What is “Escape To New York,” the three-day event taking place on the Shinnecock Reservation adjacent to Southampton, Aug. 6-7? For the answer, Pollstar turned to the event’s founder, Fred “Freddie” Fellowes.
Fellowes is a pro at creating unique, one-of-a-kind experiences. His annual “Secret Garden Party” in England forms the nexus of a temporary community coming together to celebrate music and art.
“Escape To New York,” featuring performances by Patti Smith, Edward Sharpe & The Magentic Zeros and Of Montreal, isn’t an almost endless procession of bands playing multiple stages during a 72-hour period. Sure, you can camp, but you can enjoy all the luxuries of home by opting for Escape’s “Glamping” experience. There’s also experimental theatre, Shinnecock arts and crafts and the world’s biggest brunch at a live music event, all presented in a family-friendly atmosphere.
In order to get a better sense of what Fellowes’ latest creation is all about, Pollstar spoke with Fellowes about the event and its relationship with the Shinnecock Tribe as well as why gigantic white bunnies roaming Manhattan are the perfect promotional vehicles for enticing people to “Escape To New York.”
Are you trying to transplant the “Secret Garden” experience to the United States or are you building something unique from the ground up?
We’re not trying to transplant the experience. That’s something that’s grown up rather organically over ten years. What we are trying to cultivate over here, is what is referred to in England as “boutique festivals,” much more a lifestyle experience event where it’s just not a gig in a field. There’s all sorts of entertainment, musical and non-musical alike, combined with good food, good living solutions and all the rest.
Was working with a tribal community like the Shinnecock always part of the plan or did the opportunity just happen to come along at the right time?
I don’t think we would have probably ever conceived the idea if the opportunity had not presented itself to us. It was more of a case of “This sounds good, let’s do it,” rather than having a long-term ambition and plan to launch our event in America.
It almost seems as if it’s a part of the plan, what with the general idea of “Escape To New York” showcasing artwork dovetailing with the Shinnecock’s own art culture.
It was a healthy coincidence. The tribe is very pleased to construct an event that represents their nation in any way. They hold one of the largest pow wows in North America, so they’re very capable to do that themselves. But I think the unique opportunity of running the event with the tribe makes it perfectly suited for the type I produce.
Was Long Island always the target location or did you have several sites in mind?
The offer to do the event came from the Shinnecock Nation. We are certainly looking forward to building on this relationship and building bridges with other [tribal] nations. We’ve started talks with the Seminoles in Florida and a couple of other tribes.
What can people expect from “Escape To New York?”
This is a party, it’s not a festival. It’s really about what you as a participant get up to, see, who you talk to and what you do rather than you just being a spectator. You expect some of the best experiential information and art New York has to offer alongside some of the best food and experiences. Add to that things people may be less used to seeing. We have a whole tent that goes under the name “Gorilla Science” which is really mind-blowing. Lectures covering subjects from brain waves theory all the way to a personal address by the head of Wikileaks, Julian Assange. You add that to the high level of décor, food service, bar, the very much deregulated, non-crowded environment we’re going to be in with boutique camping, and it’s a weekend in the country like no other.
Do you pamper your ticket buyers? Looking at your promotional material, there’s the impression that your buyers are going to be waited on hand and foot.
We just like to treat our customers with respect. They’re not a vehicle to increase our bottom line. They are individuals and we don’t want them to stop feeling like that at any point because that breaks down the whole fabric of the party we’re trying to create. For instance, if our bar only served one drink per person, not only does that increase the queues, but all the people in front of you are now obstacles and not people you might actually meet and have conversations with. I think that’s rather dehumanizing. That’s really the angle we’ve come across. We try to give them as much responsibility, care and attention we possibly can.
Did you have to approach the artists on your lineup or did some artists contact you about playing “Escape to New York?” For example, Patti Smith is one of your headliners. When you consider her accomplishments, not only as a punk music pioneer but also as a poet and author, she seems like a natural fit – as if “Escape To New York” would be the kind of event she would want to play.
We pride ourselves on our bookings. I’ve always done booking for “Secret Garden Party” and I’ve approached it as rather than trying to think of artists who are going to get the most bums in the seats, as it were. I’m thinking of artists who are really compatible with the event we are throwing, and fit in with what you want to see and listen to once you’re having fun in the fields with your mates.
We approached her, but she instantly got on board. As did Edward Sharpe and Of Montreal. They got where we were coming from straight off. Which is always encouraging.
“We just like to treat our customers with respect. They’re not a vehicle to increase our bottom line.”
What’s up with the bunnies?
You’ll have to wait and see.
We receive a lot of press material but nothing quite like the “Escape To New York Bunnies On The Loose In NYC” announcement. How did you come up with having people dressed as giant bunnies to promote the event?
It’s always hard to describe any creative process. When we started the “Secret Garden Party,” I didn’t come from a live-event background or training beforehand. No one had really told me what was right and wasn’t right, what we could and couldn’t do. As adults we have grown in a very non-linear fashion. I think it’s a simple as that. If no one tells you what’s impossible, there really aren’t that many things that are.
What were you doing before “Secret Garden Party?”
I did a couple of things. I had a Christmas job deejaying office parties and I did some trendspotting for [fashion company] Topman. I worked over the harvest driving a tractor. I did pretty much everything except drive a cab. I ended up doing marketing which involved scouting out venues for semi-legal raves. Me and my partner in crime, Jay Nash, came across the site we use for “Secret Garden Party.” We got offered it, we didn’t actually “come across it.” It was land my family farmed. That was the moment the light bulb came on – it was too beautiful to pass on to any client. I should do this myself.
