In its sophomore year, the Governor’s Ball grows up and gets serious

Fiona Apple plays the expanded Governor's Ball 2012 (Flickr via nickmickolas)
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“Our goal and intention is to be the marquee New York City music festival,” said Jordan Wolowitz of Founders Entertainment, when I asked him about the impetus behind the Governor’s Ball, this weekend's huge music festival. “Our goal is to make this festival bigger and better each and every year.”

This is the Governor’s Ball’s second outing. The 2011 edition, a one-day fest which took place on Governor’s Island, leaned heavily toward acts that were dance-music-fan- as well as indie-rock-fan-friendly (Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, Empire of the Sun, Big Boi, Neon Indian, a Passion Pit D.J. set). But this year, the Ball has moved locations (a bit weird, given its name) to Randall’s Island, and is split into two days, with the lineup for each reflecting two distinct personalities.

Topping Saturday’s bill are Passion Pit (playing live this time), Kid Cudi, and Chromeo, but the real draws are just below: Duck Sauce (Armand Van Helden and D.J. A-Trak’s enjoyably breezy house duo), Major Lazer (Diplo and Switch’s dancehall-manqué outfit), and, spinning as Special Disco Version, James Murphy and Pat Mahoney, whose FabricLive 36 (2007) is one of the greatest D.J.-mix C.D.s ever released. Atmosphere and Santigold, both festival veterans, seem cannily placed on the day's lineup as well.

But in terms of the kinds of bands that might get high billing at, say, Coachella, Sunday’s lineup is a lot closer: Beck, Modest Mouse, Fiona Apple. Indeed, several other groups on the bill—Explosions in the Sky, Built to Spill, Devendra Banhart—are mid-career indie artists, no longer “hot” but solidly established. This music festival hasn't just got muscle; it's got legs.

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“My partners and I were all born and raised in New York City,” said Wolowitz, also speaking for co-founders Tom Russell and Yoni Reisman, all 28 (known collectively as Founders Entertainment). “We noticed there wasn't a marquee major music festival for New York the way Lollapalooza is in Chicago or Outside Lands is in San Francisco. The music festivals here were either niche festivals like Electric Zoo, which focused on electronic music, or Rock the Bells, which focused on hip-hop. We feel like expanding to two days and expanding the scope of the talent programming really shows our intention."

And to explain the move from its titular island, he continued: "Randall's Island provides the proper infrastructure for us to do that.”

Wolowitz said the split hasn’t affected ticket sales—meaning the more obvious famous names appearing on Sunday haven't caused sales to outpace those for the younger-leaning Saturday bill.

“They're selling equal amounts,” he said. “The depth of the line-up this year is so great. On Saturday you have acts like James Murphy, Santigold, Atmosphere, Major Lazer, and Chromeo representing the middle gust of the line-up. These are acts that, on their own, are able to fill up multiple nights at Terminal 5 or even go on the [Central Park] SummerStage and play on their own. [On] Sunday, 60 percent of our lineup is bands that are of the same caliber. Last year, we only had three acts that were capable of going and selling out Terminal 5. I think people are realizing that both days have deep and talented line-ups.”

One of the festival’s big draws is its scheduling—the words “No overlapping sets!” are actually bigger on the Governors Ball webpage than any of the names in the line-up. What that means, specifically, is that everything is timed so there are breaks between each performance, allowing people to roam around the grounds without missing anything. Wolowitz said that the edict came before the first year’s booking.

“Sometimes when you go to a music festival and you see the lineup and say, ‘Wow, there are 15 bands that I love playing at the festival—great,’” said Wolowitz. “[But] when you get the schedule and realize there are overlapping sets, so you can only see seven of them, you're not necessarily getting the value you were anticipating.”

Wolowitz said that the Founders Entertainment crew is stepping the festival up every aspect: stages, sound, sight lines, VIP area, “bringing in some of New York City's best food trucks.” Whatever else the market has coming in the long term, right now festival business is booming—a lot more than the recording business, something thrown into sharp relief this week thanks to the kerfuffle over that NPR intern who wrote about never having purchased music and the blogged response by musician David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, which lays out the effects of people not buying records on the people who make them. That’s also led to a shift in status within the business—putting on an event is where the highest level of risk and reward are now, and as such, it’s become a more romantic line of work than working for a label.

“As we've seen in the last ten years or so, there's certainly a shift towards the live side in terms of bands really focusing on hitting the road to earn their income and to grow their fan base,” said Wolowitz, who worked as an Atlantic Records intern during college. “My partners and I always were more inspired by the live side of the business. From a business standpoint, it's certain there's more potential for it [to be] lucrative than to start a record label, with illegal downloading.”

He continued: “We all grew up in the music business, so to speak. This is all we've been doing since we were 18 years old. Out of college, I worked on the agency side. One of my partners worked for a big festival promoter, and another one worked in the management and label side. Also: the word ‘romantic’—I think that's very applicable for a lot of young people who are trying to get into the business, because you can't replace a live music experience. Technically, one could illegally download an album and it will sound kind of similar to how this C.D. would have sounded if they had bought it at a store. But you can't replace being at a show and the feeling and the experience that comes from that.”