The video went up a little after midnight on the morning of Monday, June 6, to Kim Kardashian West's assuredly huge Snapchat following and to millions more on Twitter. By that point, thousands had stormed the streets surrounding Webster Hall on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Rumors of a surprise Kanye concert had social media buzzing. Fans sat on top of postal delivery trucks. Others climbed onto awnings. The mob chanted Kanye's name.
Through bullhorns, the NYPD encouraged people to disperse. Later, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio lightly scolded the Wests via Twitter.
A rogue street concert, just hours after rain forced Governors Ball to cancel its final day's lineup and Kanye's headlining set, was the last headache the music festival's weary founders needed. Thrown by startup Founders Entertainment, Gov Ball on Randall's Island has been hands-down the most successful in New York City's history, both in attendance (150,000 in total this year) and longevity. But this year, a formidable rival has muscled in: Panorama Festival, put on the by large corporation behind Coachella, featuring the same rock-and-rap genres in the same location, just seven weeks later (it starts July 22).
So when bad weather wiped out Gov Ball's Sunday set, and when Kanye tried and failed to throw a spontaneous concert on Manhattan's streets to appease the throng of delirious fans, it could've meant disaster for Founders Entertainment.
Luckily for the 6-year-old bootstrapped company, disaster didn't happen. Founders Entertainment bounced back. Its co-founders had a secret weapon in their back pocket: the same Kanye West that nearly derailed them.
Beating the odds
In recent years, other New York City festivals have collapsed under less adversity. All Points West folded in 2009 largely due to soggy weather and slow transportation; Long Island's Field Day in 2003 only made it a year after rain and a relocation turned off ticket holders. Both of those took place before the age of Twitter, when angry fans can gripe for anyone to hear.
"@GovBallNYC organizers you're all wimps. sun's coming out. no rain" tweeted one attendee this year, shortly after Sunday's cancellation was announced. "Will there ever be a #GovBall weekend sans rain?" asked another.
The festival first got its start when Tom Russell, Jordan Wolowitz, and Yoni Reisman (who has since left), then all in their mid-twenties, quit their jobs, pooled together $50,000 apiece and some additional cash from friends and family, and used their connections in the music industry to make their Woodstock-esque dream a reality. Since then, it's featured Kanye (in 2013), Jack White, Drake, Lana Del Rey and the Strokes, and ticket sales this year totaled more than $15 million. It's an inspiring story, and one that gives the festival its homegrown New York flavor. Founders Entertainment completed a deal that gave a majority stake to Live Nation in April, but the company still has only eight employees and its co-founders continue to book artists as before.
So when it was revealed that AEG, the 10,000-person company that owns L.A.'s Staples Center, Manchester Arena, and Goldenvoice, which runs Coachella, was bringing a new festival called Panorama to Randall's Island, Russell sounded off. "The city needs a long-term strategy for approving music festivals that ensures it is maximizing the economic and community impact of these events," he told the New York Times in January.
Going into this year's Gov Ball, Russell and the team knew the stakes were higher.
"There was definitely some added pressure," Russell tells Inc. "When you're a small independent company, every move matters. This festival is our baby. We are who we are because of Governors Ball."
A series of washouts
Russell and company are no stranger to rain: Hurricane Andrea turned the 2013 version into a washout. Acts were canceled, others were rescheduled, and much of the grounds became unnavigable mud pits.
So when the forecast called for bad weather on Sunday, the Founders Entertainment team knew it could mean trouble.
To prepare for the weekend, Founders Entertainment used a service, Weather Ops, that provides weather monitoring with hourly updates, plus a 24-hour on-call meteorologist.
But there are several interests at stake when deciding how to handle poor weather, including that of the NYPD and mayor's office, who want to avoid injuries and chaos; the parks department, which wants to protect its property; and the organizers, who have a "show must go on" attitude. (The same weekend as Governors Ball, 72 people were hospitalized when lightning struck at a festival in Germany, prompting criticism for not shutting down earlier.) Reps from each group held two conference calls on Friday and four on Saturday. By Sunday morning's 8 a.m. call, it was clear that Randall's Island was going to take a direct hit.
