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The Rise of Northside

How the eight-day, multi-venue music festival whistled past “the graveyard.”


On a warm Tuesday in late April, brothers Scott and Daniel Stedman, publishers of The L and Brooklyn magazines and the organizers of the annual Northside Festival—probably the first summer concert series of its kind to really feel at home in New York—stood at the edge of McCarren Park, watching a lone cyclist pedal across the rumpled asphalt. In six weeks’ time, the 100,000-square-foot slab would be filled with thousands of sweat-shiny, beer-drunk, half-clothed ­festival attendees, and the Stedmans were here both to survey the grounds and to ­discuss a new addition to the lineup—a 72-hour build-a-thon called Red Bull Creation.

Red Bull has been aggressive and ­ingenious with its branding efforts in recent years—launching a magazine, a lecture series, and even a “music academy” to build energy-drink goodwill—and Creation would be a project set in a similar mold. As A. J. White, a bald and bearded Red Bull rep, explained to the Stedmans, six teams of inventors and hackers would be flown in from around the country and set up in a series of open-air garages facing Berry and North 12th Streets. The team that could build the “coolest” machine out of a pile of scrap metal and spare parts would receive a $10,000 prize. In the meantime, the festival­goers could look on as the hackers DIY-ed their way to steampunk Rube Goldberg bliss.

“I like that,” said Scott Stedman, who is 36, with unruly brown hair and long limbs that seem never to come fully to rest. “My only question is about space. Because we don’t want to overcrowd.”

With his finger, he sketched in the air the way the park would look on June 13, the first day of the festival. On the far side of the asphalt will be the Converse Rubber Tracks Live Stage. On Bedford, one gate for all-access badge holders, and on North 12th Street, another for regular ticket­holders. Nearer to Berry, Red Bull Creation.

“But here’s the thing,” White said. “Access will actually be a little more constrained on Friday and Saturday, when the building is going on. Sunday would be the showcase, and people could come through.”

“That’s good. The key is actually creating a good experience,” Scott said. “As opposed to, like, ‘Okay, here’s the sardine can. How many sardines can we fit in here?’ ”

The Stedmans spend almost every day in the two-month run-up to the festival like this: checking in with vendors, meeting with bar managers, coordinating with sponsors. And while the festival is not a financial powerhouse on the scale of, say, Lollapalooza, it is hugely lucrative for them, especially given the scale of the staging. They estimate the event will make the Stedmans’ Northside Media Group about $2 million in 2013. Not bad at a time when publications are struggling to find new income and increase their cultural presence—a secondary objective of Northside—especially in a city (and a borough) that has basically no tolerance for that helicoptered-in kind of summer bash.

Unlike a traditional music festival, where the activity is centered on two or three large stages, Northside sprawls across all of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, encompassing a constellation of smaller clubs and movie theaters and larger outdoor spaces such as McCarren Park. Festival­goers can purchase one of three badges—one for music, one for movies, one for technology events—that allow them unlimited access to all the events in that vertical. (A fourth includes all three.) Or they can buy individual tickets to a single show—an independent movie at Nitehawk Cinema, for instance, or a rock showcase at Public Assembly, a club on North 6th Street.

But Northside isn’t just the rare festival to take place entirely within North Brooklyn. To a large extent, it is North Brooklyn, or at least the exportable, pre-branded North Brooklyn of Girls and Urban ­Outfitters catalogues: cozy rock clubs, DIY filmmakers, indie rockers in skinny jeans. The festival was founded in 2008 as a showcase for what Daniel, 34, himself a successful independent filmmaker, calls, unironically, the “Brooklyn spirit.” Early performers usually came from Brooklyn, lived in Brooklyn, or were moving to Brooklyn. The motto is “What’s Next, Brooklyn?”

Last year, the Stedmans estimate that approximately 80,000 people attended. In 2013, Northside will run for eight days, with four days of music (headliners include the Walkmen, Black Flag, and Son Volt), four days of film, and a large two-day technology conference in the Wythe Hotel. More than 30 venues will host Northside showcases, and the Stedmans plan to erect a stage on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main strip. Northside will be closing it down from Metropolitan all the way to North 12th.

New York has been called the graveyard of music festivals—the place where the dreams of a thousand young promoters have come to die. In 2003, there was Field Day, scheduled for eastern Long Island, moved at the last minute to Giants Stadium, then quickly canceled for the following year. In 2005, there was Across the Narrows, which was staged at two different minor-league ballparks, with no easy way of getting from one to the other; it, too, lasted only a year. In 2008 and 2009, the organizers of Coachella tried their hand at an area festival with All Points West, but they couldn’t get New Yorkers to come to a show in Jersey City; and in 2011, Village Voice Media shut down its Siren Festival when it couldn’t get enough of them to Coney Island. (VVM later introduced the much smaller 4Knots at the South Street Seaport.)

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