How long have you been planning “Escape To New York?”
It’s two years in the planning. It was about September/October the year before last when we started talking with the Shinnecock Tribal Council. I’ve had a while to mull over what we’re going to do and how we were going to do it.
Does it always take that long? That is, did you know it would take up to two years to come to fruition?
Yes. Funny enough, there was a conversation I had with my two business partners after the first pitch to the tribal elders and they were frantically talking about the possibilities. I had to suddenly go, “Wait a second, guys. Realty check. We’re not talking about this summer.”
“It’s really about what you as a participant get up to, see, who you talk to and what you do rather than you just being a spectator.”
Having been doing Secret Garden for 10 years, we’ve talked to a lot of people in England about starting up events, consulting all kinds of festival organizers, and the one common thread is A: people think you can put these things together far quicker than you can, and B: everyone thinks it’s a license to print money. Both of those suppositions are completely wrong.
Regarding the creative process, do you consider yourself an ‘idea man’ concerned with the Big Picture while others work out the details, or are you more detailed-oriented?
I think it’s both. I love the big, broad brushstrokes in coming up with the whole concept, but I genuinely believe the magic and the experience is always deeply rooted in the details, whether that’s how easy it is to buy your ticket or get through the gates, to noticing the love and attention going into it. Those are the bits that lights up the people’s experiences. The devil lies in the details and that’s really the parts I obsess over. Making sure all the individual ingredients are up to standard and high quality.
I also love thinking of these events very holistically and from a different angle. We spent a lot of time looking in England, working out things [like] crowd flow and crowd management, on that scale. It was really fascinating, but at the same time I’m the first one to obsess about how we’re going to tie ribbons to trees or hang penguins from the rafters.
It sounds as if there’s almost an endless list of small details that when combined help make up the experience.
Absolutely. It’s such an infectious feeling being in an environment where someone is clearly taken care of and loved. It infuses the atmosphere of the people partying and it makes for a much better environment. People have more fun, they meet more people and they come away having smiled and laughed more than they would have done otherwise. We take a lot of care in the level of our production and décor.
What’s a bigger thrill; Completing an enormous event that’s spent two years in the planning stage or seeing the smiles on your customers’ faces?
It’s the smiles without a doubt. That’s the thing that makes it worth while. I think the feeling of having pulled off the event comes later. But it’s seeing the smiles on their faces when they’ve realized they’ve just seen something absolutely brilliant.
Before “Secret Garden Party” became a reality, were there festivals or events that helped influence the planning?
My generation came from the rave dance era. That was a huge influence simply because I knew people who loved the environment of some of these raves, but weren’t into the niche dance music that populated it. So “Secret Garden Party” was very much an attempt to give people the same kind of playground, the same kind of liberties and interactive fun and games. On top of that, I’ve been going to Glastonbury since I was old enough to jump the fence.
Then from that initial starting point, we came over to “Burning Man” in America, which gave us our next injection of inspiration in seeing how much love and participation can really fire up an audience and create that atmosphere that you remember. So it’s a mixture of American and English events that have gotten me to where I am today, influence-wise.
“No one had really told me what was right and wasn’t right, what we could and couldn’t do.”
What elements, if any from “Burning Man” are you incorporating into “Escape To New York?”
Other than ground principles of how much creativity, love and attention is paid to details, I’m hesitant to compare “Burning Man” to our event because we’re going to be charging for drinks and our event isn’t in the middle of bloody nowhere. But I think when launching an event like this in America, [Burning Man] is an easy sign post to use because there aren’t a lot of things that set an example as to what we’re going to do here. I’ve always known it’s about using it as a point of reference.
Is that because one of the big attractions about “Burning Man” is that the event is very much the culmination of everyone who attends and the attendees themselves are the main attraction?
Yes. I think that creates a great strength within an event. It’s something that I certainly would be looking to encourage in “Escape To New York” as it goes forward. It’s much harder to have a curated event of 5,000 people in year one, because you have a whole lot of curators and not a lot of submitters, as it were. I think it’s a great way to create an event that has meaning, has some touch of zeitgeist to it. As an organizer and curator it’s quite a lot to put yourself out there and expect you’re going to provide all of that for an event. Sooner or later you’re not going to be the youngest kid on the block or the kid with the smartest ideas. And what is better than having the people coming to your event taking that event along?
Is there a dream event you’d like to produce?
I’ve always wanted to have Dolly Parton and The Pixies on the same bill. That’s off the top of the head, but it’s something I’ve wanted to see for a long time just because why the hell not? If you went into fantasy festival booking we could be here all day.
My often-repeated mantra is “This will be a three-day party like no other.” This is the hardest challenge with the press and marketing. You can’t paint pictures for people who haven’t been to this type of event before when there are no other events in the country that we feel are fairly comparable to.
But there’s a first time for everything.
Exactly. Amen to that.
“I’m the first one to obsess about how we’re going to tie ribbons to trees or hang penguins from the rafters.”
The first-ever “Escape To New York” features Patti Smith, Best Coast, Chairlift, Lissy Trulie, The Postelles and Static Jacks performing Aug. 5. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Vaccines, The Psychedelic Furs, White Rabbits, Au Revoir Simone, The Submarines and Graffiti6 perform Aug. 6. Of Montreal, The Jolly Boys, Mates Of State, Reptar, Tiger Love and Savoir Adore appear Aug. 7.
Three-day and single-day tickets are still available. Check out Escape2NY.com for more information.