"Some parties wanted to cancel the show right then and there," Russell says, but "after some pleas--I'll leave it at that--we were able to schedule another conference call to look at the weather at noon." Nothing had changed, and the group decided to cancel. Russell and Wolowitz explored extending to an extra day on Monday, but band schedules and city logistics squashed that idea.
Later that night, Kanye took matters into his own hands. He cryptically tweeted "Show at 2am SOLD OUT." When a few people in his social circles made references to Webster Hall online, the masses followed. Thousands of people flooded the streets outside an arena built to hold 1,500, and the pop-up concert soon became a safety hazard and was called off by the venue and police before it even started. Kanye then tried to organize a show on the streets, but the NYPD shut that idea down as well.
At that point, Russell says, he and his crew were out of the loop, exhausted after a long weekend. "We had no idea that was happening," he says. "I actually ended up reading about it on Monday morning and was kind of amazed. When an artist has an itch to play, they're gonna do whatever they can to try to play."
Feeding that itch
While the madness that was the final day of Governors Ball played out, Founders Entertainment had actually been waiting to make an announcement: It was putting on a fall festival in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. The two-day, hip-hop heavy event would be called The Meadows, and it would have a max capacity of 50,000, the same as Gov Ball.
But now, the co-founders had to overcome the fallout from Gov Ball.
Plenty of fans complained about the rainout; others generously offered to host make-up Kanye concerts in their apartments. With relief from a cancelation insurance policy, Founders Entertainment began the process of issuing refunds to the day's attendees--little solace to those who had wanted to see Kanye's only scheduled festival appearance of 2016.
"Sunday was the day that people were arguably the most excited about, and it was canceled," Russell says. "We were so bummed and upset and devastated. But we had to move forward."
The next step was securing a headlining act for The Meadows. The festival already had The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper and Empire of the Sun, but it needed a big name up top. The co-founders, who carefully monitor YouTube views, social media mentions and ticket sales at other venues in deciding who to book, didn't need any help knowing who their top target should be.
"We said, 'You know, what about Kanye?' " Russell says.
Sure, Kanye's social media stunt could have reflected poorly on Founders Entertainment (even though, the co-founders assert, they had nothing to do with it). But fans' rabid reaction certainly proved Kanye's drawing power.
Russell reached out--he already had a relationship with Kanye's manager, Izzy Zivkovic--and Kanye was interested.
"We were lucky for them to consider it. We were lucky to even have that conversation," Russell says, noting that big-name artists are typically booked in large cities and limited by noncompete clauses. "They believed in us and they believed in the festival."
That doesn't mean the guys at Founders Entertainment are declaring victory in the music festival wars. "It's unfortunate," Russell says of the Sunday ordeal. "I can't say it's anything I've ever been through before, but if you're in the outdoor event business, this stuff happens. You have to be prepared for it."
The Meadows was announced on June 21, and Kanye sent the Internet buzzing yet again. It's still the only festival West is booked to perform at this year, and it'll take place on October 1 and 2. Even that didn't come without controversy: Maker Faire, a science expo, will be taking place in the same park that same weekend, so in a way, Founders Entertainment is now the new, big rival in town. But to compromise, the music festival won't be taking any parking spots in nearby Citi Field, leaving them to Maker Faire.
"New York City is without a doubt ever artist's biggest market," Russell says. "It's rare that you're gonna get the opportunity to play in front of 50,000 people within the five boroughs. I think that's what draws them here. There's a palpable energy. It should be a lot of fun."
Of course, any number of logistical nightmares could spring up before then. And if Panorama turns out to be a huge success, it's hard to say whether New York City will still have an appetite for the shows put on by Founders Entertainment. But either way, the company's co-founders will be prepared.
After all, they have Kanye.