Boasting one of the best lineups of 2017 — which includes real-life superhero Chance The Rapper, progressive metal legends Tool, and indie rock stalwarts Bon Iver — Boston Calling’s fifth year will take place for the first time in at Harvard’s Athletic Complex, doubling its size both in terms of landscape and artists.
“We took a really big step from our last site and the 22 bands that we could have over the three days, to the 45 bands we have now,” festival co-founder Mike Snow told me over the phone of the festival’s growth. “This will be the first time that we’re into a 16 acres and 45 bands and 3 stages type of thing.” In just five years, Boston Calling has grown exponentially, quickly becoming a massive contester in the festival circuit. After venturing to festivals around the country, Snow realized that part of what makes festivals so special is the notion that “somebody built a little oasis or city for you over three days.”
The move to the Harvard Athletic Complex from their previous location at Boston’s City Hall stemmed from a desire to build a sense of a communal experience that can only really be captured in the festival setting. “Attendees are giving their money, knowing the experience is going to be great, and knowing that the people there are going share this common music festival bond,” Snow said fondly. “Not music, per say, not going to concerts. But this music festival bond. It’s this personality of openness and a happy style. It’s a type of person that loves this environment as a whole. So, in five festivals, I’d want to have 40%-60% of our audience think that way about our brand, and be willing to be out there no matter who gets on the stage, because the community is so great.”
Harvard Athletic Complex provides Boston Calling with the ability to more than double their operation, allowing them to really compete with the likes of Governors Ball and Lollapalooza as they move more into the world of big festivals. “We were out of space,” Snow said. “We were having three concerts in a row and looking at it as a festival.”
After five years at Boston’s City Hall, Snow and the other festival organizers — a team of five full-time employees and a dedicated Board of Directors — realized that the festival experience revolves around more than just simply the music. Thus, the 2017 installment of Boston Calling will include nearly 30 food vendors and an immersive film experience curated by Natalie Portman. “With this site, we’re giving people way more bands, way more room to do art installations, and something like 30 food vendors,” he said. “Now the person is going to leave with more than just, ‘Hey, Mumford And Sons was really good tonight.’ It’s going to be an immersive experience where people can say, ‘Dude, did you see this art thing? Did you see these lights? Oh my god, I just ate this unbelievable sandwich from this food truck that is never by my work. And I got to see Mumford And Sons.’ That’s really what we’re going to do, and are excited to do.”
As with previous installments of the festival, Boston Calling’s incredible 2017 lineup was curated by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who brings a unique perspective to the typical numbers-driven booking efforts that a festival has to undertake. “Aaron has an ability to look at music from a musicians standpoint, which is a really amazingly helpful thing to have in the mix,” says Snow. “It’s somebody who just doesn’t care about the numbers and can say, ‘I’ve played with this person,’ or ‘I believe in this person.’ He puts his tastes aside better than most people I’ve ever worked with and says, ‘Nope, this is what this lineup needs.'”
The goal of the festival’s lineup curation is generally to create mass appeal unlike any other. Comprised of hip-hop acts (Chance The Rapper, Major Lazer), fresh punk acts (PUP, The Hotelier), metal legends (Tool), indie rock darlings (Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons), and pop-rock stalwarts (The 1975, Cage The Elephant), Boston Calling provides one of the most well-rounded and diverse lineups of recent memory. As they gear up to begin booking for the festival, the team starts with a wish list, or a “record store list” of between nine and twelve artists they would love to see at the festival, working down the list to see who would be interested in taking part.
“We think, ‘Ok cool, we got The XX? That’s awesome,” Snow explained. “We got Tool? That’s a hell of a start. Well what does this need? We’ve got two out of ten. ‘Oh, it needs Major Lazer, it needs Chance The Rapper, it definitely needs Bon Iver.’ Then you’re looking at six out of twelve thinking, ‘Yeah, this is starting to feel really good. Let’s see what else is on the record store list that fits in this group.’” That said, Snow is quick to note that their ability to craft a lineup comes primarily from luck.
That’s not to say that Boston Calling doesn’t take numbers into account at all when booking the festival. The staff simply works a little differently than most festivals. While booking, past shows (where the artist played and how it sold), whether artists have a new record, information on Pollstar, whether radio stations are playing the record, and a lot more have to be taken into consideration.
“There is actual data that we do go off of, but we’ve had a lot better luck going on — and it sounds awful — how it feels as a collective, rather than just crunching numbers and figuring out what fits in a budget and whether they sold out the show the last time they came through town,” Snow said with a laugh.
Running a music festival takes a lot of work, most of which goes unnoticed until you actually have to undertake the project yourself. When I asked Snow for one piece of advice for someone trying to start their own festival, he was quick with a response: “Go to a festival. Work box office, artist relations, work production. Just take your minimum wage and go see the show because that experience is invaluable. That’s the way to get in it: By proving that you’re a hard worker and that you can deal with stressful situations. Then you’ve got some steady ground under your feet, and you have some experience to take to the next job or running your own event.”
What started out five years ago as just another downtown Boston musical event on par with Fourth of July and the Boston Pops has become a huge, national endeavor, one that nearly grew too much for its own good. However, Snow and his team were able to overcome all of the challenges of the ever-growing festival to put together its most exciting iteration yet.
Boston Calling will take over Harvard’s Athletic Complex over Memorial Day Weekend May 26th-28th. Pick up tickets here.