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Laneway's Danny Rogers on Detroit: "This is way bigger than us”

Danny Rogers (promoter-left) and Jerome Borazio (owner of St Jeromes bar) outside Melbourne's (now defunct) St Jeromes in 2008. Pic by Eddie Jim.

How do two Australians go about establishing a music festival in the US? It’s something you suspect Danny Rogers and Jerome Borazio are still trying to wrap their own heads around.

What started in 2004 as a Melbourne street celebration of The Avalanches and the one-year survival of St Jerome’s Bar, soon became Laneway Festival – a boutique indie event with a knack for attracting quality bands. The festival quickly expanded to other cities around Australia, with Auckland and Singapore not too far behind.

With the spread of good times went the spread of the good word. So much so that it eventually reached Detroit, the one time music Mecca and industrial powerhouse that’s still trying to climb out of its post-GFC grave. Now the The Motor City is staring down the barrel of its first ever Laneway Festival, happening later this year on September 14. How did Rogers and Borazio manage to establish a music festival in the US? And more pointedly, how did they manage to establish a festival in Detroit?

TheVine dialled Rogers on Skype and found him relaxing in a Singapore airport lounge before catching a flight to the United Kingdom. He spoke with typical alacrity but also a sense of amazement at how he and Borazio have become US festival promoters.

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Why take Laneway to the US? Most would assume that the festival market is pretty saturated there.

Yeah, look it’s a big country, obviously. And there aren’t any festivals in Detroit – it’s not really a city that people could think could hold a festival of this nature. There’s a jazz festival and a really cool electronic music festival, but an alternative indie music festival — for whatever reason — just hasn’t been on people’s radars. So when some forward thinking [Detroit] locals came to us asking if we’d consider creating an event for them, Jerome and I went over there, met a whole bunch of locals, and came away thinking, “What have we got to lose? This could be really cool.”

We’d never planned to go to America, but the opportunity presented itself and we took it as a sign of the festival coming so far and being in a position where that was something that people thought could happen.

What attracted them to you guys? Why you as opposed to somebody else?

That’s a good question. I think they’d reached out to some music people who work more on an international stage and said, “We’re looking for an international event that’s contemporary. Not an American event but more something from overseas. Does anyone have any suggestions?” And Laneway was one of the festivals that came up in the mix. They reached out to us and maybe Jerome and I were the most keen. Who knows? We just thought it was a great idea and we really liked the people that we met. They could really honour the festival’s reputation.

So the US has never really been on the radar before?

Not really. There’d been some conversations with different people over the years saying, “Hey, you should bring this to LA or Seattle” or maybe some other places. But we just figured that there were already tonnes of festivals in those markets. They were their own cities and we didn’t really feel comfortable entering a market with Laneway. What would that do for anyone? We’re not ATP – ATP’s a brilliant concept that can work in different markets – but Laneway’s ultimately a great contemporary festival that fosters new talent. And while I don’t think there’s an event exactly like Laneway in America, I think there are events that are somewhat similar – especially in those bigger cities.

But the idea of taking a festival like this to a city like Detroit is a really different conversation, because they don’t have events like this. That was already a tick. As we progressed we realised that as programmers and festival organisers, we had a lot to offer and we could potentially put on an event that’s as world class as anything they can get over there. And that was the exciting thing. “Hey, we know a lot about festivals. We could probably do something really cool.”


How much time have you spent in Detroit in the last twelve months?

I’ve probably spent in total a bit over a week. I’ve been there three times. I don’t need to spend days and days there. I have a lot of meetings in LA and New York because I have a lot of partners based in both those places. And that’s the beautiful thing about Skype and email and the way in which the world communicates. As you know, what we’re doing now – conducting this interview – is just so easy. So a lot of it has just been communication online.

What’s Detroit like? As an outsider, what are your impressions? It’s a city that economically is on its knees.

The people I met – people who are associated with the arts world – were incredibly passionate, incredibly persistent and just had that enduring quality that you find admirable in people. They really believe in their city. It’s been kicked around pretty hard, both economically and then from a social standpoint. People put the boot into it in America. That’s what attracted us to it in the long run. We felt like, “Wow, this is a city that could really do with an event like Laneway.” And this is way bigger than us. Going to Detroit is such a great statement to make about the rebirth of the city and the small community there that’s starting that. We’re right at the beginning of this and we can be part of something.

I’ve had the good fortune to live in a lot of different cities and travel a lot over the last fifteen years. I’ve seen a lot of gentrification in cities take place very quickly. I lived in Brooklyn in the late '90s, and the area I lived in – Bedford-Stuyvesant – was considered one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in New York City at the time. Now, twelve years later, that part of town has prime real estate and is considered a really good place to settle a family or whatever.

My point is, it takes a couple of things: it takes a Laneway Festival, it takes a Whole Foods, it takes a really good restaurant or a café or two and a couple of really good artists and suddenly other people are like, “Fuck, that place is awesome. We should set up a coffee shop there.” There’s opportunity there. That’s the thing: a city that goes to its knees, there’s usually for various reasons incredible opportunity as well. And because it’s in an underdog situation, that made us fall in love with the city a bit. New York couldn’t give a fuck if Laneway arrived, whereas people in Detroit aren’t jaded. They live day-to-day and they’re so excited about this. The local scene is buzzing, and that’s really great.

