FarmBorough Hopes to Strike Gold with NYC Pop-Country Festival
Fredonia native Ruthie Collins is building a following by fusing country with a dance beat.
"What makes this one different is three words: New. York. City. There's nothing bigger."
By "this one" Brian O'Connell means this weekend's FarmBorough Festival on Randalls Island — and, moreover, what it represents. The first country event of its kind to touch down in NYC, FarmBorough brings a sparingly tested model to an already crowded festival table. One of several blockbuster country-music events that have cropped up over the past several years, FarmBorough is plucking the multiday/multistage festival format that's working for other genres and marrying it with the traditions and fan-friendly community that country has long cultivated.
The three-day event will be headlined by top-selling country superstars on the main stage and supplemented with up-and-comers and Americana talents on a more intimate setup dubbed Next From Nashville. But O'Connell, president of events giant Live Nation's country-music touring division, feels certain that setting up in New York provides a potential for FarmBorough to be bigger, more distinctive, and more impactful than its rural counterparts.
"I look at New York City as one of the opening acts — if not one of the headliners — for this festival," he says. "In country we've always had an accessibility between the fan and the artist. Not to say that there aren't thousands of examples in other genres where that's the case, but the overriding sentiment in country is that we're all in it together. That's what has put the roots down for 150 years of this type of music.
"And that's what we hope to bring to New York."
For FarmBorough, Live Nation has partnered with NYC-based Founders Entertainment, whose principals — 31-year-olds Jordan Wolowitz, Yoni Reisman, and Tom Russell — conceived and nurtured that other Randalls Island inhabitant: Governors Ball.
The trio's members quit their jobs in 2010 to pursue Gov Ball, whose initial base of operations was Russell's childhood bedroom. The event made its debut in 2011 as a one-day festival on Governors Island before relocating nine miles north the following year. At the time of Gov Ball's creation, New York City had seen a revolving door of music fests come and go, among them All Points West (2008 and 2009) and Field Day (which had floundered with last-minute location swaps and poor weather in 2003 and 2004, then called it quits).
Where others had failed, Wolowitz, Reisman, and Russell succeeded with intuitive booking decisions and a resilience to the vagaries of weather. Paying attention to artist draw and online engagement, they focused on booking performers with moderate ticket sales who hadn't played the city recently. In year one this meant artists who were relatively underground at the time — Girl Talk, Pretty Lights — but after two profitable iterations, they went all in, booking Kanye West for his first show in New York in three years. In 2013, Tropical Storm Andrea hit the fest with a downpour — and a huge bill for cleanup. But rather than play it safe budget-wise, the Ball came back last year with a one-off date from the Strokes — the band's first major appearance in three years. The headliners' allure allowed Founders to cultivate buzz for its middle- and lower-billed artists, whom the organizers encouraged to play local gigs in order to build a following.
"In the contemporary space, of course, the younger acts will go out on tours as an opening act with larger artists to get some exposure. But at the same time, they'll hit the road on small-club tours on their own, doing headline shows and building a fan base that way," Wolowitz says. "When it's a young act who's just put out their first record and only been touring for eighteen months, I encourage them to come to New York and play just so they can develop a story and a fan base."
Conversely, he likens country's world to baseball's so-called farm system. "You start in the Single A, then Double A and Triple A in terms of where you are on a tour with these huge acts. They'll be first of four, and then second of four, and then direct support and then grow into a headliner. That's one of the best things that Brian does."
For FarmBorough, the idea is that just as Governors Ball could bring hit-heavy sets from Drake and the Black Keys or a new stage setup from Deadmau5, Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan could thrill the boot-stompin' contingent. And where Gov Ball fills out its lineup with rising bands like the War on Drugs and Future Islands, FarmBorough aligns chart toppers like Bryan with household names like Dwight Yoakam and those innovating within the framework of a more traditional sound, like Jon Pardi and Sturgill Simpson.
"What they've done with Governors Ball is nothing short of amazing," O'Connell says. For him, planting a country festival in New York had been a natural objective, but Founders had seen the popularity of the genre rise in the city and been mulling over a venture, too. Once Wolowitz and the team did their research, they zeroed in on O'Connell as the top country promoter in the nation, and upon meeting, the two parties decided almost immediately that a partnership was the right move.
"We were sitting in my office, saying, 'We're crazy not to do this together, and we're crazy not to do it now,'?" O'Connell recounts. "?'Let's get this flag planted in the ground in the biggest market in the world, let everyone know that we're here.'?"
