NYC’s Governors Ball Is Still Growing Alongside An Ever-Changing City

While the average festival attendee might not recognize the names of Jordan Wolowitz, Tom Russell, and Yoni Reisman, they have proven to be pivotal to New York City’s history. After founding the production company Founders Entertainment as 20-somethings with an immense passion for live music, they also crafted the idea to host a music festival on Governors Island in 2011.

The sounds of the city were still drawn to the Indie Sleaze movement, and so, the festival’s single-day lineup reflected that — with electronic artists Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, and Empire OF The Sun headlining that year. That decision to cater to a generation of fellow early adults paid off immensely, as the aptly-titled Governors Ball’s debut drew the highest attendance for any event on Governors Island. “As many area festival attempts often fall flat due to poor execution, the Governors Ball was a pleasant exception to the rule, leaving us looking forward to its return next year,” Flavorwire wrote about the festival.

Building upon their success, the founders expanded Governors Ball to a two-day festival the following year, moving the location to Randall’s Island to better accommodate the growth — which included popular city food vendors (Luke’s Lobster, Wafels & Dinges) and a variety of outdoor games. Beck, Kid Cudi, Passion Pit, and Modest Mouse were on 2012’s top billing.

Despite the momentum, the third year was not a charm for Governors Ball, as disaster struck in the form of Tropical Storm Andrea on day one — the start of weather that would prove to be a common struggle for the founders in years to come. By 9 pm, the entire festival was canceled, with local paper Gothamist publishing a slideshow of the conditions. Crowds in colorful ponchos dispersed, just trying to avoid being drenched in mud.

“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,” Russell told INC about that year. “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.”

Throughout the years, weather complications have continued to be a common theme affecting Governors Ball. In 2019, Sunday attendees were stuck on Randall’s Island, until an 8:30 pm announcement officially canceled The Strokes and SZA’s nighttime performances. With severe thunderstorms, ticket buyers walked back across the RFK bridge to get home.

Still, Governors Ball planned to get back to normal. The original 2020 lineup continued the cross-generational appeal by featuring Tame Impala, Missy Elliott, Flume, and Vampire Weekend as headliners; it was eventually canceled due to the pandemic. After taking a-year-and-a-half hiatus until returning in September 2021, much like the rest of the world, the festival made some major changes. As for whether these will prove for better or for worse is to be determined.

Upon their return, Governors Ball announced they would be moving the permanent location to Citi Field — with stages set up just outside of the Mets stadium. Last year marked my first time attending the festival, so it’s difficult to compare to past locations. However, crowd control seemed to be a significant issue. Given the stages are spaced quite closely together, a lot of the audiences blended into one giant crowd, with very minimal lamp posts or clear exit signs. About six months later and in the wake of Astroworld, it seems to be a potential safety issue.

Still, Governors Ball has the opportunity to smooth out any roadblocks for their second year at Citi Field. At the very least, they have an all-star lineup — one that leans heavily into aiming for a younger demographic instead of keeping one headliner your Gen X mother might recognize.

Saturday’s headliner, Halsey, is one of the most exciting artists on the bill. They sought out their musical heroes — Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails — to eventually began crafting an industrial-inspired pop record together. The result was their cinematic fourth studio album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. While the writing process began before Halsey’s pregnancy (and first child), it conceptually began to wrap around all the various aspects of motherhood.

Rapper J. Cole will close out the festival as Sunday’s headlining performer. Last year, he released his Grammy-nominated sixth album, The Off-Season. “The Off-Season symbolizes the work that it takes to get to the highest height,” he told Slam magazine last year. “The Off-Season represents the many hours and months and years it took to get to top form. Just like in basketball, what you see him do in the court, that shit was worked on in the summertime.”

Hip-hop continues to play a heavy part in Governors Ball’s main acts: Friday headliner Kid Cudi, Jack Harlow, British MC Skepta, Coi Leray, Roddy Ricch, and many more. As a fun surprise, basketball player Shaquille O’Neal is scheduled to perform on Saturday under the stage name DJ Diesel.

For those looking for rising indie acts, Samia is one of the solo artists not to miss. The singer-songwriter released her first full-length record, The Baby, in 2020. She has since followed that with a handful of equally strong singles, from the somber, piano-driven “Desperado” to capturing feelings of love, and acceptance on “As You Are.” Last year, Samia also teamed up with a handful of prominent indie artists to reimagine songs from her debut album, including Bartees Strange, Christian Lee Hutson, Palehound, and many more.

The past year has also been a record-breaking one for Michelle Zauner, who fronts the Philly-based indie band, Japanese Breakfast. Between releasing a Grammy-nominated album, Jubilee, and becoming a New York Times bestselling author with her debut memoir, Crying In H Mart, Zauner has continuously distinguished herself as a talented artist — no matter what the medium is.

In all, Governors Ball has the chance to redefine itself for this new decade, evolving as necessary, and representing its city as the flagship festival offering.

Some of the artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.