In many parts of the country, where the festival business has been growing even in these past few lean years (for the country, for the music business), a slightly modernized version of the model initiated at Woodstock still persists: A promoter erects a miniature city on a grassy plain, fills it with portable toilets and kegs of beer and T-shirt stands and the banners of sponsors, and shuts the gates behind the attendees.
But New York is a different beast. Space is at an ultrapremium, land is expensive, and intercity transport can be difficult on the best of days. And since New Yorkers are already presented with a wealth of “programming options,” we’re typically loath to pay a large fee for a multiday festival unless the attractions far exceed what we’re able to find on a daily basis.
The Stedmans aren’t the only ones who have figured out how to stage a festival here—Electric Daisy Carnival is in its second year, and Governors Ball, on Randalls Island, has expanded each of its three years and will this time around feature Kanye West, Kings of Leon, and Guns N’ Roses. But the Stedmans are the only ones to have figured out how to stage a music festival that doesn’t seem in some way to contradict the city. Rather than chase bands famous enough to draw fans from across a county to an empty field, Northside books lots of local acts, with local followings, in local clubs—just more of them at once than you’d ever see any other week of the year. Which makes it feel much less like a straightforward festival experience and more like an extremely amped-up version of a night out in Brooklyn (if one sponsored—and therefore subsidized—by Heineken, Jameson, Vitaminwater, and General Electric).
“I think of a Governors Ball or a Coachella as a headlight festival—one big, blaring light,” says Scott Stedman. “We’re more like Christmas-tree lights. Both are really bright, but in totally different ways.”
The business model and cash flow, too, are totally different. In the case of Governors Ball, much of the revenue is generated from full-festival-bracelet sales—the bracelets are considerably more expensive than the badges at Northside. Even a basic three-day pass will set you back $220 plus taxes and fees. At Northside, a music badge costs only $80 (a movie badge is $35), and because individual-performance tickets are also available, you don’t need to buy access to dozens of concerts if you want to see one or two bands. The bulk of the $2 million revenue—as much as 75 percent—comes from sponsorship and promotion deals. Plus the costs are much lower—programming and promoting dozens of small screenings and shows at dozens of existing small theaters and venues, each of which benefits enormously from the business (nearby bars, restaurants, and hotels get spillover, too). It’s a beast of a project, but nothing like building a fully functional drunken city on Randalls Island and flying in Kanye to perform.
And the Stedmans, for all their talk of the Brooklyn spirit, are extremely bottom-line-oriented businessmen, negotiating every sponsor and venue deal differently. In some cases, Northside will buy the talent for a particular club or bar and take the ticket revenue (the venue makes its money on drinks and from a venue fee). And sometimes the venue will book its own acts and open its doors under the auspices of Northside—in which case the festival guarantees a certain turnout, say 150 ticket buyers, promising to cover the difference if nobody shows.
Of course, on something of a shoestring, the Stedmans can’t afford to book too many high-profile acts. And they don’t want too many up-and-comers, either (an obscure band isn’t going to have any pull). So the ideal mix features big (but not too big) iTunes-era favorites like the Walkmen and Questlove, who is scheduled to play a D.J. set at Brooklyn Bowl on June 13, and also buzzed-about (but not yet overblown) acts such as the Men and Iceage, a Pitchfork-endorsed punk band from Copenhagen.
To get the mix right, the Northside crew doesn’t just work from their own playlists; they spend a lot of time studying metrics: numbers provided by venue operators, impressions from The L magazine website, and surveys of past attendees. That data is used to adjust the programming for the following year. In 2012, for instance, the Stedmans introduced a tech summit similar to the one at SXSW. Ticketholders liked the panels and workshops but wanted the expo to be larger, so for 2013, the Stedmans have doubled the space and given the extravaganza its own name: Northside Entrepreneurship and Technology, or NExT.
One afternoon, I accompanied the Stedmans and their V.P. of sales and marketing, Jesse Smith, to Knitting Factory Brooklyn, which would host several Northside concerts. Lauren Beck, an associate editor at The L and one of the organizers of the festival, was already there, as was Chris Diaz, the chief booker at the Knit. Beck spoke first, with some bad news: EMA, the songstress whom Beck wanted for the Knit, had recently announced she was unable to perform at Northside owing to a scheduling conflict. Now the organizers would have to choose between Bleached, an all-female garage-rock band from Los Angeles, and multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi.