Tom Russell is stoked about this weather. "We're thanking Mother Nature, that's for sure," he says from a sun-splashed cement lot behind a massive outdoor stage. "Especially after 2013."

A staff member walks by. "What's up, Tom?" he asks. The two exchange a handshake. "You need anything?"

Russell squeezes out a smile. "Sleep," he replies. "And maybe some sushi."

It's Sunday, the last day of Governors Ball's weekend-long run, and Russell has slept nine hours in the past three nights. New York City's largest music festival, which he founded with two friends in 2011, has been raging since Friday. Artists like Drake, Ryan Adams, and Florence and the Machine took the stage over the weekend, and 45,000 people descended on Randall's Island each day. It's all gone incredibly smoothly--which is amazing considering how many festivals have tried and failed to keep their footing in New York.

Unfortunately for Russell, though, the festival's 50-plus food options don't include raw fish. "The logistics of it--it would be tough," he says almost apologetically. 

Russell blinks in the late afternoon sun. A few yards away, just on the other side of a giant black curtain, Australian indie rock band Tame Impala shreds through a set.

"Come on," Russell says. "Let's go somewhere quieter."

A Trio With Dreams

Back in 2005, Russell was studying management at Tulane when Hurricane Katrina forced him to relocate to NYU for his senior year. Russell, who grew up in Manhattan, spent the semester attending classes and interning with Superfly, the company behind the Bonnaroo music festival.

When Tulane reopened that winter, he had a choice: go back to New Orleans and finish college or accept a full-time offer with Superfly in New York. Russell decided to take the job and forgo his last semester. He remained with the company for four more years, making his way from marketing assistant to director of event operations.

"Then I kind of hit my ceiling," he says. "I wasn't learning anything new, and I wasn't involved in those closed-door partner conversations that I felt like--not necessarily that I needed to be involved in, but I wanted to be involved in. So I called a couple of my friends up, and I said, 'How's your life?' "

Those friends, Jordan Wolowitz and Yoni Reisman, were both in similar positions. Wolowitz, a childhood friend of Russell's, worked for a booking agency, and Reisman had been Russell's co-worker at Superfly. With their combined music industry contacts, the group thought they could create something on their own.  

"We said, 'Look, we're all in the same place.' " Russell says. " 'We want to work for ourselves, and we really want to try something.' "

While still employed at their day jobs, they rifled through their contacts, reaching out to artists and agents in both the hip-hop and rapidly growing indie electronic genres. They presented the idea of a one-day outdoor festival somewhere in New York City--and people were into it. Russell's girlfriend at the time was interning for a company doing shows on Governors Island, which provided key introductions and helped the group nail down a location.

Each member of the trio laid out $50,000 to pay for bookings and venue. Friends and family lent the rest on the basis of a waterfall investing structure created by friends in finance. ("I still to this day can't understand it," Russell admits.) Russell's father, a lawyer, helped with legal work, while his mother, a freelance bookkeeper, assisted the company with record keeping. "Both charged an amazing rate," he says, "of zero dollars."

One by one, the artists started signing. In December 2010, Russell quit his job at Superfly. The next month, he, Wolowitz, and Reisman started Founders Entertainment, with Russell's childhood bedroom serving as the unofficial company headquarters.

By February, the trio announced the inaugural Governors Ball. The first lineup featured Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, and Empire of the Sun. It drew more than 20,000 people.

"In the back of your head, you're thinking, "This could easily fail, and then what am I gonna do?' " Russell says from a folding chair in his trailer behind the festival's main stage, the bass from Tame Impala's "Elephant" beating against the windows.

"Luckily, that didn't happen." 

Overcoming Adversity

On one of Governors Ball's four stages, the group Big Gigantic, which combines electronic dance beats with live saxes and a horn section, blasts away in front of a quickly growing crowd. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli performs in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, and a psychedelic light show and LCD screens encourage the audience to "GET ON UP." The mob bounces restlessly. There are only a few acts left before the Black Keys and Lana Del Rey simultaneously close out the festival on separate ends of Randall's Island.

