The Rise of Northside

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Courtesy of Northside Festival

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.)

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.

“I’m a huge fan of Kishi Bashi,” said Beck, “but he’s pretty expensive, and Scott’s not too into the price he was asking.”

Diaz cracked open his MacBook Pro and brought up a spreadsheet of ticket sales and attendance from the past year.

“I mean, Bleached is tried and true,” he said. “We’ve had them here twice, and they move lots of tickets, and they’re always great live.”

“Kishi Bashi sold out the Bowery in advance,” Beck pointed out.

“Yeah, they get the business, but again, Bleached is tried and true,” Diaz said. “I think it’s a no-brainer.”

“Cool,” Beck said, businesslike. “Second issue has to do with film crews.”

Like nearly every venue at Northside, the Knit would have a major sponsor presence, with branding from Vitaminwater and Steve Madden. But the sponsor waltz is a delicate one. Year-round, the Stedmans work on attracting new sponsors and cultivating relationships with established ones (this year, there will be 35), while working equally hard not to trigger the bullshit detectors of thousands who might get a little squeamish about attending a festival backed by Con Edison (apparently also hunting for hipster cred).

Partially, they manage that by packing the festival with so much good music that attendees are willing to overlook the conspicuous branding. And partially it’s a by-product of the fact that sponsorships in 2013 do not mean just canvas banners or free stickers. Instead, they mean “activations”—industry shorthand for the kind of multidimensional, interactive branding event that should (in a best-case scenario) merge seamlessly with the non-branded programming—the Red Bull Creation competition, a Jameson lounge of green-shirted bartenders pouring icy tumblers of whiskey, a Bing “hacker challenge” at the Wythe Hotel and 3rd Ward. Happily for Northside, it almost feels like the sponsors are more interested in basking in the cool of the festivalgoers than in actually selling them anything.

Of course, even this kind of branding requires some fairly careful stage-­managing. Both Vitaminwater and Steve Madden wanted their own film crews on hand for the concerts, Beck explained, and she was concerned about traffic control.

“We need to find out about the size of the camera crews,” Scott said. “In terms of shooting, though, Steve Madden’s not going to be concerned if Vitaminwater gets picked up in their footage. Why would they care?”

“The Vitaminwater branding is going to be moderate,” Smith said.

“And no onstage signage,” Beck reminded him.

“Right. They’re cool with that,” Smith said. “They want to keep the music totally sacred. They don’t want to get in the way.”

The offices of Northside Media Group are located in a tall office complex on Main Street in Dumbo. After the last of the meetings, I rode the ferry back across the river with Beck, Smith, and the Stedmans. On the way to the terminal, Daniel recalled the seed of the festival in a live supplement to an “8 Bands You Need to Hear” issue of The L magazine. (Among those eight bands was the little-known Columbia University four-piece Vampire Weekend.) This year, the main draw will be three free open-air concerts, one by Solange—sister to Beyoncé, Houston native, and recent Brooklyn transplant.

As the ferry roared past the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge, Scott fished his phone out of his pocket and steadied himself against the railing. “Holy shit,” he said, and the whole team—Daniel, Smith, and Beck—crowded around the four-inch display. Just a few hours earlier, an RSVP form for the Solange show had gone up online. Already, all 6,500 tickets were taken.

The Rise of Northside