What Founders brings in terms of expertise on the local landscape, Live Nation matches with a history of country-concert success. The company, whose mega-merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 created a bona fide entertainment Goliath, owns plenty of multiday pop and indie events — stakes in festivals like Sasquatch predate more recent majority holdings in Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. But it's covering country in a big way, endeavoring to set the industry standard for music festivals rather than snatching up established names. The company has announced plans to launch ten country festivals in ten years, which may sound unrealistic until you consider that it has brought forth six events in the past four.
While its organizers believe FarmBorough will break new ground for country music, hitmaker Dierks Bentley views the weekend as a live showcase for what the evolving genre has been supplying for years.
"There's no longer any need to cross over as a country artist," argues Bentley, who will bring down the curtain Friday night on the festival's main stage. "Why would you leave the biggest house there is to go to a smaller house?
"Country music has rock, it has pop, it has a little bit of rap in there," Bentley continues. "There's a little folk, even some Disney. It's like every type of music is under the country umbrella right now."
Yet country remains stubbornly bifurcated in its presentation: One branch marshals mainstream megastars like Bentley. The other brings a less formulaic sound, which makes up for in depth and limit-pushing what it lacks in sales figures.
Put it all together, though, and you wind up with a huge umbrella indeed. And when it comes to leveraging all that marketability, no place on earth compares to New York. Local fan support is the least of the challenges FarmBorough faces. For mainstream country concertgoers, FarmBorough represents a departure from typical all-day tailgates, in which a single stage hosts one headliner preceded by as many as four openers. Seemingly trivial differences like limited access by car and standing-only general admission versus ticketed seating are among the factors that will affect FarmBorough's reception if those facets aren't properly highlighted in advance. The task at hand for the organizers of the fledgling festival is to reach out to those established fans and educate them about the unique nature of the event. Randalls Island, after all, is essentially accessible only via public transportation, which eliminates parking-lot parties and adds an unfamiliar logistical element for out-of-towners.
"It's the challenge that any first-year festival faces when you're not in a venue that everyone knows," Wolowitz says. "It's getting the country audience familiar with what Randalls Island is: educating people on the location, educating people on the vibe of the event."
The organizers have taken some heat for their decision not to sell single-day tickets. For fans only interested in seeing one or two headliners, the price point can be a deterrent — admission starts at $225 and tops out at $999 for "Empire V.I.P." access — especially given that a cheaper ticket to a stadium show provides the chance to see several acts. O'Connell says the choice was deliberate, intended to combine with creative booking to foster a sense of discovery and community.
"We're not running a popularity contest," he asserts. "We know that Luke Bryan is the hottest thing in country music, but I don't want to rob somebody of the chance of being able to see the great artistry of Dierks Bentley or Brandy Clark or Sturgill Simpson. We want you to come stay in New York for three days. FarmBorough is about a country-music community building and growing in New York City."
In a genre that hosts the same few headliners festival after festival, the real booking acumen came into play further down the bill.
"No matter what lineup we put together, I was surely going to be ripped apart because I didn't have so-and-so," said O'Connell. "I really just trusted my gut on what I know to be great. Chris [Stapleton] was one of the first acts I booked. Brandy Clark is a great songwriter. I know the Nashville music community, and I know that what plays in Peoria may or may not play as well in New York. I kind of skewed it a little bit differently and went after some more eclectic-type acts."
"We're an independent-minded company, and we have sort of an indie — I don't know if you would call it punk — aesthetic to the way we approach things," adds Wolowitz. "It's always fans first. We approach everything from the perspective of how we make this as fun of an experience for the fan as possible: Would we want this if we were paying for the ticket to go to the show?"
Brandy Clark and Chris Stapleton aren't exactly risky booking decisions, but they might well aid in building this "community," given how loudly NYC has clamored for them in the past. Stapleton sold out the Mercury Lounge just last month on the release day of his solo debut, Traveller, and while Clark's first visit to New York was a mere two years ago, she has returned several times since, most recently opening for Eric Church in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Both artists are signed to major labels and have written big hits for other performers (Clark snagged a couple of Grammy nominations for her indie debut, 12 Stories), but you wouldn't know that from listening to mainstream country radio.
