Behind the Scenes at the Governors Ball Music Festival

Founders Entertainment co-founder Tom Russell talks about the history of the New York City festival and its 2018 line-up.
 

Photograph by Forest Woodward

New York City native Tom Russell discovered his love for live music in grade school, but it was working as the director of Superfly Productions’ events group where he learned how large-scale, multi-stage music festivals like Bonnaroo are run. In January 2011, Russell co-founded Founders Entertainment with the goal of bringing a contemporary music and arts festival to New York City

That event, the Governors Ball Music Festival, is now in its eighth year. Running from June 1 to 3 at Randall’s Island Park, it’s a must-attend event on the North American festival circuit for any live music fan.

Illustration by Colagene Creative Clinic/Annick Poirier

Q: Why bring a music festival to New York City?

I saw how culturally significant and successful festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella were becoming, and, being a lifelong New Yorker, bringing a music festival to my hometown was really important to me.

Q: What’s  behind the name of the festival?

We [originally] launched the festival on Governors Island in 2011. The following year, we explored growing the event [there], but had to find a new venue that would allow us to scale up—we found that in Randall’s Island Park.

Q: What’s great about the current location?

Randall’s Island Park has a long history of music events, dating back to the 1940s and ’50s. The park’s size and layout is conducive to an easy music festival experience, it allows for four stages and music can play on two stages at the same time with minimal sound bleed. Yet, it’s not too tiring to walk from one stage to the other.

Q: What’s involved in curating a great lineup?

We make sure we have a great mix of genres at the festival, from rock to hip hop to electronic. We also want to make sure we have acts that put on an amazing live show. The shows that artists like Drake and Florence and the Machine have had here were some of the most epic performances in New York City in the past decade.

Q: This year, Eminem and Jack White are among the headliners. How difficult is it to secure big names?

It’s gotten easier over the years as Governors Ball has become a global brand—by 2013, we had stadium-level headliners like Kanye West, Kings of Leon and Guns N’ Roses. It’s difficult to secure these artists because we have to work around a number of different factors, like timing. But, as long as the festival dates work with the artist’s touring plans, this festival is an event that artists want to play—they’ll be [performing] in front of 50,000 people.

Tom Russell’s must-visit live music venues in New York City

1. Brooklyn Steel

A welcome addition to New York’s live music scene. There are great sightlines throughout the whole venue and the sound quality is really good.

2. Elsewhere

This venue in Brooklyn has multiple rooms and often each has a different band playing. There’s also an art element; the venue has crazy light installations.

3. Irving Plaza

Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters have done secret, unannounced shows here. This is a venue where musicians perform for smaller crowds.

 

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