A Rational Conversation: FYF Fest's Sean Carlson on Taking DIY Spirit to the Next Level Without F***ing Up...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s recently entered pop-culture consciousness.
This weekend brings the 10th edition of the FYF Festival, an annual Los Angeles tradition that began in 2003 as the Fuck Yeah Fest – a clusterfuck indeed of local acts playing clubs and makeshift venues on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood. Having long since adopted a less curse-wordy name, FYF Fest has developed into a two-day event held outdoors at L.A. Historic Park just outside of downtown with an international, 70-plus act lineup that this year includes indie royalty spanning My Bloody Valentine, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and FLAG to Solange, The Breeders performing Last Splash, No Age, Baroness, Waxahatchee, and Death Grips (we’ll see what happens there!).
Since its start, FYF’s primary organizer has been Sean Carlson, a scrappy promoter that many L.A. music fans rooted for, even when his events went awry. Carlson put on the first FYF when he was 18, but as he approaches 30, he’s become much less reckless and has tried to take a more professional approach. This tactic has included bringing in Goldenvoice, the company best known for the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, to handle some aspects of the FYF Festival. Ducker got on the phone with Carlson to talk about how he and the festival have evolved over the past 10 years.
Eric Ducker: In watching the FYF grow, what’s always interested me is the ambition. There are different types of ambition: I’m talking about having big ideas, not the connotation of wanting to make a lot of money.
Sean Carlson: In the first year of FYF, I had never booked a show outside of a D.I.Y. space. I was 18 and bored with the shows that I was going to in Los Angeles. Earlier that year, I was travelling across the country with friends and I went to a show that was in multiple venues – you could walk in and out of rooms and see all these bands; it became almost like an art walk. For me, at 18, that was really exciting, but that show had bands mostly from the same genre. When I got home, I thought I’d be great to have a mix of bands that would never play with one another, and then there would be comedy and art, too. It was a very ambitious idea, and I had no idea what I was doing. The first year it was free: I thought 100 or 200 people would show up, and 2000 people showed up. There was no schedule, bands didn’t know where they were playing – 10 bands showed up and just drove off. But it had a sense of community because it was all local bands, all local artists, and all local comedians: there would be, say, a crust-punk band playing next door to Zach Galifianakis doing comedy. It was a very ambitious idea that year. In Los Angeles, people don’t get put in situations where they have to talk; it was almost like a social experiment. Each year the festival has changed in a sense because I’ve been getting older. I still have very ambitious ideas, but I try to make them more realistic. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot, like when I did the F-Yeah Tour in 2008, where we bought a school bus and 20 of us, 27 at some points, drove across the country.
Eric Ducker: Is it possible to find a balance between ambitious ideas and technical realities?
Sean Carlson: When you’re a young kid, you’re fearless. We did a show that was the second Mess With Texas [held during 2008’s South By Southwest conference]. The first one we did was in a club in Austin. For the second one we thought we should make it really big: The Breeders wanted to perform, and Graham [Williams], who does Fun Fun Fun Fest and Transmission Entertainment, was all for it. We got Waterloo Park in Austin, and we put it all together without really doing a budget because we were so excited and it was so new to us. On the day of the event, we didn’t have security, and we had our friends working as staff. There were ten-thousand people there, and it all worked out: there were no fights, and people were happy. But it shouldn’t have worked out that way; it could have gone wrong. I was so young, and luckily got by. So now it’s become doing something that’s not a massive risk, but I know is going to make sense in the end. There have been times when I know I’m going to lose money on a event, but I know it makes sense for us to do it – we’re going to learn from it, and we’re going to grow, and people are going to build trust in us. And other times it’s just stupidity, and I won’t go down that path.
Eric Ducker: Have you become more risk averse?
Sean Carlson: No. The lineup for this year’s FYF is much bigger, so there’s more risk involved with it. It’s just smarter risk. There are times when it’s like, 'This makes no sense.’ And there are other times when it’s a good investment – we may not see the money immediately, but it will make sense to do this.
Eric Ducker: So you’re saying the risk this year at the FYF Fest is spending more money to get the bands you have?
Sean Carlson: That is a larger risk. And a lot of people are scared to do that. They’ll go with what’s easy, and book the same bands over and over again, and that’s one thing I can’t do. I’m not interested in just repeating myself, and if I ever do, I’m going to stop this.
Eric Ducker: That’s the thing with ambition: if you think big one year, you have to think bigger the next year.
Sean Carlson: That’s really true, but you don’t want to think too big. A lot of people want to try to get the biggest band possible, and they end up getting them, but they don’t sell the tickets, or they don’t have the infrastructure for it. For the FYF Fest, I don’t want to take the biggest risk any more; I want to put on the favorite show for the fans and myself. I want them to think about it every day of the summer and just get excited. That’s my goal. Instead of the risk element, I just want to put on the best show possible.
Eric Ducker: Do you think you’re making fewer mistakes now, or do you just accept that mistakes are going to get made and you’ll learn from them for the next time?
Sean Carlson: Now there’s so much planning for the festival. There are so many people involved. Everybody is focused. It does take me a long time to make decisions, and it drives the people that I work with a little bit crazy, but they understand and know that I can’t make impulse decisions. I used to when I was young, but I can’t make them at all any more because the fans and the bands are at stake. I can’t do something that will jeopardize their comfort at the festival.
Eric Ducker: Was there one event where you decided afterwards, “I can’t let this happen again”?
