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Meet the Vendor
The State of the Festival Industry with Governors Ball Co-Founder Tom Russell
by Chris Carver
on September 7, 2016
Governor's Ball

Here's a nugget to keep in mind: Everything's a cycle. And in business (even the event business), it's a hell of a lot more enjoyable to be on the upside of the curve, than on the downside. So the question is, how can you constantly re-invent yourself so you're always on the upside. 

Good question right? I think it's one a lot of folks are asking themselves right now. Especially in the festival production world. So with how much talk there is about market saturation in the festival space and what that could potentially mean for event promoters, I thought I'd sit down with one of the guys in the middle of it all and get his take.

Photo Cred: Gov Ball 

What better person to ask about staying competitive in a crowded marketplace than a guy who produces one of New York City's biggest music festivals. Meet Tom Russell, Co-Founder of Governors Ball and Founders Entertainment.

Jordan Wolowitz_-_Tom_Russell_-_Yoni Reisman.jpg
Tom (middle) and his Governors Ball Co-Founders: Jordan  (Left), Yoni Reisman (right)

Location: Randall's Island, New York City
2016 Attendance:
 ~150,000 (not small)
Year Founded: 2011
Number of Artists: 66 Acts (Up from 12 acts the first year)
Behind the scenes: 400 volunteers, 500 Security, 120 Staff, 30+ vendors w/ staff...
My goal was to understand:

ONE: His thoughts on the state of the festival industry.
TWO: What it takes to be successful in a constantly changing event industry.
THREE: The importance of festival innovation & how he and his team are positioning Governors Ball now and in the future.
FOUR: What the ROI is on creating a real culinary experience for attendees. 

And a bunch of other cool stuff about the festival production world as well. Enjoy.

The Governors Ball ball and a good lookin' burger. Photo Cred: GovBall - Production Management at its best.

You ready for the hot seat Tom?
Definitely. Let's do this.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Greenwich Village here in New York City.

What was 15 year old Tom like?
I was a punk rock and Ska loving kid. I'd go to Coney Island High and the Wetlands on the regular to see these punk rock shows and Ska battles. I was just obsessed with music. I would take posters off of the hallways of clubs, roll them up, and then put it on my wall.

If your friends were a little tipsy now, how would they describe you?
I think they’d say he’s all about everybody having a good time. Keeps things light. 

What were you most nervous about when you started Founders?
Oh... you mean failing and being in debt and having to get a job somewhere and explaining how and why I failed.

Well I guess that answers my question.

So when was the moment where you were like, "Holy shit, we got something here. This is actually not going to fail."?
Probably the week of the first Gov Ball. We knew from the start that this festival would be in the black, but had never done a big event in New York City before. So to be honest we were scared that things could change and take a turn for the worst. But when that first week of sales turned out much stronger than we thought, and the festival site was being built, there was this buzz and everybody was so excited. That's when we knew, or at least I knew that we were really on to something. It was something that our fellow New Yorkers wanted and were rallying around our company. 

Governors_Ball_by_Chad_Batka_for_New_York_Times Production Management
That doesn't look fun at all. Aka: production managment safety tip. Photo Cred: Gov Ball and Founders Entertainment

What does it take to produce a successful festival in a major city like New York? 
First and arguably most importantly, is the talent, because New York City has so many different entertainment options every night of the week. You have to make sure that what you're offering is something that people won't say no to. With festivals being expensive, you have to make sure that the package of talent that you're offering just stands out and people would choose that over a concert or a club or a theater or a basketball game or a baseball game.

Second, you have to make sure that the venue, and the site that you build, is properly acquired and permitted. Also one where the promoter can have X amount of people and do it in a safe and fun way and really create a vibe that's unlike any other.

Instagram Heavan. Emoji, Emoji, Emoji Photo by ConsquenceofSound

Annnd... having to do that within a budget. A 
big part of New York City is that it's every band's best market, it's also the most expensive market. It's tough to work with budgets here. We've done okay so far and hopefully that will continue.

If you were giving The Festival Industry State of The Union, what would be in your address?

