Festival season is officially in full swing and coast to coast, revelers are partying as the music pulses through sold-out crowds—and that means the folks of Founders Entertainment are busy.
Co-founded by Tom Russell and Jordan Wolowitz in 2011, the company is best known as the brain trust behind Governors Ball, a storied annual event that brings a multi-genre lineup to the with headliners that have included Tyler, The Creator, Billie Eilish, J. Balvin and more.
This year, Founder Entertainment is tackling new challenges; moving its famous NYC event to a new home and launching a fresh two-day festival in Connecticut called Sound on Sound.
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Busier than ever expanding their musical footprint, we caught up with Russell and Wolowitz as they prepare for the biggest weekend of their year.
Gov Ball is an iconically New York Festival. How did it start, and how did you get here?
Tom Russell: We started Governor’s Ball back in 2011 when U.S. festival culture was really gaining steam, especially city-based events. We had worked in the industry for years and never really understood why the greatest city in the world didn’t have a hometown festival of its own. There was a void in the market, and the timing seemed right, so we quit our jobs and went for it. We started small the first year but grew rapidly as we saw the demand.
Jordan Wolowitz: By the time we were in our mid-20s, we saw that major markets such as Chicago, San Francisco, southern California and Austin had already established major music festivals. NYC for many reasons didn’t yet, so we left our jobs in the middle of the great recession and gave it a shot.
Where were you working before, and how did you get into the festival game?
Russell: I was always obsessed with live music, particularly festivals. After going to Bonnaroo in 2002, I realized that the promoter [Superfly] was based in New Orleans where I was about to start college at Tulane. I begged them for an internship for years and finally got a shot, and I went on to be hired full-time my senior year. I worked there for six years on events like Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Jazzfest and others, and I started to realize that I was never gonna make real money or be a real decision-maker. Turns out Jordan was in a similar boat, and we had this idea and said “Let’s go for it.”
Wolowitz: During college, I had many internships in the music business, including working for Jason Flom who was the CEO of Atlantic Records at the time. My first few years after college, I was an agent assistant at Paradigm [now Wasserman], and ICM. I worked for some of the biggest agents in the music business, including Marsha Vlasic. I learned the ins and outs of negotiations and deal-making between agents and promoters for all live events including festivals. Having that knowledge going into the first year of Gov Ball was invaluable.
What has been one of the most memorable experiences from the first 12 years of Gov Ball?
Russell: Having Governor Hochul personally thank us for helping “bring NYC back” after Covid was pretty cool. Turning Randall’s Island into a giant, deep mud pit in 2013 is also something I will never forget—especially the restoration bill.
Wolowitz: Putting together some big reunions and special moments at the festival. In 2013, we had Kanye’s first solo show since 2008. In 2014, we had NYC legends The Strokes reunite after years of not playing together. That same year, we had Outkast headline their first NYC show in over a decade. In 2018, we had Eminem perform his first major NYC show since he played Yankee Stadium in 2010 with Jay-Z; and 2021 of course was amazing for all the obvious reasons. Billie Eilish headlining the first night was simply amazing.
What’s been a challenge to keeping the festival going as long as you have? Others like Panorama have come and gone, but you’ve remained. What’s your secret?
Russell: NYC has always been a tough place for festivals because there is always so much for people to choose from. New Yorkers have access to the best entertainment in the world 365 days a year. The key is to keep putting together the best lineups possible, keep offering the best experience possible, and always stay true to the NYC ethos that defines the Gov Ball brand.
Wolowitz: NYC itself has always been our biggest competition. It's the best city in the world. Other promoters have tried to come into town and challenge us with their own festivals. They all went away after a year or two. Gov Ball being produced by real New Yorkers has been the not-so-secret sauce to our success.
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What’s one thing y’all had to learn on the job?
Russell: How to ride and manage a cash flow rollercoaster.
Wolowitz: Weather is the one and only thing we can not control.
What part do you look forward to the most every year?
Russell: Hearing the crowd roar, and feeling that palpable live music energy is what it’s all about.
Wolowitz: Absolutely agree.
Which has been your favorite Gov Ball to date?
Russell: Gov Ball 2014 for the lineup, and Gov Ball 2021 for actually pulling it off.
Wolowitz: For me, 2013. It truly established Gov Ball as the New York City music festival. Also, 2014. Besides the headliners, look further down the poster and you'll see young artists such as The 1975, Childish Gambino, Tyler, The Creator, and J. Cole. They are all festival headliners and area sellouts these days, and 2021 was special in every way.
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You’re also doing Sound on Sound in Connecticut. Are there plans to expand to other markets and cities?
Russell: We are always looking at other markets and what events could work where. It’s a crowded field out there right now, so it’s all about identifying voids in the market and taking a calculated risk, just like we did with Gov Ball and SOS.
Wolowitz: As with any business, you need to fill a hole in the market. We are careful about starting festivals only in great markets that do not have a marquee music festival yet. NYC and now Connecticut both had those openings when we started the shows. We always keep our eyes open to find the next one.
How do you ideate the creative direction for each festival?
Russell: Start with the market and programming direction, mix in the local vibe and flavor, and spice it up with something unique that stands out from the masses.
Wolowitz: When it comes to the artists, it goes without saying, you curate the lineup to the audience that you expect at the show. Gov Ball is curated for the high school through mid-20’s audience in the greater NYC area. Sound On Sound is specifically curated for adults in the greater Connecticut suburbs.
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How do you prepare for the big weekend?
Russell: I have three kids under 5, so every weekend is a big weekend. I drink a lot of iced coffee!
Wolowitz: Meditate daily!
Any fun anecdotes you’d like to share?
Russell: Unfortunately the best ones are ones I am unable to share.
Governor’s Ball 2023 comes to NYC’s Citi Field from Friday to Sunday, June 9 to 11. Lizzo, Odesza and Kendrick Lamar are scheduled to headline the three-day event, and tickets are still available online. The inaugural Sound on Sound Festival comes to Bridgeport, CT, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30 to Oct 1, and brings Red Hot Cili Peppers, John Mayer, Alanis Morissette and more. Tickets and more information are available at soundonsoundct.com.
Photography by: Courtesy Founders Entertainment