Sean Carlson: Absolutely, [FYF Fest] in 2010. I don’t want to throw who was in control under the bus, so I’ll say FYF was in control, and we didn’t have enough food and beverages at the festival. There were long lines, and people were upset. If you wait in a long line, you’re going to be upset; if you wait for an hour, you’re going to be very upset, and that’s what ended up happening. From there, I decided that we needed to partner with Goldenvoice. Paul [Tollett, Goldenvoice big cheese and Coachella co-founder] and I met; we had been friends for a long time, so it was a very natural relationship going into it. I told him that I needed help with the infrastructure. I could do the booking, I could handle promotions and the marketing. With the infrastructure, I wanted to be involved, but I wanted someone else to take the lead on it, and that’s where Goldenvoice came in. They’ve done an amazing job.
Eric Ducker: As FYF has grown, it has taken on some of the traits of what have become the accepted American festival practices.
Sean Carlson: I get hate mail all the time. If I just did the same thing over and over again, I would quit. I look at FYF like this is my band with my friends. As I said before, the second I start repeating myself, I’m done. I don’t need to do this for the rest of my life. Hopefully I will; hopefully I will continue to be inspired enough, but I don’t need to do this in a club because people like the intimacy. It was great [to do it in clubs], and that was a great way to start, but why do that over and over again? We do over 50 shows in L.A. a year, from 50-person capacity to 600-person capacity spaces.
Eric Ducker: Are things like two-day passes and VIP-passes just the reality of doing a festival now?
Sean Carlson: You can look at it another way. The two-day pass is an interesting thing. As a festival, the hardest thing is to go to two days. If you offer single-day tickets, a majority of people will just go to one day; they don’t want to make the commitment. We offered the single-day tickets right when we went on sale, and the amount we had allocated sold out immediately. It would have jeopardized the festival and its future had we continued to put them on sale. When booking the festival, at least in my mind, the ending moment is seeing My Bloody Valentine, and hopefully being there the entire time, not just showing up at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. There will be people who do that, but there’s this big picture, and I want people to experience the whole thing. It’s only two days, it’s not three days. We’re doing later start times – doors are at 2:00 p.m., and it starts at 2:30 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. each day – so the majority of people will be able to go home to their beds and can eat breakfast at their house. Two days of 12 hours of music is too much. It really throws you off when you stay at home. When you stay at a hotel or you camp, you can totally do 12 hours, because that’s the destination. But when you go home, you’re not going to want to go back for another 12 hours.
Eric Ducker: As someone who doesn’t always make it out to Coachella any more, one of the bummers is that so many bands don’t make it to L.A. on that tour because of the radius clause. Have people had issues with FYF, because this is another Southern California festival that keeps bands out of clubs in L.A.?
Sean Carlson: There are always people who want to see My Bloody Valentine or Beach House or Roky Erickson in a club, but it’s one of these things where I can do my best to provide the festival experience for them, but I can’t do both. It just doesn’t work. We’re selling tickets right now, but we’re still a ways away from selling out, and until you’re selling out before the lineup is announced, you shouldn’t be booking club shows around that. There are some festivals that do. Lollapalooza has dozens of club nights around Chicago, and it’s just another source of income for them and the bands, but we can’t do that.
Eric Ducker: The festival scene in the United States is expanding so much right now. Is the goal at this point to sell out before you even announce the lineup, or to switch to two weekends, as Coachella has done in recent years?
Sean Carlson: I’m not even thinking about that. I’m not thinking about selling out a year in advance or doing two weekends at all – I’m thinking about what’s making it a better fan experience and a better band experience. I’m thinking about how we incorporate different genres of music, and do it in a respectful way. How do we make it a smoother festival? How do I make the 35-year-old watch a band and be next to a 16-year-old kid and not be uncomfortable? Coachella is one of the few festivals in this country where you feel comfortable. There are other festivals around the country, and I don’t need to say names, but if you’re older, you feel uncomfortable, you feel alienated, and you don’t want to be there. I want the fans to be able to stand next to each other and have a good time. I just want this to be a better festival experience.
Eric Ducker: At what point did you start thinking about the fan experience? How many years in?
Sean Carlson: I’ve always thought about the fan experience, but I thought about it differently. In 2009, the fan experience was the ticket price, because I was so young and had the Dischord ethic where it needs to be cheap – it has to be 20 bucks. I didn’t know anything about budgets; I just thought, “Let’s do this! We’re going to do it in the park.” And we lost over $100,000. Everyone that we lost money to, I called and said, “Give me some time.” I didn’t have a loan, I didn’t have anyone to bail me out, so I just worked as hard as I could and did tons of odd jobs, and within a year was able to pay it off. Then I started to realize that I’m hurting the fans by making it cheap. Granted, they’re more interested in going, but when they go, they’re upset. We did one more where we thought we stepped it up, but we didn’t, and that’s when we brought in Goldenvoice. Paul and I met and we decided to make it a better experience. That’s obviously going to bring the price up, because we’re building a larger infrastructure, but they did a great job. The fan experience is massively important. I’m always going to get heat from kids because it’s $99 now for a two-day pass, versus $20 three years ago, but if it was $20, it would be miserable. There would be no water misters, there would be no shade infrastructure, there would be no Port-A-Johns. 500 kids would be stoked, and the rest wouldn’t want to be there.
Eric Ducker: Are there any other crucial changes you’ve made over the 10 years of doing the festival?
Sean Carlson: I think it’s about trying to be focused. I used to be hotheaded because I was young, so I would make impulse decisions. Now I’m very slow with things. I see some business people who want to conquer the world and expand and expand, and I’m really just content with what we’re doing and just making it the best it can possibly be. There is so much room for growth with FYF. It’s nowhere near where I want it to be. I want to make it a better festival, make it better run, smoother I think it’s another four or five years until it gets there, but it’s working towards getting there.