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FYF: The Music Festival that Almost Went Broke Goes Global
We caught up with Sean Carlson, the founder of the homegrown FYF Festival, which hits L.A. State Historic Park this weekend. After nine years — including a very rocky debut in 2004 — the musical extravaganza has expanded to two full days featuring nearly 100 acts, including buzzworthy up-and-comers Future Islands, the Suicide of Western Culture, and Daughn Gibson as well as more established local performers like Health and Warpaint, who are returning to the area. Carlson, who founded the festival when he was only 18 years old, allowed us to pick his brain regarding his thoughts about mixtapes, pre-pubescent girlfriends, flying to Mexico City to see Pulp, FYF’s growth, and what bands to see this weekend.
You guys ran a mix tape competition this year, stipulating entries had to be on cassette. Can you talk about the relationship between the contest and your goals for the festival?
FYF is a mixtape. I book and curate the festival, but I want to introduce people to bands that they haven’t heard of or seen. For that reason we try to make it a diverse lineup, being able to book Simian Mobile Disco and Refused, two bands that have never played with one another but have a lot of similarities.
The goal with the mixtape contest was to get people producing mixtapes again. Mixtapes were a big part (of my life) growing up, when I liked a girl, for a friend, you know. And growing up pre-internet I didn’t start downloading music until I was 16 or 17, so from age 12 to 16 I was getting mixtapes from friends ‘cause you could only buy one CD every week or two, if you had the money. When we were talking about contests for FYF I was like: I don’t want to use computers. I understand the purpose of social media, but I would rather have the contest be something you held. We talked about doing the best zine, but with a zine you have to have the confidence to write or draw or photograph. A mixtape is something that anyone who is a fan of music can make, and that’s why we did the contest. All you have to do is have a cassette player to dub the tape.
Did you ever imagine you'd receive over 600 cassette mix tape submissions?
We had no idea how many we would get. We mailed out over 1,000 tapes, and I knew we wouldn’t get all of them back, but we got enough back that the post office called me and demanded that we go straight to the PO Box because it was two large industrial bags of mail. Overall, the tapes were incredible—how much effort people put into them. It was beautiful. And it was really inspiring because these tapes captured moments for people and you could see it. There was a lot of emotion there. If you can create emotion without it actually being your song, that says something. What it really comes down to is that FYF is a mixtape, but we want to hear your mixtape too.
I love how it makes the experience more personal, which isn’t easy to find in a music festival.
Exactly. And I hope that they take something from this contest along the lines of making tapes for their friends. Because you know what? I have tapes that friends made for me years ago, which I still listen to and I still hold on to.
You see the tapes that you made for a girl, and it’s just pathetic and blatant how much you liked her and you weren’t trying to say it, then making tapes for girls that you no longer liked. You would communicate through music. I feel like with MP3s and iTunes, it’s not there. I don’t want a burned CD. I don’t want a downloadable mix. You want to hold the product. Tied to the contest, I wanted to get to know the FYF attendee, and I wanted them to get a bit of personality from us.
What are you going to do with all the tapes?
We’re giving away a lot of cassettes to about 50 runners-up, and we’re giving them one ticket. We’re working on it right now. We’re also mailing all of the tapes back, but if you sent in a tape, you get someone else’s tape.
FYF has been around since 2004, when it was a one-day event with 13 artists. Now, it’s the 9th year, and it’s a 2-day event with nearly 100 acts. What do you think contributed to this growth and what’s the general mood in 2012 about a two-day FYF?
I’ve never really thought about, honestly. Everything came very naturally. There were ups and downs, moments in the festival where I didn’t think we would be able to do another year because it lost so much money. It was definitely a growing process. I was very young when I put it together, and it was an ambitious step to move from the Echo and the Echo Plex to the L.A. Historic Park without any financial backing, and to do it myself without knowing anything about taxes and payroll and all those fun things. It’s been a slow progression. We’ve been doing this for nine years, and that’s a third of my life. But it’s grown the right way; we didn’t try to bite off more than we could chew. Going into two days felt natural. It’s a diverse lineup, there aren’t any major radio acts, and that’s great, because what we have is quality. There are a lot of festivals that have one large act and a lot of filler. The goal with FYF is to have quality acts throughout the whole day. Hopefully you’re discovering new music, and it’s stuff that has substance.
Do want to get to that level where you have an “arena act”?
The biggest band I would want to have is Pulp. That’s my favorite band in the world.
