Thursday, October 22, 2015

Inside New York's Music Festival Turf Battle

Inside New York's Music Festival Turf Battle:

Is New York big enough for two summertime music festivals? The creators of Governors Ball, the area's dominant event, think not – and they're getting City Hall involved.

Last month, The New York Daily News reported that AEG Live – the mega-promoters behind the Coachella and Firefly festivals – plan to launch a new event next summer called the Panorama Music Festival. As proposed, the event would take place at Queens' Flushing Meadows Corona Park in June – two weeks after Governors Ball is set to return to nearby Randall's Island, New York.

The news didn't sit well with the Governors Ball team who, in five years, have grown their festival from a modest one-day show to a destination weekend of around 150,000 attendees. Last week, they filed a public petition asking New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to reject AEG's proposal and force the company to reschedule their event; the letter blasted "an aggressive, greedy attempt by AEG to push a small independent company of born and bred New Yorkers out of business and out of the market." It currently has over 7,300 signatures.

Jordan Wolowitz, a cofounder of Governors Ball and partner at Founders Entertainment, echoes the sentiment to Rolling Stone, calling AEG's motives "pretty transparent."

"They're trying to run us out of town," says Wolowitz. "There are plenty of other times to do a big festival in New York. We're not suggesting that they not do a festival; we're suggesting they don't do it two weeks after us.

"If you look at the festival scene in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, there are many festivals, but none of them are two weeks on top of each other," he adds. Otherwise, "You're competing for the exact same acts, to the exact same ticket buyers. It doesn't make business sense, frankly, for either company, AEG or Founders Entertainment. They'll have a diluted lineup, we'll have a diluted lineup and the fans lose."

"They're trying to run us out of town," says a Governors Ball organizer. "It doesn't make business sense for either company."


AEG did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Governors Ball pulled 50,000 people per day last summer in a sold-out run; by comparison, Coachella, the highest-grossing festival in the world, pulled around 99,000 people per day and netted nearly $85 million in tickets sales. The 2015 events overlapped in their lineups; both featured Drake as a headliner as well as Florence and the Machine, Tame Impala and Ryan Adams. (Wolowitz declined to disclose 2015 ticket profits for Governors Ball, or whether he has received a response from the mayor's office.)

The Governors Ball petition to Mayor De Blasio hinges on an underdog rhetoric. "As a small, independent company in an industry dominated by major corporations and rapid consolidation, we've come a long way and given hundreds of thousands of you first class entertainment," it reads. "Sadly, today our future is in jeopardy and we need your help."

Monica Klein, Deputy Press Secretary for Mayor De Blasio, confirms to Rolling Stone that AEG has not yet secured Flushing Meadows Corona Park as a venue. "AEG has had preliminary discussions with NYC Parks, but by rule, applications for permits do not open until November," she said via email. She did not comment on the Governors Ball petition.

However, while AEG hasn't locked its location, the company has begun booking its bands in earnest and has reached out to multiple booking agencies. David Viecelli, president of the Billions Corporation – which books such in-demand festival acts as Arcade Fire and St. Vincent – said that AEG has already made an offer to one of his firm's "larger clients" to perform at Panorama.

"My guess is, one of them is going to fail," says one high-profile agent.


Viecelli says he is "sympathetic" to Wolowitz's protests. "AEG are forcing a difficult situation. The festivals will have an impact on each other, and AEG obviously feels that they can win that battle," he tells Rolling Stone. "Certainly, they have far greater resources. They can afford to overpay, to stack that bill in a way that Jordan Wolowitz wont be able to compete with."

However, Viecelli also finds the Governors Ball team's legal ground to be shaky. "As much as I am a champion of independent business and I completely understand Jordan's position, unfortunately, he doesn't really have a leg to stand on, with asking for protection from civil authorities," he said. "There's nothing inherent about him having developed this festival that merits the public interest in having a protection toward his enterprise. I think it's specious."

Mike Mori, an agent at the Windish Agency – a booking agency that counts Lorde, alt-J, Flume and the 1975 as clients, among many others – says he has faith that Governors Ball would endure. "I understand why they would try and fight another festival in the market," Mori tells Rolling Stone. "It's business and they're trying to protect their investment. Governors Ball is a very well-curated and successful festival in a great location, so I'm sure they'll continue to thrive and build their brand, regardless if another festival happens or not."

Booking talent, though, may prove to be the biggest turf war yet between Governors Ball and Panorama, as bands that are booked to a music festival are usually barred from performing other shows in that area for weeks or months surrounding the show. The duration of this blackout varies considerably, but the caveat – called a "radius clause" – is a live music industry norm. Short-term, this could coax a bidding war for top-draw talent – but the windfall will be short-lived, says Viecelli.

"It could be that these festivals go head-to-head for years and both do well, and continue to survive, and it will be an ongoing thing. But my guess is, one of them is going to fail," he says. "So it's unlikely that any one band will benefit more than one time from this surfeit of money."

Viecelli adds that AEG's motives may not be quite as sinister as Wolowitz fears. "My assumption is AEG determined that was the best time frame for their event, despite the competition with Governors Ball," he said. "In other words, they would have liked to have found a different time in the summer that may have given them a little more breathing room, but for whatever variety of circumstances, whether who's touring when or when the routing works, or when they get space in Queens, that was the best date."

Mori sees the dueling festivals as a positive for his acts. "It's good for artists and the business," he says. "Since they will be in two different locations, I don't think they'll cannibalize each others' audience, as long as the lineups are strong, which I'm confident they both will be."

If AEG stages Panorama Festival in Queens, it will be the company's second stab at a New York-area enterprise; their first attempt, All Points West, ran for two years at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey and featured Jay Z, Radiohead, Tool and Coldplay. It shuttered in 2009.

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