Tom Russell Talks Festival Culture and Founding of Governors Ball


Veronica Liow

Sign from this year’s Governors Ball

Nicole Rosenthal, Music Editor

Music lovers of all ages have been dishing out hundreds to see their favorite artists all in one place every summer at music festivals across the country. But during the early aughts, New York City had been absent from the summer music festivities, delivering either genre-specific festivals, such as Electric Zoo, or short-lived attempts at west coast-like music and arts festivals, such as All Points West. In a bustling city as diverse and cultural as the Big Apple, there wasn’t an eclectic music festival that seemed to stick.

Rounding out its eighth year, Governors Ball Music Festival has carved a space for New Yorkers to jam out to their favorite artists just by jumping on the 6 to Randall’s Island. Tom Russell, a native New Yorker and partner of Governors Ball and the Meadows Music and Arts Festival‘s parent company — Founders Entertainment, sat down with WSN to talk about why he thought back in 2011 to bring New York City the music festival it deserves.

“I used to go to a lot of punk rock and ska music festivals,” Russell said. “Then, I eventually started going to more eclectic music festivals like Bonnaroo and as I got more into the live space, I thought to myself, ‘why doesn’t New York City have a music festival of its own?’”

After graduating Tulane University with a degree in Business Management and relishing in New Orleans’ music festival scene, Russell accepted a job as the national promotions director at Superfly, a marketing company that — with Live Nation — co-created music festivals Bonnaroo and Outside Lands.

“After about six years of Superfly, I figured it was time to leave there and start my own business and see if I could build a festival in my hometown and do one in the right way with music that appeals to people of different interests, different genres and really has this ageless experience,” Russell said.

The inaugural Governors Ball commenced as a humble one-day festival, featuring predominately indie, hip-hop and electronic acts — Empire of the Sun, Mac Miller and Pretty Lights — and hosting roughly 20,000 music lovers on Governors Island. The festival catered to a need that east coast audiophiles craved in the wake of the music festival boom of the past decade. The second annual Governors Ball moved to Randall’s Island Park and expanded to a two-day event, and the festival featured double the amount of acts from Fiona Apple to Passion Pit to Beck, filling up both days.

For Russell, 2013 proved to be a pivotal year for the homegrown festival. It had reached the Founders Entertainment’s original goal in becoming a full-fledged festival, flaunting over 60 acts and four stages spawned out across the island.

Yet, it is a wonder how Founders Entertainment selects such a perfect ratio of genres to match any music lover’s palette. According to Russell, balance is key. The Founders team reaches out to artists’ representatives months — in some cases, years — in advance to ensure availability.

“We try to counter-program as much as possible, where on one stage you’ll have an indie rock act and on the other stage you’d have a hip-hop act,” Russell said. “We try to make the decision making as easy as possible for the attendees. We look a lot at streaming data and seeing what music lovers are consuming and we want to make sure we’re booking bands that are relevant, putting out new music and ultimately have an amazing live show.”

In addition, some fan favorites have slowly grown up with the festival themselves, graduating to headlining stages as Governors Ball quickly made a name for itself. Famed musical sisters HAIM first played one of the opening slots of the festival in 2013, and now they’re selling out consecutive nights at Radio City Music Hall. Openers are booked based on their potential. Russell says if the artist or band seems to have a long career in front of them and have a strong stage presence that will be well-received by fans.

“We’re all about music discovery, and we want our fans to discover music at the events and we want to feature acts that we think will have long, great careers,” Russell said. “We pick acts to perform live earlier in the day that we know will have a good live show and have music that fits our wheelhouse and are just really great at what they do.”


Email Nicole Rosenthal at [email protected].