What do you think is the biggest trend in the industry right now?
Jordan: It's played out and I think it's more last year, but I feel like there's that EDM rush. But I feel like that trend is almost done with, to a certain extent. Right now, I don't know.
Tom: Right now I see more festivals putting emphasis on food. I think every major music festival now has a food section on their website talking about working with local restaurants, local chefs, to offer good foodstuffs.
Jordan: Really elaborate and grandeur VIP packages. It used to be there was a GA ticket or a VIP ticket. Now there's different levels of VIP that gets you certain access; certain access to certain bars or certain kinds of food like Tom was saying. It isn't as black and white as GA or VIP, now there's Super VIP or All-Access VIP, and it's really upping the VIP program.
Yoni: Also visual design, I'd say, as well. With the Coachella Snail, everyone's trying to do something that nobody has ever done before. Something remarkable, if you will.

On the other side of the coin, with the rapid growth of the industry, what factors do you think would cause a decline?
Jordan: Over-saturation I think is the easy thing. I think if too many people try to do the same thing in the same market, it dilutes impact. You know? If Chicago had three Lollapaloozas each year, I think it wouldn't make Lollapalooza that exciting. Just good ole' over-saturation is the biggest risk the industry runs. But, I think if you're a big enough festival and a good enough festival, that risk is mitigated a little bit if the artists want to play your festival because even if someone else is trying to do something else in, let's say, San Francisco... If some Joe Shmo wants to throw some big contemporary festival, the artist will say, "but we want to play Outside Lands each year." Then hopefully in New York if someone wants to come do a festival, a big artist will say, "Great that you're coming on board, but we're playing Governors Ball."
Tom: I'd say the economy, too. I mean, back in 2008, you saw a lot of festivals that are doing great nowadays and did great before that, they had a little bit of a down year. So outside forces like that, another collapse on Wall Street. You never know, but [if] people have less disposable income, the first place it is going to take a hit is these sorts of events and experiences.

Let's switch gears and talk about some of your personal preferences. What was the first festival that you ever attended?
Tom: Gathering of the vibes.
Yoni: Bonnaroo, 2002.
Jordan: Vibes with this guy. [Points to Tom]

You guys went together?
Jordan + Tom: Yeah.

Oh that's nice.
Yoni: No, actually that's not true. Music Midtown in Atlanta, those were the days.

Does that still exist?
Yoni: Yeah!
Jordan: It just came back.
Yoni: It went away for a couple years but, yeah, it came back, I think, two years ago. That was the Atlanta staple.

What festivals have not gone to yet but would like to attend?
Jordan: Fuji Rock is number one on my list. I'm going to try to make that happen this summer.
Yoni: That sounds great. I've never been to Coachella, actually. I've been to the site before for another festival but it'd be nice to check that out.
Tom: I'd say Glastonbury and Fuji Rock.

Good deal. Dream headliners? Are you allowed to say?
Jordan: The Talking Heads I think would be a good one.
Yoni: Yeah, I would agree with that one.
Tom: The Strokes and Phish.

Do you guys think you could have Phish at Gov Ball, given that you have a contemporary audience that's not as jammy?
Jordan: Yeah.
Yoni: Absolutely. Especially given that it's in New York.
Tom: Nothing's off limits.
Jordan: And I think Phish fans... Phish actually opens up their audience to trying different kinds of music because when Phish covered the Talking Heads in 1996 I feel like a lot of Phis kids started listening to The Talking Heads and then they covered The Velvet Underground one halloween and kids started listening to Velvet. Whenever Phish covers a band, they get them to listen to that band. At least my friends who are Phish Heads do. So, totally.

Cool. And what's your favorite festival other than yours, obviously?
Tom: Bonnaroo.
Jordan: I'd say Bonnaroo.
Yoni: I'd probably say Bonnaroo, too. I worked there for a long time.
Jordan: I don't know if you should add this part though because it may give their old bosses an ego stroke.
Tom + Yoni: It's okay.
Tom: Well deserved.

Transcribed by Laura Baker-Finch
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See Also:

Outkast, Jack White, Vampire Weekend to Headline Governors Ball 2014
How Gov Ball Survived the Storm
Gov Ball Day 1 Photo Highlights