I would say that we're in a very interesting time. The industry is consolidating. It's becoming very competitive amongst the big guys out there. There are more and more events each year, but for a good reason: people want music festivals. People want unique experiences. People want to go to festivals. I think it's on every event promoter and producer to create their vision and make sure they do so in a unique way. It's on each of us to make our events stand out from one another, whether it's with the venue, the talent line up, the offering, the market or the vibe. These events have to differentiate from one another. That's what's going to make a festival successful what will make the industry grow even more.

Gov_Ball_Fireworks and Festival Production Management Article with Tom Russell
Not a bad backdrop whatsoever. That's one way to stand out. Photo Cred: Governors Ball and Founders Entertainment

Would your address be a positive tone about the future of the industry? 
Absolutely. Look... I think we're following Europe in that music festivals have been huge there for decades. It's expensive to go see one night of Drake or Kanye West. It can cost you a 150 - 200 bucks. For less than that you can go to one or two days at a music festival and see 24 bands, one of which may be Kanye West. It's a great way to consume music. It's a social experience that's much more fun than just sitting in your reserved seat in an arena. 

It's also a very, very exciting time because music festivals are competing. Everybody's in the hot seat to perform and make sure they have the best experience and the best line-up and offer fans what they want, in the best way possible. If you're a music consumer, there are lots of unique experiences out there that you can try out and go to. It's exciting. 

Govball_2016 Artist List - Festival Production Interview with Tom Russell

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With more and more festivals creating culinary experiences, how would you rank the reasons for investing more into that?

1. It drives repeat attendees
2. It drives new attendees
3. It increases revenue per attendee

First: I would say revenue per attendee. If you have a great culinary line-up you will make more money selling food. There's no doubt about that.

Second, would be driving repeat attendees. If you have a great culinary line-up people will want to come back.

And third, new attendees. If you have a great culinary line-up you're going to attract some people that wouldn't normally come to a festival. A lot of that is from word of mouth.

I'd put it in that order. The fact of the matter is is that food culture is the norm these days. People seek out really delicious eats, whether it's vegetarian or sushi or what have you. 

If you're in a city like New York, or if you like San Francisco, cities that are known for their food, to be able to experience amazing music and try delicious eats from all over the city, it just makes the experience that much more dynamic and really that much better.

Governors_Ball_Food and Culinary Lineup from Interview on Festival Production Management with Tom Russell Photo Cred_Llana_Dadras
Governors Ball Food Lineup Photo Cred: Lana Dadras

As you think about adding these types of experiences, is the return on investment better or worse than investing even more into the onstage talent?
It remains to be seen. I think that people would come to a music festival regardless of what food offerings there will be. People want to see Kanye West or The Weekend and Chance the rapper and Kygo and Grimes and whatnot. They just assume that there's going to be food there. Some people are picky but a lot of people aren't. 

When you get there, and folks go around and try different kinds of food, and they're just totally wow-ed and floored by what they're trying, that just brings everything that experience full circle. It's like holy shit. That Kanye show was amazing and that lobster roll that we had from Lukes was just un-fucking real. What a great day?

I clearly wrote this before dinner. Fuck that looks good. Photo Cred: Ashley Sears

People never forget their favorite concert. People never forget their favorite meal because it's just 2 different senses and arguably the 2 most important, so it all goes together in that experience.

Now that the event is, what is it, 6 years old, the Governors Ball? What are your biggest stresses with the festival?
Weather is always one. It's one of those things you can't control when you are in the outdoor event business. That is a stressor up until the very last minute of the last set of the last day.

She doesn't too stressed:
I just had to put this one but who says rain has to be a stress on the festival production team. Photo Cred: Gov Ball 

Overall safety is two. I think we do a really good job of creating a safe environment for our attendees and for our fans. We do that by messaging people aggressively and telling people to be smart and to drink water and be safe. That being said, when you're doing these events with as many people as we have, you can't help but be a little bit worried, especially when you read the articles about the terrible things that have happened at other large scale events before. There's more pressure than ever nowadays to produce a safe event. The very last thing you ever want, is to have something tragic happen and then have to live with that forever. 