To me, Pulp is an arena band. The day after Coachella last year I flew to Mexico City on a whim, and they played an arena. It was 20,000 people and everyone was losing their shit. It was so incredible. It was their first time in Mexico City. [The venue] was bigger than Staples Center and the show sold out in 10 minutes. It was breathtaking; I’d never experienced anything like that. With FYF I try to book favorite bands like Dinosaur Jr and Refused. There are also a lot of smaller bands that are becoming favorites like Future Islands, Glass Candy, and Chromatics.
Any memorable benchmarks that helped you get to the point where you have so much control in picking these “favorite bands”?
Oh, yeah. I didn’t know what PNL (Profit Net Loss) meant when I was 24 years old, so we lost a lot of money. There was no budget, we just went with the flow of things that first year in the park. We had no idea what we were doing. Nothing. There was minimal security. It was a disaster, but it was also a growing experience and you need to have that.
You first staged a two-day concert in 2007. Why did it take until 2012 to reach that point again?
2007 was the year with an incredible back-to-back: Jay Reatard into No Age into Deer Hunter. That was Jay’s first big show in Los Angeles, and he stole the show. The best part was, he was slotted for 30 minutes but he played for 13 minutes. He must’ve played 15 songs in those 13 minutes and the audience just went ape-shit. And I told him, “You have to play more,” and he said, “No thanks.” I thought about it and I was like, that’s awesome. That was the last time we did it two days, but it was easier in a club. It started at 6 o’clock. The infrastructure was there. It was completely different than what we’re doing now--in a park, starting at noon, going until midnight and having three outdoor stages.
Has GoldenVoice joining the FYF team in 2011 helped you reach this point?
We’ve definitely learned a lot from them. Paul and everyone at Goldenvoice are a really great team. They’re really focused, which is what we needed. Our team is so small; there are only a couple of people who work for FYF. So them joining has helped us focus on the creative side, while they help on the infrastructure.
What distinguishes FYF from Coachella and other local music festivals like Pacific Festival, HARD, and Stagecoach, despite the obvious musical differences?
Every festival is unique in its own. HARD does a great job at electronic and that scene. We share some of the same acts, but we’re different. To be honest, I don’t really know what FYF is. I do my best to ensure that people have the best weekend of the year. I want them to know that they’re gonna lose their shit and have a blast and that they’re gonna wake up Monday morning having changed in some way for the better. That’s really what we want.
Is it getting more difficult to hold onto that philosophy, to not push ticket prices through the roof, and at the same time land the bigger bands that people want to see?
We’re doing our best to make this an affordable festival. I know $89 looks like an intimidating price on paper, but there really aren’t any festivals that are $45 a day with this many acts. Some people involved with the festival are asking why we don’t charge more. To be honest, I can’t get myself to up the price. I don’t think it’s fair.
This year we brought larger acts to the festival and we thought: Do we do smaller bands and do it for less money? But we figured out that you’d save $12 on the ticket and wouldn’t get as many quality bands, and we didn’t feel right with that. Maybe it’ll bite us in the ass, but I feel confident that we’re putting together a lineup that is hard to beat and trying to make it so that people can eat the week before, as well.
You still have people complaining that FYF is selling out.
Yeah, people complain that it’s not $20 anymore. If I could make the festival $20, I would love to, but it’s not possible unless we make it the Red Bull FYF festival, and I don’t want to do that. That would be disgusting with the branding everywhere.
Can you speak to the downfall of Sunset Junction and the subsequent rise of Echo Park Rising? Any advice you can give for newer festivals?
I’m excited to go down to Echo Park Rising tomorrow. My advice, I guess, is to not bite off more than you can chew. They have a lot going on, but it’s all community-based. There’s no money on the line. It’s just gonna be a fun time with everyone hanging out. You can’t go wrong with that.
No one can make it to all the sets at FYF. Give us some insight on who you’re excited to see and how to approach the weekend?
I hope people check out the bands they haven’t heard of and give the whole festival a shot. Treat it like a mixtape and hopefully you’ll find something you like. There’s a band called Suicide of Western Culture that I’m very excited about. It’s gonna be their first show in America; we’re flying them in from Barcelona. There’s another artist named Daughn Gibson who’s touring with Yeasayer and just signed to Sub Pop; this will be his first show in Los Angeles, and I think he’ll be a big thing next year. We spend a-lot of time bringing in artists to introduce them to our fans. The whole weekend is going to be a blast for us, and I hope it’s the same for everyone who shows up.