Tell me about the Rochester Hills location. Meadow Brook Music Festival: what is that exactly?

It’s a university – Oakland University – with 30,000 students. It’s about fifteen kilometres out of the city. And we explored various options. Some of them were right down in the city, but we just realised that this space was one that people would be really attracted to. There’s an amphitheatre there and they’ve already had events on one part of it, with people like Kendrick Lamar, Arcade Fire, and Of Monsters and Men. What we’ve done is take that really cool amphitheatre, which people love to play on, and expand it out to this whole university ground. It’s a green-field site, so it’s not a laneway or downtown Detroit site. But it’s really cool and it’ll comfortably hold 15,000 people. It’ll look great, and there’s heaps of space to set things up. And the uni and Meadow Brook itself have been really excited about the festival, so it just felt right.

Photo of the amphitheatre at the Meadow Brook Music Festival.

Was it difficult convincing some American artists of your credentials? Was there anybody who you hadn’t dealt with before and thought you were just a bunch of fresh players?

That’s a really good question. Fortunately, no. We’ve worked with more or less every agency that matters in America, when it comes to music we’re into. We have a very good reputation with the agents, a great reputation with the managers, and probably even more so a great reputation with artists. We’re overwhelmed with the number of artists who want to play Laneway every year, because of the results that we’ve been getting. So it was great.

But at the same time, it was really interesting. When I put that email out there I knew it would be a really interesting reflection on what people thought about Laneway. And we just got smashed. We pulled Sigur Rós and The National a week after we sent the email out. They both came to us and said that they’d love to headline. And obviously from that point onwards having those guys signed up didn’t hurt people’s perceptions. But artists like Deerhunter, Warpaint, El-P – they’ve all played Laneway before and were all really up for it because they’ve had great experiences playing on the festival in Australia.

There’s that sense about what your saying of giving to Detroit – giving to the city. Is it also important to you guys to take Australian artists – Chet Faker, Flume – over there and present them to US audiences?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a bit of a balancing act in the first year. We’ve only got twenty-four positions on the festival. So I tried to look at a couple of acts that didn’t work out for various reasons. I’m hoping next year to pull together some arts funding and be in a position where I can bring over some new talent. I’d really love to be able to bring over some acts that I think would go down really well but just haven’t had a chance to go to America yet. Subject to the festival continuing to happen, I would definitely continue to be as supportive as we can of Aussie acts. I’m very passionate about my Australian bands.

And how hard was it to set up in terms of authorities, red tape and so forth? Did you have much to do with that you could compare to Australia?

Way less than we do in Australia. Because we have partners in America and the roles were clearly defined at the beginning. The reason why these guys wanted us involved at the end of the day was to program. They wanted our creative vision, they wanted us to show them how to roll a festival out from a marketing and promotional standpoint. They wanted us to give them a lot of IP that we’d developed over the years, and then on the ground – where they came into it was locking down the venue, developing the site, getting quotes on staging, confirming ticketing outlets. All that stuff was up to them. So it’s been a nice team effort.

They can come to us and say, “Hey, this is what we’re thinking about when it comes to site design.” I went down there and showed them how I felt the site could be. And that was enough for them to say, “That’s great. That makes sense. Let’s work off that sketch.” But it’s a team effort. Like all good things. There’s always a bunch of great people around anything that’s good.

Singapore, the US, and you’re also managing bands – Gotye, The Temper Trap. How much time do you get to spend at home these days?

(Laughs) I’m away a bit at the moment. It’s been a really busy year, but it’s all such positive stuff. I can’t believe it in a lot of ways. I just keep thinking to myself, “This is incredible.” I just can’t believe the way things are going.

Look, a lot of passion and energy goes into it and I’ve got three kids as well and a wife. I’m a family guy as much as anything. I’ve got a supportive wife and that’s great – she’s been with me since I started back in the days of managing a young Melbourne band called Gersey, when I was basically learning how to run a business. She’s seen it grow since the beginning, she’s been there since then, and she really gets it. That makes it a lot easier for us. But it’s one of those things, isn’t it? I never really thought any of this would happen the way it has, but on the other hand it is happening and I’ve just got to roll with it (laughs). I’ve got to enjoy it.

It’s funny with Laneway. Because it started as a distinctively Melbourne thing and I think people were pleasantly surprised when it went to other cities. And now it’s going to other countries.

Yeah. And there wasn’t a grand plan when we started it. That’s something people may not realise. A lot of people who run events might have a vision about how they’re going to conquer the world. We started out just wanting to put on a party for The Avalanches and St Jerome’s lasting one year. It was very humble beginnings. And real beginnings: that was a real reason to have a party and a reason to try to do something cool.

Finally, does Laneway Detroit mean any of these bands are likely for Laneway in Australia next summer?

Yeah man. There’s definitely a couple at the very least (laughs). Definitely a couple.

Matt Shea (@mrmatches)
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