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In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
I wouldn't say I'm insecure, but I'm very competitive. We started out as three business partners in our mid 20's, trying to do music festivals in an industry that was dominated by majors. We were a very grassroots culture. We bootstrapped for many, many years. I think that that style of work, and that way of looking at the industry and competition, will never change because it's just how we were raised in the industry. So I'm always watching what other people are doing. I'm always taking notes. I'm always learning. There's definitely things that I don't know. There's definitely things that people are doing that I want to know and learn more about. I'm a student of the industry and a student of the music festival space. If I can learn from what other events are doing successfully and integrate it into my own, and improve the quality of what we're putting out, then it's a win-win for everybody.

Tom (middle) and his Co-Founders: Jordan Wolowitz (Left), Yoni Reisman (right): Circa: 2011 Gov ball

How do you think about risk, especially when launching a new festival?
I remember talking to the Superfly guys a while back about why they took a chance and started Bonnaroo. The summation of what they were saying that it was a very calculated risk based upon what they were seeing around the country. They were seeing a demand for jam bands, a demand for music festivals and an opportunity because Phish had broken up. They identified a void in the market and an opportunity and they jumped on it. I'd call that a very calculated risk and a really on-point strategy. That was a great lesson for our team.

What would you say is the best piece of professional advice and from who?
If I were to give advice to any entrepreneur, it would be to make sure you are solving a problem or filling a void and that your risk was as calculated as possible. Superfly did that when they started Bonnaroo and we definitely did that with Governors Ball.

Photo Cred: Gov Ball

Parting wisdom?
I'd say 2 things, following Wayne's World 2: "if you book them they will come". If you do that, and you choose the bands wisely, you'll sell the tickets.

As far as producing a good show, like every great entrepreneur always says: you have to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you, are hardworking and are really fucking good at what they do. If you do that, your event will be successful from a production management perspective.

Oh and one last thing:

I understand you're a bit of a bad joke connoisseur. So what is your favorite bad joke that immediately comes to mind?
Wow... that's one of the most difficult questions anybody could ask me. I did make one up relatively recently:

Well let's hear it.
Why didn't Beyonce get injured in the Solange, Jay-Z elevator fight?

It's because Beyonce moved to the left, to the left.

It's confirmed, you are definitely a bad joke connoisseur my friend.

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Superfly (Bonnaroo & Outside Lands): Kat Tooley, Senior Director, Event Production (READ)
Firefly Music Festival: Megan Marshall, Assistant Director (READ)
Super Bowl & NFL Draft:
Katie Keenan, NFL's Director of Event Operations (READ)
Rock N' Roll Marathon:
Ted Metellus, Director of Course Operations (READ)
The Enthusiast Network:
 Scott Desiderio, VP of Event Ops (READ)

Sea Otter Classic: Frank Yohannan, Founder (READ)
Los Angeles Marathon: Murphy Reinschreiber, VP of Operations (READ)

Big Sur Marathon: Doug Thurston, Event Director (READ)
Summit Series: Cara Bubes, Event Director  (READ)
Color Run: John Connors, VP of Experience (READ)
TechCrunch Disrupt: Leslie Hitchcock, Event Director (READ)
Boston Marathon: Matt West, VP of Operations (READ
Academy Awards: Cheryl Cecchetto, Production Director (READ
RunningUSA: Christine Bowen, Event Director (READ
Charity Ball & Charity Water: Lauren Letta, Chief of Staff (READ)

Electric Run: Latane "Big Bird" Meade, Co-Founder  (READ)
Color Run Australia: Luke Hannan, Event Director (READ)

Brian Wingerd, SVP of Marketing
Nate Prenger, Head of Production
KAABOO: Taylor Gustafson, Head of Box Office
New York Wine and Food Festival: John Trumble, Executive Director
Las Vegas Police Department (Events Division):
Richard Nogues, Department Head
Red Frog Events:
Christian Pheil, Head of Experience
BWG Live: Leo Nitzberg, Founder
Heather Story, Head of Operations
Virgin Sport:
Victoria Brumfield, VP of Global Operations 
Roch Frey, Event Director
Ragnar Relay: Tanner Bell, Co-Founder & President
SXSW: Chris Valentine, Start-Up Village Director
SXSW Interactive: Hugh Forrest, Event Director
Beats By Dre: Jason White, VP of Marketing 

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