$369 for Electric Zoo. $250 for Governors Ball. $220 for Celebrate Brooklyn’s four non-free shows. It’s summer festival season, and your wallet is echoing uncle every time you open its empty leather folds. We get it. These price points aren’t easy on a Williamsburg loft-blasted bank roll, no matter who is playing (Outkast) and how badly you want to see them (kept a candle lit since like ’05). What you might not be able to glean through the tint on those neon-framed wayfarers, however, are the business realities of hosting an outdoor music festival in New York City. Unlike venue-based bashes like Northside and Martyrdoom, outdoor fests owe pretty pennies for infrastructure, artisan corn dog pop-ups, and, most significantly, use of the New York City Parks Department’s hallowed greenery, making them financially and logistically daunting even for the most seasoned organizers.
And so, being the hard-hitting journalists (editor’s note: SARCASM) that we are, we sought to better understand what these festivals are up against, digging deep into the file cabinets of City Hall to uncover the 2013 contracts for Governors Ball, Electric Zoo, and now-defunct Googa Mooga. There aren’t many earth-shaking revelations contained within these documents, but nonetheless the amounts paid from permittee (festival organizers) to the New York City Parks Department, as presented below, give a much better sense of what’s at stake for these NYC music fixtures and the thousands of concert-goers that flock to them every summer. Check out the respective payouts below.
Governors Ball: $375,000 (plus $30,000 security deposit)
Electric Zoo: $375,000 (plus $50,000 security deposit)
Googa Mooga: $422,127
Ultimately, these costs, at least in proportion to monthly rent in a 200-square-foot Bushwick roach resort, seem reasonable for events of such size and scope, but things get problematic when it becomes clear that these upfront payments, and the clauses that accompany them, hold New York City’s outdoor music festivals financially responsible for unforeseen, and uncontrollable, occurances. Of course, in adherence to Murphy’s Law, each of these events experienced significant problems last year—Ark-tier rain forced the last-minute cancellation of Googa Mooga’s final day and turned the manicured expanses of Randall’s Island into a hipster Antietam, while a pair of MDMA-related ODs pulled the Electric Zoo plug—for which they were all held financially culpable.
In Article 6 (“Severe Weather/Postponement”) of Googa Mooga’s contract, for instance, the power of cancellation is placed in the hands of the city, reading, “the decision to suspend or delay the Event due to severe weather or some imminent danger to public safety and welfare shall be made by mutual agreement of Parks in consultation by PPA and Licensee. In the event a mutual agreement cannot be reached as to weather to hold the event on the scheduled date at the scheduled time, the decision of the [Parks] Commissioner shall be final and binding.” This very circumstance occurred on the final day of Googa Mooga last year (ever?), with the Parks Department deciding to cancel the festival at the last remaining Bureaucratic second (like two hours in human time) due to heavy rain and the potential threat it posed to Prospect Park’s landscape. Compounding the estimated $400,000 lost by vendors who had already set up before the festival was cancelled around noon, which festival organizers, SuperFly, reportedly paid in part, is Article 13, “Refund and Cancellation”, which states that any costs associated with a Severe Weather cancellation are not subject for a refund to the licensee. Considering both the vendor reimbursement and $140,600 paid to the Parks Department , approximately one third of their total $422,177 pay-out, for a day they didn’t operate, it’s not surprising that SuperFly chose to pack up the Mooga circus this summer.
Luckily for Governors Ball, the June monsoon that pummeled the festival on its opening night, only forced the cancellation of a few sets (including Kings of Leon…thank you Mother Nature). What made news as the muddy boot-prints spread outward from Randall’s Island, however, was that the destruction of the grounds was virtually total. So significant was the damage, in fact, that it forced the cancellation of LivingSocial’s Aerosmith/Joan Jett/Yeasayer headlined mini-fest, which was originally slated to hit Randall’s Island the following month. And while we should again thank Mama Nature for that near-miss (I mean, remember this?), Governors Ball organizers were not off the hook, per Article 5 of their Parks Department contract, which states that “if the Permittee [Governors Ball] causes any damage to Park’s property, the Security Deposit [$30,000 in this case] may also be used to pay for the repairs but shall not be Parks’ sole remedy. Permittee is responsible for any costs not covered by those in the Security Deposit.” Those costs for the post Governors Ball repair of Randall’s Island? Reportedly upwards of $300,000.
Electric Zoo didn’t encounter the same weather-related problems as Googa Mooga and Governors Ball, but the disasters they encountered were far more serious, with two OD-related deaths forcing the heralded EDM festival to close its (let’s just say it) porous security gates a day early. The financial ramifications of this event, for both the city of New York and their affiliated Parks Department, are totally different and not exclusively fiscal, but by no means less severe than their festival counterparts’. Article 10.5 of Electric Zoo’s contract states that in the event of “major accidents”, the Permittee must “promptly notify Parks, in writing, of any claim for injury, property damage, or death”. Each reported incident, however, is then “asserted against the Permittee with respect to the Permitted Premises.” What portion, if any, of the cancelled day’s funds was withheld, the Parks Department did not say, nor have they elaborated on any fines levied against Electric Zoo organizers for any culpability in the overdoses, but allegedly the City of New York, not Electric Zoo, decided to cancel the final day of the festival, which, if true, would have left organizers with a $125,000 hole (like Googa Mooga, one third of the three day fee) to fill.
In the end, I want to make clear that this is not an indictment of the New York City Parks Department nor a commentary, as some have offered, on the impracticality of hosting large-scale, outdoor music festivals in New York City. Instead it’s simply something to think about before you slam three-day passes on the ol’ Visa—an appeal for buyer awareness, at the risk of sounding like your father. You certainly don’t have to care—and no one does while crushing plastic-cup booze on a perfect summer evening as Diarrhea Planet melts your face—but don’t take it for granted either. If these numbers illustrate one thing, it’s just how tenuous all of this really is.