That matters. According to Nielsen SoundScan's 2014 year-end report, radio remains the primary source of music discovery — overall good news for country, which has steadily grown its share of the audience in recent years. But thanks to streaming and new methods of sharing music, it's becoming increasingly possible to succeed without the support of radio programmers. Clark has seen that firsthand with "Follow Your Arrow," a track she co-wrote with — and for — Kacey Musgraves that was largely panned by country radio owing to lyrics that involve same-sex smooching. Despite the lack of radio support, the track was a top seller for Musgraves.
"I've had radio hits, but when I say I wrote 'Follow Your Arrow,' people get more excited about that than the hit song," says Clark, who, it bears mentioning in the lead-up to a weekend during which New Yorkers will be able to choose between a country-music festival and the annual NYC PrideFest and parade, is openly gay. "Artists like myself and Kacey, and Ashley Monroe — even though we haven't been on the radio, we've all sold records. Somebody's supporting our music."
For a genre that's overwhelmingly white, straight, and male, the rise of the festival model could be a long-overdue alternative to country radio in getting more diverse talent in front of the right audience. Radio programmers may have to operate in constant fear of losing listeners, but the burgeoning festival culture within the genre could offer opportunities to take chances on artists, if events like FarmBorough gain traction.
"I think people who come to festivals are really serious music fans," Clark says. "A lot of times when you're out on tour with somebody and you're the opener, the people come and they don't care about seeing you. At a festival you don't ever feel that."
O'Connell insists the FarmBorough we talk about five years from now will be completely different from the inaugural event. He envisions the last weekend in June playing host not only to official FarmBorough artists but also to "baby bands" playing venues of all sizes across the city, appealing to diehards in town for the festival and growing the local audience at the same time. Blending the big-stage appeal of a contemporary festival like Gov Ball with the discovery contingency of a scattered event like CMJ could make FarmBorough the yearly staple it strives to be, presenting a comprehensive depiction of the genre in an environment that allows for New York's own country talents to take center stage. (For an event intent on offering the best of New York, FarmBorough's inaugural lineup isn't big on local talent.)
"I get a lot of funny looks when I say that I'm from New York, especially when I'm holding a banjo," says Ruthie Collins, who grew up in Fredonia and will close FarmBorough's Next From Nashville stage on Sunday. "I don't think there's anything about country music that makes it have to just be country- or city-specific."
Collins may be working her way up, but she's a case study in the fan-focused, genre-bending country-music model. Now based in Nashville, she has a new single that's a Hank Williams cover ("Ramblin' Man") set to a dance beat, and her touring structure, which features performances in an Airstream she remodeled herself, is a prime example of the intimate meet-and-greets and fan-first relationships that country's biggest stars are known to craft and maintain even as the stages grow.
The value of that fan relationship reveals itself when it comes to exposure and sales. The genre keeps a particularly strong hold on physical album sales and paid downloads, while country radio consistently battles it out with contemporary pop for the top format nationally. New York City may seem slow on the uptake — until NASH FM 94.7 launched in 2013, the city hadn't had a country radio station in seventeen years — but the audience in the metropolitan area is hardly a new one, nor is it small in comparison to that of its brothers and sisters in the South. In 2011 country sold more albums in New York City than in any other market, far outselling markets like Dallas and Nashville despite the fact that country made up a relatively modest percentage of overall sales here.
"Anyone who plays New York for the first time goes back to their buddies in Nashville like, 'You wouldn't believe there are so many country fans there,'?" Bentley says. "I think country fans in New York would agree that this is something that could have happened a lot earlier."
In the midst of a nationwide rush to cash in on country's popularity, willingness to experiment coupled with loyalty to the patron experience will determine which ventures are successful in what surely will soon be an oversaturated market, and it all comes to a head with FarmBorough. Founders and Live Nation will have to create an experience that goes beyond the sum of its parts — or in this case the draw of its headliners. Country may be coming for New York City this weekend, but New York is coming for country, too. From site atmosphere to future booking, if Founders can apply the eclectic tastes and D.I.Y. spirit that built Governors Ball while harnessing Live Nation's country buying power, this could turn out to be the East Coast event that demands more from a genre that's tired of being boxed in.
"The festival is going to be the magnet," Live Nation's O'Connell predicts. "And it is going to hopefully pull more and more diverse styles of music to the New York metropolitan area."
FarmBorough takes place Wednesday–Sunday, June 26–28, on Randalls Island. Three-day general admission passes are $225. For details and a complete schedule visit farmboroughfestival.com.
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