The New York City music festival market is tough to crack, thanks in part to the competition for limited real estate. Tom Russell started Founders Entertainment along with two friends, Jordan Wolowitz and Yoni Reisman, in NYC when they were in their mid-20s. Founders stages the Governors Ball Music Festival on Randall's Island, situated in the East River, and the Meadows Music and Arts Festival in Queens. In 2013, the Gov Ball was in its third year and growing when a tropical storm threatened to ruin everything. "We were hoping the storm's path would veer east or west," says Russell, "but the day before the festival started, it became clear it was going to hit us head-on." Did it ever.
--As told to Kevin J. Ryan
It was a heck of a storm: a lot of rain and high winds. When you have 40,000 people on your festival site, which is grass, and you have five to six inches of water descend upon that site within an eight-hour period, the result is a field of mud. There's not much you can really do to combat that. We laid down plywood, sand, and landscaper's hay, but everything just sank. Around 8 p.m. on Friday, when we started getting 40 mph wind gusts, we knew we had to cut the show. Kings of Leon had their headlining set canceled that night, and they were scheduled to fly to London for a gig they had on Sunday. We gathered in our trailer backstage with their booking agent and managers, looking at Saturday's schedule and trying to fit them in--which bands we could shift, who had to shorten their sets. We ended up squeezing them in in the middle of Saturday.
We knew a lot of the Friday single-day ticket buyers bought their tickets mostly to see Kings of Leon, so we messaged people to tell them Friday ticket holders could come in on Saturday. In the days after the festival, we got on the phone with every person who emailed us asking for a refund or criticized us for the experience--a few thousand people in total. When you're a small-business owner, you have to balance customer satisfaction with protecting your bottom line. We tried to give tickets for the following year to as many people as possible. We gave some customers their money back, but in most cases, people were OK with the comp tickets--or just wanted to have their voices heard.
We had to repair the park and return it in good condition. We incurred $750,000 in additional expenses because of the weather, but still finished in the black. At the time, we were a three-year-old business, and I wasn't even 30. I had never been through anything like this before. It was a tough weekend, financially and emotionally. But you make it work, and you come out of it all the stronger and all the wiser.