Q&A: Gov Ball co-founder Tom Russell on what makes the festival tick

WSN spoke with Governor’s Ball co-founder Tom Russell about the festival’s history and this year’s lineup.

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Jake Capriotti

The 10th anniversary Governor’s Ball was held from Sept. 24-26 at Randall’s Island. This year the Governor’s Ball will be held from June 10-12. (Photo by Jake Capriotti)

Nathan Chizen, Contributing Writer

Governor’s Ball, New York’s premier music festival, is back, returning to Citi Field in early June. WSN spoke with co-founder Tom Russell about what to expect from this year’s festival.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: The biggest thing we’ve been talking about is that Gov Ball is back at Citi Field again. What’s going to be different this year compared to last?

 Tom Russell: Last year was our first year at Citi Field. And any time you are in a venue for the first time, you get to see what works and what didn’t work, and you get to hear feedback from everybody who went on — what they like and what they didn’t like.

A big bunch of feedback that we got from last year was that there were a few areas of the site that were a little bit tighter and more cramped than people would like. We’re restructuring the site to open it up a little bit more, so that when people are walking from one stage to another, it is more comfortable, more spacious and people have more room to move around. Because, you know, it’s a long day and it could be hot, and we want it to be as comfortable as possible despite being in a crowd of 50,000 people. So we’re moving some things around and opening some areas up just so that the flow is easier and more seamless.

WSN:  Speaking of flow, let’s talk about this year’s lineup. How do you go about selecting artists?

TR: We usually start from the top down and book our headliners first. Every year we have our wishlist of headliners that we go for, and oftentimes, those headliners have new records out or are planning to tour.

Obviously, we’re very close with artists, managers and agents. My business partner Jordan Wolowitz talks to them every day all day, so he knows better than anybody who’s going to be touring next year in the early summertime period. He then throws offers out to folks who are available and interested.

We try to have folks that have new music, folks that maybe we haven’t had before or had in a while, and artists that we know people want.

We do surveys after each year’s event where we ask people who they want to see next year. We read that with a fine-tooth comb, or with a magnifying glass, rather. We read our socials — every single comment — and we know we have a gauge on who folks are asking for next year and beyond. So we take everybody’s feedback into consideration and try to put together the biggest and best lineup again.

 WSN: Any artists this year that you’re particularly excited about?

TR: I’m very excited to see Jack Harlow. He’s having a moment, his live shows are so great and his fans love him. One of my favorite things about producing the event is seeing people just be so excited not just to be at the festival, but to see their favorite artists, and his fans are certainly jazzed about his sets.

I’m also super excited to see Japanese Breakfast. I love Japanese Breakfast, and I think that their record is amazing. Super excited to see Clairo, super excited to see Kaytranada. There are a lot of acts on this bill that I personally have never seen before. I’ve never seen Shaquille O’Neal live, so curious what that’s going to be like. I’ve never seen Louis The Child, I’ve never seen Soccer Mommy before. And I love Soccer Mommy. 

WSN: And you’ve been doing this for 10-plus years now, right? What’s changed over time?

TR: Yes, we started the festival in 2011. The festival landscape, in general, has changed a lot since 2011 — there are more festivals out there than ever before. There are even more arenas than ever before, there are more artists touring than ever before. 

We’ve grown in so many ways, going from a one-day, two-stage event, to a three-day, four-stage event. And it’s been a heck of a ride. For us, we always want to know what have fans watched? Who do fans want to see live? What do they want to do at the festival when they’re not enjoying music? How can we make the festival experience better and more comfortable for them? Because we want people to come back each and every year.

We started this festival as huge music festival nerds. Jordan and I used to go to music festivals all across the country as fans, and we were able to see what worked, what didn’t work, what we liked and didn’t like, and we continue to do that because there are so many great ideas out there. We’re constantly trying to improve and look at others for inspiration.

WSN: You just mentioned what people do between performances — how do you go about creating that part of the festival?