The festival outgrew the smaller Governors Island after its first year, but it kept its name. Now it sprawls through a converted driving range and several all-purpose fields on the island off Manhattan's East Side.

When it's all over, this year's version will end without any major hitches. But this hasn't always been the case.

The 2013 iteration of Governors Ball happened to coincide with Andrea, the hurricane season's first tropical storm. Six inches of rain fell in parts of the grounds on the festival's first day, turning pavement into small oceans and grassy fields into mud pits. Headliner Kings of Leon had to crunch its much anticipated Friday night set into an abbreviated Saturday afternoon one, and the festival grounds were, more or less, destroyed.

"When you do outdoor events," says Russell, who went to high school across the river on 98th Street and played sports on Governors Island's athletic fields as a kid, "you are expected, both contractually and on a personal level, to return the park in the same condition, if not better than, it was in when you first took it over. We knew that from the start." Afterwards, Founders resodded and graded the field and installed a drainage line, resulting in an unforeseen cost reportedly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That cost, combined with viral images of rain-soaked scenes more suited for Glastonbury, seemed like enough to throw the young festival permanently off course.

But GovBall bounced back. The next year, it "overspent," as Russell says, and signed Outkast, Vampire Weekend, and Jack White--and helped reunite the Strokes, one of New York City's most sacred bands. "We wanted to show our fans and the entire city and the country and the world: We're here to stay, and regardless of weather, we're always going to provide an amazing lineup."

The "Science" of Signing Artists

Russell's determination might explain why Governors Ball has succeeded in a market in which all its predecessors have failed. (All Points West was sunk by bad weather and transportation issues after two years; rain and a last-minute relocation took down Long Island's Field Day after one.) But attitude alone isn't enough to explain the success of a festival that, with general admission tickets running between $100 and $135 per day, pulled in well north of $13 million this year before concessions. Russell points to the improving economy, the location (Randall's Island is accessible by ferry, bus, subway, car, and foot), and--maybe most of all--the group's near scientific approach to signing artists.  

"We're students of the industry as much as we are fans of the industry," Russell says. "The first year, we picked bands that hadn't played in the market in a certain amount of time." The co-founders scoured the internet for artists whose YouTube view counts and social media mentions were rising rapidly, and they set price points. "Then we said, 'Girl Talk--last time he was in the market, he sold 6,000 tickets," says Russell. "Empire of the Sun--last time they were in the market, they sold 5,000 tickets. You have Pretty Lights, then eight or nine other acts that are each good for between 200 and 1,000 tickets. Put those all together, and we'll be over our breaking point."

And when the first year was in fact a win, the guys at Founders didn't rest. "We put all of it--every cent--back into the company," Russell says. They used the money from the first year to fund year two, then used the year two money to fund year three.

The festival quickly outgrew its electronic dance roots and now annually includes a wide-ranging set of big names. In recent years, headliners have included Kanye West, Guns N' Roses, and Beck.

"You know, no one really expected us to succeed," Russell says after fielding a quick business call in his trailer. "Being a festival promoter is incredibly risky--very high risk, high reward. But you know, they were happy for us, and our friends and family supported us. They said, 'You guys are doing what you love and you're following your dream.' That's what an entrepreneur does."

He continues, "We busted our butts from the very start. We still do to this day--we put our blood, sweat, and tears into the festival and our company. And you know, it's paid off. It's certainly not easy. It's incredibly stressful. But it's worked out so far."

Outside the trailer, Tame Impala is finishing its set. Russell is about to arrange a ride home for his mom before things get wild for the night acts.

"Who's playing tonight?" he asks, taking a peek at the schedule on a folding table nearby. It's the Black Keys. "Oh, right. Can't wait to see them. Then I'm gonna eat some sushi. Then I'm gonna sleep for about a week."

Published on: Jun 10, 2015