Last June, I joined approximately 150,000 people at the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City. The festival was first hosted on Governors Island in 2011– hence the name– but it has since been relocated to Randall’s Island (between Manhattan and Long Island). Due to the location and sheer lack of space in New York City, the three day festival is a commuter festival. There is no camping.
I attempted to prepare for Governors Ball much like I did Coachella a few years ago. I knew there would be obvious differences and complications since I was flying to New York City and not driving to California. I knew I was at the mercy of TSA and would probably have to purchase supplies in New York. Bringing everything to and from the festival was sure to be a pain in the ass. So, I started to research the festival and see what others who previously attended the festival had to say about it.
There was very little written about attending the festival.
Because I am a stage-twelve, borderline-obsessive planner, it was incredibly stressful to plan for this trip when so little information existed. So I just had to say fuck it and hope for the best.
But I care about you and I want you to have a good time if you ever attend this festival. So let me tell you what I feel like I did really well and what went horribly wrong.
Let me just start by saying I prefer camping festivals. And if I’m going to be totally honest, I might not do Governors Ball again.
I picked this festival because Robyn was performing and I couldn’t think of any other opportunity I’d ever get to see the magical Swedish unicorn perform live. I had never been to New York City. And I didn’t really pay attention to any other details before I said yes and bought my ticket.
The Governors Ball team is really great at sending you frequent emails to keep you informed leading up to the festival. If it hadn’t been for these emails, I would have been significantly less prepared. However, their website is not as helpful as Coachella’s website. That Coachella website is a planner’s holy grail.
Let’s start with arriving at Governors Ball. A few months after purchasing tickets, I received an email from the Governors Ball team about purchasing transportation tickets. What are those? Since the festival is on an island, they close off public access to the island during the festival so you have three options to get to and from the festival every day.
Option A: Manhattan Ferry
This is the option I chose because the email said it is the easiest way to get to the festival and it has the most frequent departure times. So I purchased a three-day ferry pass.
Option B: Shuttle Bus
You could also meet at Brooklyn Bowl and pile onto a school bus that would then drive you to the festival through NYC traffic. This seemed like a less than ideal option.
Option C: Walk
There was also this free possibility of walking to the island on a pedestrian bridge after taking the subway/bus to the pedestrian bridge. This option was not provided in the transportation email. I didn’t know this option existed until I found one of the few articles written about Governors Ball in which the author mentioned the other two transportation options were a complete waste of money. I don’t wholly agree with her though.
Before you pick your transportation option, it’s really important to know there is no re-entry for the festival each day.
At Coachella, you can come and go as you please, which is why camping is the best way to go because you could go for some early bands, go back to your campsite, and then go back later for more. You could go back to your campsite to change clothes if you need to. You could go back to your campsite to drink more or eat cheaper food or whatever the hell you want.
So, since you cannot return to the festival, it’s more about getting there efficiently. Based on what I witnessed with NYC traffic, I’m going to just assume the bus is the worst option. Riding in the city bus a few blocks at a time gave me enough anxiety as I watched the bus drivers force their way in to tight spaces and nearly take out pedestrians. I cannot imagine a shuttle ride from Brooklyn.
The ferry was also a clusterfuck though. We were staying in Brooklyn, so my friends and I took the A/C train to Penn Station where we caught a bus to the ferry. At no point did I feel like anyone even checked to see that I had a ferry pass. They didn’t scan my QR code on my bracelet. Nothing. We were nicely filed in a line going into the bag check and then it just became a free-for-all mass of people running to get a good spot on the ferry. Then the ferry takes roughly 30 minutes to actually get to the island where you go through bag checks again.
I did not plan well enough the first day. I did not leave early enough because I did not realize just how long it would take to get to the festival. I totally did better with this the second day, but I also didn’t take the ferry to the festival on day two.
The super shitty thing about the ferry though was leaving the festival. I thought it was disorganized getting there. But leaving is just a mob of people trying to force their way through this tiny little maze and pile onto the ferry. It took us 45 minutes just to get onto the ferry. 45 minutes of being shoved up against the people in front of us. Moving forward from the force of those around us and not because we were actually walking on our own. This is how people get trampled at festivals. Drunk disorganized mobs. But we’ll get to that in a second. Let’s start with…
Like I previously mentioned, I didn’t plan to leave early enough because I didn’t realize just how long it would actually take to get to the festival, so I missed most of Big Grams (Big Boi + Phantogram).
After their set, we found our locker. Because there is no camping, it is an absolute necessity that you pre-order a locker. This is another handy thing the GovBall team will email you about as you get closer to the festival dates. Especially since there is no re-entry, you want to make sure you have everything with you for an all-day event. We put my backpack in the locker, but kept the middle-aged lesbian fannypack on hand with all of the bare necessities.
As we wandered the festival grounds, this is where I need to tell you Coachella also has Governors Ball beat. There really aren’t very many food vendors. And nothing is cheap. This was easily the most surprising thing to me about Coachella. I couldn’t believe how reasonable the food and beverage prices were. Yes, we brought most of our own food and alcohol because we were camping, but if you had to depend on the venue, it was pretty reasonable. At Governors Ball, the food was reasonably priced, though there weren’t many options. But the booze was out of control. The event was sponsored by Miller. And there was absolutely no way I was going to pay $10 for a tallboy of Miller or Miller Light. Fuck that. For hard alcohol, they had a selection of 3-4 mixed drinks you should choose. $16 for a double. $12 for a single.
