Indie Beat: FYF's Sean Carlson, House of Vans' Anna Sherwood-Stephan on the Art of the Free Summer Concert Series

For the third year running, Vans and Los Angeles concert promotions company Fuck Yeah Fest (which puts on the festival of the same name) are hosting the free concert series "Vans House Parties," which take place every other week in July and August at a Greenpoint, Brooklyn warehouse. (Photo credit: Laura June Kirsch, Vans)

It’s a delicate art putting on a free summer concert series. Even if you find the right sponsor(s), book the right artists and secure an amenable venue, ravenous crowds or unkind weather gods can still derail the proceedings faster than ice cream running down an ice cream cone. For the past three summers, though, Vans and Fuck Yeah Fest, the Los Angeles concert promotions company behind the eponymous music festival, have succeeded with the seemingly sustainable, so-far calamity-free (even with free beer) series “Vans House Parties,” a seven-part, all-ages, free-with-RSVP spate of concerts that take place every other week in July and August.

The House Parties started in 2011 after Vans, looking to expand its footprint on the East Coast, entered into a longterm lease agreement for a 25,000-square-foot warehouse space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The building, which features sky-high ceilings and a large, open-air back patio, was converted into a skate park, outfitted with a stage and dubbed “The House of Vans.” Sean Carlson, the 28-year-old founder of FYF and a friend of the company, came on-board to curate music programming.

“Before people really only knew us as a skate brand,” says Anna Sherwood-Stephan, Music and Entertainment Marketing Manager for Vans. “But these days I would say that we’re equally known as a music brand.”

Since the slightly rocky (and rainy) first year, acts like Washed Out, Fucked Up, The Rapture, Against Me! and dozens of others have helped make the House of Vans a summer institution. As the program gained steam, Vans expanded it this year with one-off “House of Vans” events in Calgary, Huntington Beach and Austin. At each show in Brooklyn, miles of young, casually hip partygoers can bee seen wrapping around the block long before doors are scheduled to open.

We talked with Sherwood-Stephan and Carlson about programming the series, engaging with the local community and whether or not the House Parties will be back next year. How big are the House Parties now?
Anna Sherwood-Stephan: This year we started a new RSVP system where we can see visually how quickly people are signing up and for some shows we’ve hit the max in under two hours. We let 5,000 RSVP and capacity for the space is 1,000, so you have to get there early. That kind of weeds out the people that just want to mooch on free booze. So far, every show has hit capacity within an hour after doors.

When do you start booking? It must be competitive slotting a summer series in New York.
Sean Carlson: You have to start booking in October and November. You look at bands that have full-lengths coming out, that you know will be touring and that you believe in. A lot of the bands are people that I have a previous relationship with via FYF. I’m a fan and I believe that they are a good investment. So you start very early. The openers I wait a little longer, about April.

How do you choose the artists you book?
Carlson: Well, for a free summer show you don’t wanna do a singer-songwriter. That’s not going to be the right vibe. For us, every show we’ve tried to do something different. We’ve had The Rapture, Turbonegro, King Khan and the Shrines, artists that have different sounds and can really create a fun atmosphere and get people moving and dancing.

Sherwood-Stephan: The artists we like are really creative and don’t want to do it just for the money. We want to give the fans a really good time, so we like artists who feel the same.

How has it been for your two companies work together to put on the shows? What’s the division of labor?
Carlson: Well, we’re friends. They understand my vision. I really don’t work with many brands— I’m just not interested in it because I’m busy enough with the festival. But with them I look at it more like friends and we’re able to see eye-to-eye on everything and that makes it very easy working with them. It’s really a team effort because it’s Vans’ reputation on the line and it’s FYF’s.

Sherwood-Stephan: Sean just knows what we want and we’re like-minded when it comes to talent. We don’t have to micro manage him or do any hand-holding by any means. FYF secures the artists, we handle marketing and social media. The day of the show we all join forces with all of our teams coming together to run the show and work out the kinks and make sure everyone in the neighborhood is happy.

It can’t be cheap putting on a free series of shows with free booze for three years in a row. What keeps the House Parties coming back?
Sherwood-Stephan: It costs money, but that’s where we choose to put our budget for the summer. For music it’s the one thing that’s at the top of my list every year. This program means so much to us. In the last three years we’ve watched what’s happened in Brooklyn and it’s become really important to everyone.

We love Brooklyn and I think we really feel like a part of the community there. I don’t think it’s just that we want to come back, I think the people who live there want us to come back. It’s almost expected for us to be there each summer, at this point. They like what we’ve done and I think it’s something that fits the community instead of us just coming in and tooting our own horn.

What’s the biggest headache that comes with putting on the series?
Carlson: There’s always a million headaches whenever you’re putting on an event. And any time you’re wrangling people weather is always an issue. And I mean it’s New York, it’ll be clear all day and then it’ll pour rain for 15 minutes. And when you have rain pouring down 20 minutes before doors, you’re trying to get people inside because you don’t want them to be soaked because that’s going to give them a bad experience for the rest of the night. So that’s the biggest obstacle. I think everything else falls into place with time and experience and focus, but weather is something that you’ll never overcome. Every show it seems like there’s a possibility of rain.

As a company, how do you put on a sponsored event without being too “In your face” with the branding? What’s Vans’ approach to that?
Sherwood-Stephan: Well if you know our brand, we’re not a very heavy, brand-y brand. I think House of Vans, the building itself, is the branding we want to do. Having people know what the space is is pretty much the only thing we care about. Being “In your face” just isn’t who we are, so I don’t think it’s a challenge for us not to do that.

How do you measure the success of a given event? Do you look at social media?
Sherwood-Stephan: We actually haven’t, really. We could look at them, but we don’t use that to measure. I think we just look at the crowd and each year it seems like people have more and more interest. They go away with anticipation for the next show and knowing that the space is somewhere where they can come and have fun and have the freedom to express themselves. We wanted to build a creative space where our fans and the community could hang out and I think that’s what we’ve done.

But we talk to people at the event, so we know that they’re having a great time. They tell us that they love that it’s a free show because they feel like there’s not too much for free these days. They also feel like it’s something for everybody: One day it’ll be a punk show and then the next one will be a metal show and then the next one will be a dance party. And they like the free booze, of course.

Will the House Parties be back next year?
Carlson: Yes, that’s the plan. You can never predict the future, but the plan is to continue to do it and continue to grow.

Sherwood-Stephan: If the people want us back, we’ll be there.

Two Vans House Parties remain for 2013— Kid Dynamite, Joyce Manor, Red Hare and Swearin’ on August 15; and Les Savy Fav with Delorean and special guests on August 29.