'The Major New York City Music Festival': An interview with Governors Ball co-founder Jordan Wolowitz

(Courtesy/Gov Ball Press)

With summer approaching, that only means one thing for music fans: festival season is almost upon us. While there’s a plethora of high-energy festivals to choose from all across America, one of the biggest musical events of the summer is nearly in UConn’s backyard. That’s Governors Ball, which is taking place from June 1 through 3 this summer at Randall’s Island, New York City. Between the unique musical lineup, incredible location and easy accessibility, this is most definitely a festival that UConn students will not want to miss.

Jordan Wolowitz himself, one of the co-founders of Governors Ball, grew up in Connecticut and met his fellow co-founder, Tom Russell, at boarding school when they were only 15. Both natives of New York City and music lovers alike, the two wondered why there was no major festival in New York City. Wolowitz and Russell decided to turn this idea into a reality. In the following interview, Wolowitz describes this difficult yet rewarding process, along with insights into the 2018 lineup, the rapid progress the festival has made and the future of GovBall.

Daily Campus: I know that you met your fellow co-founder of GovBall, Tom Russell, when you were both only 15 years old. As a college student, I see a ton of young adults with ideas that they’re hoping to turn into reality. Tell me about your initial idea for GovBall, and how you were able to make this idea come to fruition.

Jordan Wolowitz: While [Tom and I] were both in college – I went to college in DC and Tom went to college in New Orleans – we started interning and volunteering and working at any place in the music business that would hire us, whether it was a record label, booking agency or concert promoter. We each did everything we could to learn as much as about the music business as possible.

The idea came about because right as we were getting out of college, the music festival scene was really starting to explode in the States and there was no big festival in New York City. Chicago had Lollapalooza, San Francisco had Outside Lands, Southern California and the LA market had Coachella and so on, but New York didn’t have one. To create one for New York City became our “life’s mission.” I think we were like 26 or 27 years old at the time, and we just took the leap of faith to start it.

DC: Was there a particular type of person you were trying to attract or genre you were focusing on when initially planning GovBall?

JW: Originally we had a relationship with [electronic musician] Pretty Lights. Tom and I produced a show for Pretty Lights at a venue called Terminal 5 in New York City. We rented the venue out, the show sold out and it was a big success. That was in 2010. Afterwards we were talking with Pretty Lights and his representative and we were like, “Let’s do something really cool and big outdoors in New York City next summer.”

That was how the initial idea for GovBall came around; to base something around Pretty Lights. Then we just started to book other acts that fit with his style of music. I wouldn’t say we were trying to attract a certain kind of person. I think we were just trying to put together a festival lineup that would interest people our age, quite frankly, in a very broad way.

DC: Let’s focus on the specific music lineup for 2018. How did you decide on the headliners [Jack White, Travis Scott, Eminem] this year?

JW: Eminem, for starters, is an artist that we’ve been trying to book [for a long time]. That was one of our dream acts. We had a handful of acts when we were just getting going that we were like, “We need to book these guys one day.” Eminem rarely tours; this is the first time he’s toured in North America since 2014. It’s actually his first show in New York City proper since 2010. We had been trying for years and once it came about that he would be touring and he had a new album this year, we tried our hardest to get him on board for Governors Ball and he agreed. We were very excited about it.

DC: How do you decide which smaller or more underground artists and bands to give a chance?

JW: There’s a number of criteria that goes into it. A lot of it is just acts that we like. A friend of mine ... turned me on to a client of hers named Billie Eilish last year. I was like, “Wow, this artist is amazing.” I went and saw one of her club shows and she was phenomenal, so I was like, “Okay, she’s got to play GovBall.” Fast forward to right now when Billie Eilish is one of the most quickly emerging acts out there. So really it’s just about being music fans ourselves. We’re always trying to keep our ears to the ground and stay aware of who’s emerging.

We’re also fans of all different kinds of genres of music ourselves, so we really try to create an eclectic bill that reflects people’s taste. Some people prefer smaller festivals that just focus on one genre or scene. But I think that Spotify is very indicative of how people listen to music now because people can listen to rap and then rock and then electronic and so on and so forth. That’s where we come in; we just try to put together a great eclectic weekend of music for music fans.

DC: I know that when you first founded GovBall back in 2011, it was the only independent music festival in New York City. Lately, there have been so many more cropping up. How has this change in the festival landscape affected GovBall?

JW: That’s a good question. There’s never been a lack of options for entertainment in New York. That was always the challenge. A lot of people had tried and failed before we came around to do a festival in New York, it’s not like we were the first people to give it a shot. So there’s always been options. It’s not like there’s a night in New York where you can’t think of anything fun to do.

But a lot of the other festivals in New York are like what I referenced earlier — a lot of them seem to be genre- or scene-specific. There’s Electric Zoo which focuses on electronic music; there’s Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival and there’s Afropunk. Those are nicher; they’re not as wide-ranging in terms of their genres of music and scenes that they bring into it.

The festivals that are all different from one another, whether they’re on different sites or have different artists playing or just different vibes overall, I think it’s a good thing. It gives consumers variety. The only time where it’s a little strange is if people try to launch an event that’s just like another event that already exists, because those new people aren’t really adding anything for the ticket-buyer.

DC: In our last few minutes, tell me about where you see GovBall going in the future.

JW: That’s a great question. Broadly speaking, we want it to be like the New Orleans Jazz Fest or Coachella in terms of what they mean to their markets by being around for decades; the way Jazz Fest has been such a meaningful cultural event in the city of New Orleans for nearly 50 years. I hope that Governors Ball remains the major New York City music festival. It will evolve with how music and art tastes and styles evolve and we’ll just grow with it.

One-day General Admission tickets, three-day General Admission tickets and VIP tickets for Governors Ball are all on-sale now on the festival’s website.

Lucie Turkel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lucie.turkel@uconn.edu.