Praise the person who decided they’d also carry Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy at a few of the beer tents. Now, I’m not one to get shitty incoherent at concerts of any kind– because I’m there for the music and I want to remember and enjoy my experience– but I like to enjoy a few beers.
There are really only three stages at the event, so after a few beers and some sustenance, we made our way back to get in the perfect position for Matt and Kim.
I honestly don’t listen to a lot of Matt and Kim’s music. But, after seeing them live on a whim in 2011, I will never miss an opportunity to see them live again. They are incredible. They are easily one of the most fun acts I have ever seen live.
So we prepared and secured a good spot close to the stage.
The sheer force of the moving crowd separated our crew. We had a Pride flag as our totem, but it didn’t help us get anywhere near our flag bearer. At one point one of my friends took a crowd surfer’s foot to the face. I took an elbow to the face forcefully enough to pop one of the lenses out of my glasses. My super-expensive-because-I’m-blind-as-fuck-prescriptioned glasses. Why was I wearing them if they’re so expensive? Because I wasn’t expecting to get my face rocked that day. That’s why.
I watched the lens fall away. Helpless. My arms were trapped between other sweaty bodies. You know when people talk about that burst of adrenaline that gives mothers the strength to lift cars when their children are trapped underneath? This was my baby under a car moment. I threw my arms to create space around myself with force I didn’t know I could muster. My eyes darted around desperately searching for any remnant of glass. By some grace of holy festival gods, I saw the sun reflect off the lens on the ground in the middle of a mosh pit. I bent down to grab it and shoved it in my pocket. I yelled, “Fuck yes!” and then the mosh pit took me six feet closer to the stage like a rag doll.
And it was all worth it. Kim came out into the crowd for one of her famed booty dances right next to me.
It took us awhile to recover from Matt and Kim, so we used this time to rehydrate, booze it up, and listen to bands from a distance while we prepared for my sole purpose for attending the festival: Robyn.
There were people around us who had seen Robyn before and they all talked about how incredible she is. I was pumped. But there was also this piece of me that was afraid the festival would peak on day one and then the next two days would be a waste. And I didn’t want to feel that way. But I couldn’t shake the feeling.
And then she took the stage.
And then the disappointment set in.
I kept waiting. Hoping.
Robyn’s entire set was watching her dance to a jam session and occasionally sing a verse or the occasional chorus from one of her songs. She did not perform any song in its entirety. It was still a good performance. But I was not alone in my bewilderment as most of the crowd seemed equally confused for the entire performance.
What I wish I had known earlier is that Robyn’s most recent tour and festival appearances was promoting a remix project she is working on. Thank you, Rolling Stone for helping me mend my broken heart once I returned from the festival.
So, I will not give up. If I have another opportunity to see Robyn, I will absolutely go– after I confirm that she’s not performing her remix project.
After Robyn, we made our way over near where The Strokes were finishing their set. Some of the people in my group went to see The Strokes instead of Robyn and we decided to meet up at the silent disco tent after the performances before heading back into the city. It turns out the activity tents close fairly early. So, since the silent disco was closed, we made our way back to the ferry. Now, if we’d known leaving was going to be such an issue, I probably would have left immediately after Robyn instead of leaving with the masses after The Strokes wrapped their set. But I also really like The Strokes, so I’m glad we caught the tail-end of their set.
Like I mentioned earlier, getting off the island was an absolute clusterfuck. If you decide to take the ferry, bring jackets/sweatshirts/something warm for the ferry ride back. I don’t care how warm it was during the day, the ferry ride will be cold. You will thank me for this. I feel like the pedestrian bridge may be the best way off the island, but I do not know this for sure.
It took what felt like an eternity to make it back to our Airbnb. We were exhausted. And before we knew it, it was time for…
Because this was also my first trip to New York, I decided to try to pack in some touristy things around the festival despite not really providing myself adequate time to do so. On the second day of the festival, I didn’t care to see any of the early bands, so I decided to spend some time adventuring and I met up with a friend I’ve known since elementary school.
This meant bottomless mimosas.
Since we were in Harlem, it made more sense to take the pedestrian bridge to the festival instead of backtracking all the way to the Manhattan Ferry. The pedestrian bridge is the easiest way to get into the festival if you know how to get to it. Which transportation route is best will really depend on where you are in the city and how much time you have. I’m glad we took the ferry on the first day because it was neat to see the city like that, but I also didn’t budget enough time for how long the ferry took to get us to the island. If you’re a more experienced New York City traveler, the pedestrian bridge is probably the way to go.
We arrived in time to catch part of De La Soul. And then it was time for HAIM.
I first saw HAIM at Coachella in 2014. I wasn’t really familiar with them, but we stopped at a beer garden between two of the stages and I was drawn to their stage by a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”. I was floored and immediately went to the Coachella app to figure out who these girls were. The Haim sisters.
