It may be January, but New York City should already dream of June. Governors Ball returns to Randall’s Island Park from June 2nd — 4th with a festival lineup that’s eager to please the city. As the festival looks ahead to its seventh year, Governors Ball organizers can breath calmly. They figured out how to make a music festival survive in New York City’s rapidly changing environment — and how to let it grow. The proof? This year’s lineup.
Governors Ball had plenty to be proud of when unveiling the 2017 lineup. Tool, Chance the Rapper, Phoenix, and Childish Gambino are set to headline. The names keep coming after that: Lorde, Wu-Tang Clan, Flume, Mark Ronson vs. Kevin Parker, Cage the Elephant, Air, The Avalanches, ScHoolboy Q, Beach House, Local Natives, Franz Ferdinand, Mac DeMarco, Danny Brown, Charli XCX, and so on. It’s a long list of acts and surprises that should entertain crowds with satisfying results.
(See: Governors Ball 2017 Lineup One Day Later)
The team behind Governors Ball choose each band and artist with careful consideration, but those decisions are often steered with more passion than usual organizers express. Governors Ball founders Tom Russell and Jordan Wolowitz met at age 15 at a Connecticut boarding school and immediately bonded over their love of similar bands. Fast-forward a few years to a bold move: ditching jobs at Superfly and agency ICM to create a brand-new music festival (along with third partner Yoni Reisman, who has since left) back in 2011. They dumped what money they had earned into creating an independently produced festival. Now, joined by the rest of Founders Entertainment like members General Manager and Festival Director Jennifer Stiles and Partnerships Director Alex Joffe, Russell and Wolowitz draw over 150,000 people to Randall’s Island annually for one of the summer’s best large-scale music festivals.
We talked with Wolowitz, who handles all of the booking himself, about what to expect this year. After all, from the Mark Ronson vs. Kevin Parker face-off to booking Tool’s first show in New York in over a decade, there’s plenty to break down.
Why did you choose these headliners?
Tool is an act we’ve wanted to book ever since we started the festival. We always strive to book artists that haven’t performed in the market in a long time. This will be Tool’s first show in New York City in over a decade. That’s — not only for their hardcore fanbase, which is pretty massive, but for people attending the festival who have never seen Tool live before — a really big deal to finally see because they’re far and away one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Chance the Rapper is someone that’s grown so much as an artist, in terms of his popularity over the last few years. He played at Gov Ball in 2014 in a tent at 3:45 p.m. in the afternoon, and now he’s headlining. Clearly, he’s an incredible artist and an incredible person. He was a must-have for us.
Phoenix haven’t performed since 2014, so it will have been a few years since they toured. They’re working on new music, which will be great to hear — and you will hear more about that soon. And Childish Gambino released one of the best albums of last year, even though it came out at the very end of the year. He’s not doing a lot of dates, so this will be a really exclusive look at that.
Then there’s the rest of the lineup with Lorde who’s been away for a while and will have new music, Mark Ronson and Kevin Parker who will be playing [together] for the first time in the USA at Gov Ball, and The Avalanches will be playing for the first time in 15 years in New York City, I think. A lot of it was about finding artists that have been away for several years that have new music coming out.
How do you balance booking radio favorites with acts that blew up in Europe but not quite as much in the US?
Being in New York City helps since it’s a diverse area, including ex-pats from foreign cities. Because of artists like Phoenix and Air, you’ll probably see a handful of French people attending the festival. We try to approach booking Gov Ball from a music fan’s perspective. We want to book a lineup that has people read the list and go, “Wow, I wouldn’t want to miss that,” which includes booking acts of the moment like Car Seat Headrest and RÜFÜS DU SOL and those who have been away for a minute like The Avalanches and Tool.
Photo by Philip Cosores
What artist was the most exciting one to snag?
Personally, it was Tool because it’s an act we’ve tried to book for years. As fans of theirs and as New Yorkers, the last time they played here I was a senior in college. They toured, but they don’t tour a lot. They haven’t even come to the tri-state area in five years.
It caught me off guard to see Zane Lowe on there. Why did you decide to book him?
Some people who work with him reached out and said he was interested in playing a few festivals, including Gov Ball. I look up to him in terms of his taste and what he does as a curator, so the fact that he was interested in coming to our festival was flattering in a way. I was all about it the moment I heard it.
Is there anything he will premiere or debut there?
I don’t know. I can’t speak on his behalf or give anything away.
The other big surprise on there was not that you booked Mark Ronson or Kevin Parker, but that they’re billed together in a “versus” format.
It’s a project that they have done very sporadically. I heard they did it at Glastonbury and again at Corona Capital in Mexico City. It’s really cool what they do, so I thought it would be awesome to bring it to New York City.
Why have them perform as a “versus” setup instead of just playing together?
I think that’s for them to explain.
What can a festival promoter do to ensure a collaboration or guest spot will take place, especially as a surprise?
Most of the time it happens as spontaneously on our end as it does for fans. The artist will let us know the day of the show or the week of. An example is Gov Ball in 2016 when The Knocks brought out Wyclef Jean, Carly Rae Jepsen, and a few other people. That all came together the week of the festival. It happens organically since New York City already has so many musicians here, though sometimes we offer suggestions to the bands.
Each year, you uphold a level of transparency with festivalgoers by doing AMAs on Reddit and asking for lineup suggestions over social media. How often do you listen to fans’ requests?
Oh yeah! We always send out a fan survey right after the festival ends, which allows them to give their honest feedback on everything: the lineup, bathrooms, bars, food options, and so on. We also ask them to list bands they hope to see next year. Someone in the office compiles the answers, and I read through everything. Obviously, you have to take certain things into consideration given they lend their feedback a whole year later, but we try to post again in the fall asking people who they hope to see at the next Gov Ball.
We expected to see Spoon, The xx, and Bon Iver on the lineup. Who did you try to book for the 2017 lineup that unfortunately couldn’t play?
Those are all examples of pragmatic reasons why a band couldn’t play. One of them has a record coming out early in the year, and they wanted to play their own hard ticket date in New York. Another has a record coming out later in the year, so playing a big festival too early could flip the outcomes of it. Another is playing Europe in early June. That doesn’t mean they won’t play another festival of ours, per se.
You guys handled the crazy storm in 2013 very well, but unfortunately it seems like the world’s weather is only getting more unpredictable. Is climate change something you have to take into consideration more seriously than five or six years ago?
That’s a good question. I guess the only way to answer is that any festival promoter needs to be prepared for bad weather. Case and point, that one year’s rainstorms. Climate change or not, you won’t know what’s going to happen, so we have to prepare for that by running the safest event we can.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Has the political climate changed the way you’re organizing or staffing the festival? New York City is already very diverse and represents just about every type of human there is, but as people who are organizing a larger event, is your team thinking about how to better organize a space for people of all backgrounds to feel safe and welcome?
We live in the East Village of Manhattan — one of the most diverse areas in the continent. I think that’s reflected when you come to the festival. You see a very eclectic group of people and an eclectic group of artists. It should be a celebration of life, even though that sounds corny. We want everyone to go to a festival to have fun and leave all that other crap at the door.
Lastly, the 2017 festival has barely taken shape, but I’m sure you’re already thinking about 2018. When does planning for the next year usually begin?
For some artists, as far as two years out in advance. To a certain extent, as the booker of the festival, I already have to start thinking about 2018 because the lineup is done for 2017. Wheels are already in motion.