FYF Fest Founder Sean Carlson on Goldenvoice, Market Saturation and 2013's Stellar Lineup (Q&A)

Outside of the market-leading Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, one would be hard-pressed to find another multi-day music festival in Southern California with a more impressive lineup than this year’s FYF Fest in Los Angeles. 

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, FYF Fest will take place Aug. 24-25 at L.A. State Historic Park with a lineup that includes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Bloody Valentine, TV on the Radio, MGMT, Beach House, Solange, Deerhunter, Devendra Banhart and Death Grips. (See full music and comedy schedule at FYF's website.)

That’s not a bad lineup for a $99 two-day pass. Tickets are still available at the festival’s site. 

With Coachella promoter Goldenvoice on board as a partner, last year’s FYF Fest attracted about 18,500 per day. FYF Fest founder/organizer Sean Carlson expect this year’s attendance numbers to go beyond that number, although he wouldn’t speculate on specific projections. 

Billboard.biz recently spoke with 28-year-old Carlson about his mindset in the days leading up to festival, how we was able to bolster this year’s lineup, what the Goldenvoice partnership has brought to the event, what he plans to do on vacation when the madness is over, and much more. 

You’re only a few days away from this year’s FYF Fest. At this stage, what’s going through your head?
My mindset’s always on what is going to make the fan experience better. Music festivals aren’t comfortable. You’re going into a place with a large capacity. A lot of the time, the promoters don’t have the fans’ best interest in mind. I’ve been in that place as well, where I’m thinking about ticket sales and breaking even, rather than what’s important to the fan. So I’ve taken myself out of that mindset and turned it into thinking about what will make them want to come back the next day.

Any major fires you’ve had to put out yet?
There are always fires. But I’ve been working on this for a year and have a team that can read me without even speaking. There’s always going to be little things, but nothing worth mentioning.

Where do ticket sales stand as of now?
They’re good. We’re in a good place. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s higher than it was last year. Hopefully we’ll get to selling it out. It’s on that path right now. 

What feedback have you gotten about the 2013 lineup?
There’s going to be people who are bummed that there’s less punk rock and hardcore. This year is less. But we’re doing doors from 2 p.m. until midnight, and not 12 p.m. until midnight -- that’s four hours of music cut off, which is a substantial amount of time. The main stage doesn’t start until 4 p.m. And another stage doesn’t start until 3:30 p.m., because I don’t want it to go against the comedy. So it’s about 20 less bands than last year, which I’m psyched about, because no one got to see those bands. Some only played to nine people. There’s no point booking a band if they’re playing to nine people. Less is better sometimes. 

So 10 years in, what’s something new FYF attendees can expect this year?
There’s such better food. I’ve spent so much time to make sure the food is perfect. There’s tons of vegetarian, tons of vegan, tons of gluten-free and other healthy options. And if you want the bullshit carnival food, we’ve got the bullshit carnival food. Last year was awful. We didn’t control the food and beverage in the park. So in turn, it was just embarrassing. Coming from someone that’s a vegan, it bummed me out. So this year it’s been one of my priorities. 

FYF partnered with Coachella promoter Goldenvoice in 2011. How has FYF benefited from that partnership?
They’re our partners. They help with everything production related. I have a very close relationship with (Goldenvoice president and Coachella booker) Paul (Tollett). It’s a great team. I did it for the first seven years by myself, and [Goldenvoice] came onboard for years eight and nine. They’ve made it more and more organized, and this year they stepped it up the most.

I don’t want to deal with the city. I don’t have the time, the social communication skills or the means to do it. I was doing everything with a small team prior. It didn’t go as well as it should have. And it gives me more time to focus on the creative for booking and marketing, which I focus on. 

Does Goldenvoice help out with the booking and marketing of FYF?
I talk about booking with Paul (Tollett), but I have complete control of it. Their marketing team gives suggestions and they run the marketing, but we agree to everything -- who we want to advertise with, how we want to advertise, how we want to get the word out, etc. Everything is a team effort, but for booking they give me full creative control. 

Do you own the FYF Fest?
Yeah. Goldenvoice is partner and I’m only working with them. I have a long-term agreement with them. 

Have any other rival concert promoters offered to buy FYF or hire you?  
No, they don’t want to contact me. I’m just going to respond with no English or something silly. I don’t want to do it; I like who I work with. I like Goldenvoice. I wouldn’t be a smartass; I’d be very respectful. But I work with Goldenvoice because they understand me and I understand them. I’m the first to admit that I’m not the easiest person to deal with, because I have my way with the booking and with what I want to do and accomplish. I’m not really opening up other doors to work with other people. Paul (Tollett) understands that it’s not easy booking a festival, if you want to do it the right way.

Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollett is known for being extremely protective of Coachella, it sounds like you two can relate on that topic.
That’s exactly why we work together. I really like working with him, because you have someone you can relate to and understands the headaches, stress and hardships you’re going through in running it.
Is FYF profitable at this point? And if so, when did you start seeing those profits?
There have been years in the past that have made money and there have been years that haven’t. Now it’s turning a profit, but over the past couple years there have been some that didn’t go over as well. The first year I went into the park I was 24. I was so ambitious and dedicated to making it happen without really knowing what I was doing, but adamant in making it happen. We lost a substantial amount of money. I didn’t have a financial backer or a dad who had money. I worked and told everyone who I owed money to give me a little time and I’d pay them back. For some people it took six months, nine months or a year. But I managed to pay everyone back. By the following year we were out of the red. It’s in a place right now where it’s good. It’s not like it’s making a massive amount of money, but it’s keeping us afloat.

What’s your feeling on festival sponsorship? Is it necessary these days to have sponsors in order to make the financing work?
Sponsorship can always be a really questionable thing. You don’t want to shove it down the throat of your fans. We don’t do stage branding and don’t name any of the stages after sponsors. We keep it very minimal in the park. There’s nothing even facing the stage that is sponsorship branding. But at the same time, I’ve made the decision to do $99 for a weekend pass, which is fairly cheap considering the lineup, infrastructure and cost. So in turn, I have to do sponsorship and generate other sources of income to break even or have the festival in the red, even when we sell well. I’d rather do the cheaper tickets and make it affordable, because $99 to a kid who’s 16 is much easier to process than $139 or $149. I wouldn’t go to the show if it were that much. I drive the sponsorship person nuts, because everyday is “no” to activations and brands. It’s about finding a friendly medium that makes your festival’s experience better.  

Where do you see FYF in five to 10 years? Do you envision adding more days or expanding it to other parts of the country? 
I don’t have a five-year plan. I’ve never had a plan. It’s naturally grown from the first years of being heavy on the punk rock and hardcore, as I’ve grown up learning more about different styles of music. I want my peers to continue wanting to go the festival and yet still be interesting to a 16 or 17-year-old. I don’t see it wanting to grow outside of Los Angeles -- it’s an L.A.-based festival. Maybe I’ll speak differently in two to five years, and maybe I’ll have a plan of doing an FYF tour, but right now it’s just Los Angeles. I want to make it better curated, better flowed and better for the fans. I’m not trying to conquer the world. I don’t understand why festivals are doing that. I understand that money talks and that they can do joint deals where they pay X amount of dollars for three shows in three different cities, but I don’t know. I like to take thing slow. 

Do you attend many music festivals outside of FYF? Are there certain things you adopt from other festivals and apply to FYF?
I go to Primavera Sound (in Barcelona) every year. I think it’s one of the best. It’s on the water in Spain and goes until 6 a.m. I go to quite a few and usually look at the infrastructure of the food, what they’re doing differently or unique, and the type of staging they use. I’m not big on traveling and don’t like flying. I used to go to five or six a year, and this year I’ve only gone to a few -- Primavera and a couple in Mexico and Toronto. I also try going to festivals that aren’t in the States. A lot of them have their own idea of how to build a shade structure and make an area of nothing more warm and creative. There are some European festivals where I’m not a fan of the booking, but they excel at the design and make it really comfortable. That’s a big thing with a festival. You can’t just build up a stage in a dirt lot and expect people to be happy. You want it warm and cozy. 

Did you go to Coachella this year?
I did. They do an amazing job; it’s A-plus. I try not to relate anything from FYF to Coachella. I look at festivals that are between the 25,000 and 35,000 capacity range and relate what they do there. Coachella is a completely different festival, and their budget compared to mine is nickels and dimes.

Music festivals are popping up left and right across North America. Do you feel like we’re hitting a saturation point?
Maybe mine won’t last, I don’t know. Maybe it will be done next year. It is becoming a trend and it’s businessmen being, like, “We can make a lot of money here. We have the headliner, let’s book 10 more acts and we can have a festival. Then we can sell sponsorship.” But it’s not that easy. I care too much about the lineup, the schedule and the conflicts. It’s not a business to me; it’s a labor of love. I do it because I didn’t play in a band and this was my means of giving back to the scene. It started as a small punk show. But I think a lot of them will go away. The good ones will last, but for the most part a lot will disappear. A lot of them are based around a lot of questionable electronic music that only has so much more of a lifeline. 

Does your company, FYF Presents, have anything in the works beyond the festival?
We do a number of shows in Los Angeles and we have some big things for 2014 that are in the works. But my biggest thing is taking time off. I don’t want to spread myself thin and burn myself out, so that by the time I’m 30 years old I’m not enjoying this. That scares me the most. I want to be able to do this and stay focused, and be excited to wake up in the morning and book, rather than burning myself out and dreading talking to people. That’s where I’m at mentally.

Are you able to sit back and enjoy any of the music during FYF?
I like to hang out in the crowd with a hat on and wonder around. I’m way more into that. You spend a whole year waiting for these two days, so why be rushing around? I don’t like yelling anymore. I used to get freaked out and get overwhelmed. Now, everything works itself out.

How will you unwind come Monday morning, after FYF is over?
Hang out with my dogs. I’m going to take it really slow and go on a lot of hikes. I can tell you this: I definitely don’t want to go to a music festival. That’s 100% not what I want to do. I want to be away from music a little bit. I think I’ll like music a lot more when I get back.