The other thing that’s important to know about Governors Ball is to prepare for rain. Most of the Google image searches will come up with girls in rain boots in the mud. It will rain. We prepared by packing ponchos, but somehow on day two when it was most definitely going to rain, I couldn’t find them anywhere. Certain I left them in New Mexico– spoiler alert, I didn’t– we did without the ponchos and decided to brave the elements.
We picked up some beers at one of the beer tents and tried to coordinate efforts to meet at HAIM. Cellphone reception is also terrible on the island, so this is where having a really great totem will come in handy. They started the set and we were all separated in our efforts to locate one another and make it closer to the stage. And then the rain started.
I will honestly say this was my favorite festival moment. I went in expecting to peak at Robyn. It almost peaked with Matt and Kim, but HAIM, watching HAIM in the rain was magical.
I also have no pictures from seeing HAIM in the rain. Why? Because I water-damaged the ever-living shit out of my phone taking these Snapchat videos.
I also blame the effects of the rain on the quality of the video/audio sync. Thank you, AppleCare+.
Let me take a moment to make a few public service announcements:
- Do not be that asshole with an umbrella blocking someone’s view of the stage. Ponchos. Bring a poncho. Or forget them like I did, but do not bring an umbrella unless you’re cool being as far away from the stage as humanly possible.
- Danielle Haim, please marry me.
After HAIM, literally everyone made their way to see Purity Ring because they were performing under a covered pavilion and the rain was really coming down. We tried to catch a little of Miike Snow and The Killers, but the temperature was turning, we were completely soaked, and we were becoming more and more miserable. So we made the executive decision to get back on the ferry and head home. But so did many others.
Again, we were stuck in a mass of wet bodies, forcing their way toward the ferry. A sea of people moving in waves without taking a single step. A girl shorter than I am wanted to fight me because she thought I was pushing her. Clearly, she had never been in a crowd situation quite like the one trying to board the ferry. This was also the most frigid ferry and train ride back to our home base. Everything we had was completely soaked through. It was cold and windy, and the rain was relentless. We probably still would have been cold and uncomfortable if we had the ponchos, but we would have been significantly more dry.
Good thing we found the ponchos in a suitcase once we unpacked from the trip. Yes, a suitcase we had with us. Yes, we could have been dry and warm but we weren’t because we couldn’t find the damn ponchos when we were prepping for the day. Oh, the satisfaction of knowing I didn’t actually leave them in New Mexico.
Now, before we go on, it’s important to note that my travel buddy and I had three long days by this point. We arrived late on June 1st. We spent all of June 2nd seeing New York– museums, Central Park, bars, Stonewall, etc.– and had another late night. The festival started on June 3rd. And by the time we made it back to our home base each night after the festival, it was roughly 2am with the festival ending around midnight/12:30 each night.
So by the time we reached…
We were exhausted.
Day three was also the most packed day of the festival. I wanted to see Cold War Kids, Eagles of Death Metal, Courtney Barnett, Two Door Cinema Club, Chvrches, and Death Cab for Cutie.
And then they cancelled the festival.
They cancelled the festival due to lightning in the area. And honestly, I’m glad they did. Because if they had allowed everyone to go to the island but then had to evacuate the island due to lightning or other weather, there was no way that was going to happen quickly or efficiently.
So we gained an extra day to explore New York.
One of my friends told us to be on the lookout for some of the bands from the festival playing pop-up shows. I have no idea where anyone heard about who was playing where. I felt like I spent all day on Twitter waiting for tips to attend secret shows, but it wasn’t until we came home that I learned some of the bands I wanted to see still played at small venues in the area.
The next morning we woke up to the news that Kanye West tried to play in the middle of the street, but the city shut it down when the crowd grew too large and things got out of control. He never performed.
Despite not knowing anything about the pop-up shows, this is another moment where I was really grateful for the communication from the GovBall team. I received an email that morning letting me know performances were going to be delayed and informing us not to go to the island until they sent an update regarding conditions. Once the cancellation email came, it had all of the information we needed about refunds being issued, etc.
Governors Ball is unique in the sense that they still allow single-day ticket purchases rather than purchasing a wristband for the entire festival. So anyone who purchased a ticket for day three received a full refund. We received a partial refund for that day, the ferry, and the locker. And we had an extra day to visit the museums and sights we hadn’t had time for earlier in the week.
I don’t know if I’d go again. When I think about festival experiences, there are fewer artists at Governors Ball than at some other festivals, and depending on where you are traveling from, Governors Ball could be pretty pricey. A three-day pass for Governors Ball is around $300 where it’s $400 for Coachella. But I’m close enough to drive to Coachella versus flying to Governors Ball. A Coachella camping pass is around $115, but you can split that among your campmates and you can’t find anywhere to stay for anything near that for a three-day festival in New York City. Add to it all of the expenses for meals, etc. since you won’t be camping at Governors Ball and… it’s spendy.
I want to do more festivals so I can provide a better comparison. I’d like to go to Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Lollapalooza to name a few. But, you better get ready because I’m going to perfect my Coachella setup this year when I return to Indio for Coachella 2017.