Thousands flock to Williamsburg, Greenpoint for Northside Festival

June 14, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Stedmans perform in front of thousands of attendees in McCarren Park. Photo by Sam Polcer
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Although the first day of summer isn’t technically until June 20, roughly 100,000 individuals swarmed to Williamsburg and Greenpoint last week to celebrate the unofficial start of the season with the Northside Festival.

Dubbed by many as Brooklyn’s own South by Southwest, the Northside Festival is an annual weeklong celebration that showcases emerging music, technology, ideas and entrepreneurship across the borough’s hippest hoods.

Northside, which just completed its eighth year, is gaining attention at an exponential rate as more and more people discover this quintessential Brooklyn event.

The festival is composed of three major components: music, innovation and content.

Over the course of the week, the Brooklyn Eagle attended several events from each section and had the pleasure of hearing a plethora of innovative speakers and up-and-coming musicians.

Some highlights from the week included:

  • Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys performing in McCarren Park

  • A Fireside Keynote with Dan Schulman, CEO and president of PayPal

  • Virtual Reality at the New York Times: Leveraging Creativity, Technology and Culture

  • Drone’s Eye View: GE’s Explorations In Drone Storytelling with Linda Boff, CMO of GE

  • Making Daring Ideas Happen: Helping Brands Take Risks For Their Fans

Following the week’s festivities, the Eagle spoke with Northside Festival Director Dana Keith, who shared what makes this event so special and the role that Brooklyn plays in that process. Following are edited excerpts from the Eagle’s conversation with Keith.


Eagle: What was the inspiration behind Northside?

Keith: We’re the same company that used to publish the L Magazine and we were writing about all these innovators, creators and artists all the time. We were looking at South by Southwest, and we were wondering, what makes that event so special?

We thought part of it is because it’s so transformative. The other thing we noticed was that so many people at South By Southwest are artists, musicians, attendees and companies that are coming from here.

So about eight years ago, Williamsburg had already started this renaissance that is happening, and we thought that Williamsburg has the infrastructure to be like Downtown Austin. Bedford Avenue is sort of Sixth Street and has all these music venues. Hotels and movie theaters were still a few years away but that entire infrastructure was starting to get set.

We thought we could create this walkable radius like South By Southwest has created and make this transformative experience. All these artists are already here and we’re already writing about them and talking about them so why does New York, which is the cultural and creative capital of the world, not have a festival like this? That was the thinking when it first started.


Eagle: Can you describe the three major components of the festival: music, innovation and content?

Keith: When it first started. It was Northside Music only. We had a few hundred bands play but the ethos of the festival was that it was this platform for the discovery of emerging bands. There were always a few headliners, but it was always about what’s next in music and a showcase of that. That was the key feature of years one and two.

We kind of noticed that entrepreneurs were the new rock stars and they were the new influencers of creativity and innovation. So we decided since Northside is all about what’s next, we thought innovation and entrepreneurship should be a part of it, too. So we added Northside Innovation in year three and that did really well.

For the first years of innovation, we did some programing around content under the innovation umbrella, and then last year, we thought there was so much to say on the subject. Content is what’s next in film and digital storytelling, so we decided to break out content as its own conference and eclipse what was once Northside Film. While we love film and it’s always relevant, what’s actually next is visual storytelling and branded content.

Eagle: How is Northside unique from other festivals?  

Keith: I think what’s different about Northside in a lot of ways is that Northside is not a campground festival. It’s not trying to have you see music in a field somewhere, separate from where you would be or live otherwise. Northside is taking the urban landscape and using it as the festival footprint and not trying to make you feel like you’re not in a city.

There’s nothing wrong about those festivals, but it’s just a very different experience. Our experience is that this is a festival that is inspired by and influenced by the creativity coming out of New York and Brooklyn. That doesn’t mean the attendees, artists and creators are all from Brooklyn, but that is the ethos, and instead of trying to hide that, we work within it. We work within the rough landscape of New York City with all of the venues and hotels. All of that is part of the festival experience.

Eagle: Why does Northside thrive in Brooklyn?

Keith: Obviously, all these things are shifting and changing, but Northside has been around eight years now, and Brooklyn is certainly having and is still is having its moment. Because we were a media company writing a lot about the arts and culture of this community, we saw that firsthand for years before we even started Northside Festival.

The L Magazine is 14 years old, so for six years, we’re writing about it, we’re talking about it, we’re seeing this momentum happening in a really neat transformation, and then almost like a hurricane of innovation and creativity happening in this area. That’s what makes it such an exciting thing.

You can go to conferences at convention centers and you can see concerts in fields or on islands or even in indoor venues all the time but to kind of almost disrupt your typical event experience and say like ‘Come see Marc Mathieu, the CMO of Samsung at the Wythe Hotel and then come see CMO of GE Linda Boff speak at the Wythe.’

We’re sort of saying, this is where these people are from, not necessarily the speakers, some of them, but the attendees and this momentum. Within this interesting footprint, you should be able to engage a few interesting people.

Eagle: Do you think Northside positively affects Brooklyn’s businesses?  

Keith: Yeah, I don’t want to speak for the businesses, but I would think so. I hear a lot at the festival people saying, “Wow I live in Manhattan,” or they’re coming from out of town and they’ve heard about Brooklyn, but are too lazy to come over here. And they say, “I’m so glad I came.”

It’s crazy to think that people still think it’s far away. I think we’re driving new blood into places and making people get up and come when maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

Eagle: What were some of the highlights of Northside, in your opinion?

Keith: Marc Mathieu and Linda Boff were some highlights. Dan Schulman from PayPal just spoke. These are all innovation-specific highlights.

Content was really exciting. It was a totally transformative experience for the festival, which we’re really excited about growing in future years. There were some really, really cool virtual reality panels. We streamed a commercial that Jeep made that hasn’t come out yet.

For music, we do the concerts in McCarren Park. Last night with Wolf Parade, which was incredible. We’ll have live music on Bedford Avenue all weekend. On Sunday night, Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys is playing in McCarren Park. That’s a very small sampling of the 400 bands, but those are some of the things we’re excited about.


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