TR: I mean, we have four stages, and most acts are performing all the time over the three days. But of course people need a break from the music sometimes. So, what are people going to do when they’re not playing music? Most likely they’re going to eat, they’re going to drink, and they’re going to look around. So, it’s a huge focus for us to make sure that we have the best food vendors possible and that we have the best beverage experience, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

In terms of art installations, the city of New York has such an incredible street art scene, and such a rich art history, so we want to make sure that we reflect that in some manner. At the event, we work with local graffiti artists to basically dress up the entire festival. We have these large container walls that we completely graffiti, do unique art installations; we have mural towers where we do the same.

And then we have tons of surprises around the site. And these are things that we don’t tell people about in advance. But when they’re walking around, they see it and it brings a smile to their face. It’s things that they’ll never forget, whether that’s an epic stunt or prank. We’ve had 50 people running out of a fake port-a-potty dressed in inmate outfits, a 10-piece brass band that’s busking around the site, and a mariachi band that is playing in a food vendor village. We always try to keep it interesting and different and fun. 

WSN: So what do you think sets Gov Ball apart from other festivals in the country?

TR: I think for us, it’s being New York’s dominant, contemporary, multi-genre music festival. We curate the event with New York City in mind, and that’s not just with the talent — the food vendors are from local New York institutions, the artists are all local New York City artists. 

The wonderful thing about New York City is that there’s so much to do, and there’s so much to choose from, whether it’s at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday or 4 a.m. on a Sunday. For us, we want to make sure that we can provide New Yorkers with so much, because they always have so much at their fingertips. We always want to have the biggest and best variety, whether it’s music, food, beverages or art. We want to give New Yorkers, and really anybody who attends the event, something that they really can’t find elsewhere, which is a collection of the very best of New York City across all those different spectrums. 

WSN: Was Gov Ball always the end goal for you?

TR: Well, when we started this thing, it was to bring my hometown a major music festival, because I was going to Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza and wondering why New York City didn’t have a major music festival. New York City is the best city in the world, so why doesn’t the best city in the world have an amazing music festival? So that was always goal No. 1, and we grew that gradually over time. 

Since we’ve accomplished that now, we just want to constantly improve the event. We take fan feedback so seriously and customer service so seriously that we’re constantly changing things to make it better because we want people to come back year after year. And we truly want those three days to be the best three days that people have not just in the summer but in their year. 

We recently launched a new music festival in Connecticut called Sound on Sound, which appeals to a bit of an older demographic. We have Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Stevie Nicks, Brandy Carlisle, The National and more. And with that one, we wanted to bring Connecticut and Fairfield County a music festival, because so many artists just don’t play there. Most artists play in Boston and New York, but they don’t stop in Connecticut. So we saw a void in the market and we wanted to bring those people something that we knew that they wanted, and that really the area should have.

WSN: With that improvement, what can fans expect from Gov Ball this year?

TR: I think it’s going to be a more seamless and more comfortable experience. Last year was our first year at Citi Field, and I’d say on all accounts that it was a big success. But there’s always room for improvement. 

WSN: Is there anything else you want to say?

TR: Just generally that I’m super excited. I think last year with Gov Ball, everybody was excited as well coming out of COVID-19. But there was some hesitation, and some people were very nervous because of what was happening on the health front. 

Thankfully, COVID rates have dropped. Who knows with variants in the future, but everybody has kind of learned how to live with it. Businesses have learned how to operate, music festivals have learned how to operate in a COVID, or post-COVID world. So, I’m excited for people to come out this year. People are vaccinated and boosted, and I think feel more comfortable out there. And if you go to any live events, you feel palpable energy that is just on a level it really wasn’t before. I think people just really missed that live music communal experience. Last year at the festival, it was so amazing to see, but this year, I think it’s going to be even bigger and even better. We just have a killer lineup of amazing acts.

WSN: I mean, Shaquille O’Neal is there.

TR: I mean, that’s just hilarious. When we were approached about booking Shaquille O’Neal, we just chuckled and said, “That sounds like something we’d want to see, so let’s get them on the lineup!” We always try to keep it interesting, always on the talent front and the art front, but also on the prank front. On all fronts, really.

The 2022 Governors Ball Music Festival will be back at Citi Field on Friday, June 10, through Sunday, June 12. 

 Contact Nathan Chizen at [email protected]