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“No One’s Ever Been Able to Do This”: An Oral History of the First Governors Ball Music Festival

As NYC’s biggest festival turns 10, we take a look back at the inaugural 2011 event

Artwork by Steven Fiche
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    As the Governors Ball Music Festival turns 10, we’re taking a look back at the inaugural 2011 event. You can check out everything we’ve published around the anniversary here.


    One decade ago, a couple of untested twenty-something best friends set out to create a little music festival just off the island of Manhattan, putting on a one-day event on June 18th, 2011. In the 10 years and nine iterations since, Governors Ball has become an indelible part of the East Coast’s music landscape, morphing into New York’s answer to Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza; a place where the buzziest acts in music and its biggest fans converge into one memorable weekend. Here, founders, staff, and artists who played the very first Governors Ball reflect on how everything came together without nary a hiccup. This is the oral history of the first Governors Ball Music Festival.

    HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: A BALL IS BORN

    It all begins with two best friends with a dream: Tom Russell and Jordan Wolowitz.

    Tom Russell: Jordan and I knew each other from high school. We’ve been best friends since sophomore year.

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    Jordan Wolowitz: I was working for Marsha Valasic, a legend in music at ICM. Tom was at Superfly.

    Russell: I had been with Superfly in 2010 since 2005. Jordan was at ICM. At Superfly, I was overseeing operations and product management, and working on festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. I had the operational knowledge of festivals and large scale events and Jordan over at ICM had knowledge on all things talent.

    Wolowitz: In 2010, a friend of mine was starting a website [BroBible.com] and he wanted to throw a big concert to promote his brand. So I went to Tom, my best friend, to help plan it. We rented out New York’s Terminal 5. I booked a great little bill with some artists around our age, including Pretty Lights. The show ultimately sold out, and that helped us gain a good relationship with the Pretty Lights team. Eventually, they were looking for their next show in New York. That’s when Tom and I were starting to get the idea for Governors Ball.

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    Russell: We saw it was a unique time in the music industry, when all of these festivals were becoming an important part of the cultural landscape. Meanwhile, New York City, our hometown, didn’t have one. So we decided to do our very best and launch one. We spent 2010 trying to figure out how to make that happen while also doing our full-time jobs. Once we knew we were a go, we quit our jobs in December 2010.

    Eventually, the ragtag duo zeroed in on the 172-acre Governors Island. Located just 800 yards south of Lower Manhattan and only accessible by ferry, the island’s unique apostrophe-less moniker dates back to the British colonial era. The US Army were its main inhabitants in the first half of the 1900s, while the Coast Guard took up residency in the latter half, resulting in plenty of infrastructure being left in place. While a casino was mulled over in the ’90s, it became public property in 2003.

    Russell: By the summer of 2010, there were a ton of events on Governors Island. Bowery Presents had some success booking some events there, and it became another great outdoor venue. We went and saw the Rock the Bells festival and knew it’d be a great location for what would become Governors Ball. We ended up working with a production company who had worked with those concerts. We were in a bit of a time crunch, so we wanted to do whatever we could to get the greenlight on Governors Island. We went to a production team who knew Governors Island the best.

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    Wolowitz: I think Girl Talk was the next phone call I made, to [agent] Sam Hunt, and we just built out this lineup from there.

    Alan Palomo (Neon Indian, performer): I can’t recall the first time I heard about it, but if I had to take a wild guess, my manager asked me, “Hey, do you want to play a fun show in New York?” and my immediate answer would have been, “Yes!”

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