It’s hard to believe that FYF was once just a tiny punk rock festival among a few clubs in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. Back in 2004, it was just a one-off idea from the mind of a then-18-year-old kid named Sean Carlson.
I had been asked to leave my Dad's house, after taking his car across the country twice without telling him. And the second time he was just like, You're gone, go away. I was living on a couch in Hollywood with six people in an apartment and going to shows every night because there was no space in the house to be home.
The problem was that most live music clubs in the area also had a 21-and-over age restriction. Carlson had his not-so-legal way of getting in — hint: A fake ID — but his friends didn’t, and he thought there had to be a better way.
It'd be great if there was an all-ages show that was like an art walk that you can walk in and out of all these different rooms. That was the concept of the first one.
The fest’s first year brought out around 2,500 people to see 30 bands at a handful of venues, including The Echo and the now-defunct Sea Level Records. Punk bands like Wires on Fire, The Mae Shi and Toys That Kill performed.
It was a disaster in the sense there was no organization, but people had a lot of fun...There was an energy.
Carlson quickly realized he had struck a chord with this idea. But he never expected it to continue for as long as it has: 12 years.
I didn't intend to do a second year, and then there was a demand for it. Then it turned into the third one. The fourth one was like, Whoa! This is something. There are bands flying in from all over the country. There's really a vibe right now.
Despite the fest’s meteoric growth, one constant remains: Carlson only books bands he likes. He likes to think of FYF as his personal mixtape for music fans, even if he gets a slew of angry emails.
After we announced the lineup I received a lot of hate mail. One in particular [asked], "Where's Alabama Shakes? Where's My Morning Jacket." Those are great bands, but I don't really listen to those bands. I couldn't tell you one Alabama Shakes song, I respect My Morning Jacket, but I just don't listen to them. I listen to Frank Ocean, I listen to D'Angelo, I listen to [FKA] Twigs, I listen to Morrissey. I listen to Jesus & Mary Chain way too much. It’s a mixtape that I made, and I can’t always please everyone.
The fest has moved around over the years. Its previous home was the Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown. In 2011, concert promotion giant Goldenvoice joined on as a partner to help with logistics and marketing. That’s the organization behind the wildly successful Coachella Valley Music festival.
That partnership helped bring more structure and better planning to FYF, and also brought higher profile acts, like Morrissey, who has a huge fan base here.
Now in its 12th year, FYF has found a new home in Exposition Park adjacent to the Natural History Museum. It spans five separate stages, including the L.A. Sports Arena, and is expected to attract 40,000 music fans on each of its two days.
But the fest has not been without its growing pains.
Festival goers complained about long lines to get into the venue. And the distance between the main stage to the other stages could be a 30-minute walk because of the crowds.
We were learning, and last year there were some things that do not work at a festival. Now there's two pathways and you can cut on the other side. I was just down there walking [and] it's about six minutes. I know some people complained [that] it's far. [But] go to a European festival, go to Glastonbury and walk between the stages. This is six minutes in a scenic setting and not in mud, it's not that bad. The good thing with it being spread out [is] we can push the [volume].
But as the fest matures, so does the cost to maintain it. Ticket costs have risen steadily over the years, and this year is no exception.
The tickets are $175 now, it used to be $25. It also used to be not the most comfortable because it was $25. You can have it cheap, but you're going to be standing in the dirt with no shade. And because it’s very expensive to bring in stage, power, lighting — you can make it a little more expensive and its more comfortable. It's finding that balance.
So what’s the biggest misconception people have about what it takes to put on a music festival?
My favorite line, Where's Tame Impala? Why aren't they playing, man? People just think I go through a record collection and I just push a button and it books the band. They don't know the logistics, they don't know the negotiations, they don't know the ins-and-outs. We have bands confirm and cancel constantly.
Indeed, just two days before this year's event, FYF announced that headliner Frank Ocean was being replaced by Kanye West. Still, Carlson says the headaches are worth putting up with.
It's not easy, and I love that it's not easy. It's not just me making a phone call and I'm done booking in 24 hours. It's about 14 months worth of work and it's grueling and I'm banging my head against a wall. And I drive some close friends completely crazy because that's all I think about, but I also want to make this the best thing I possibly can.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what the heck FYF stands for, let’s just say it’s not safe for radio, but you can say that it embodies Carlson’s attitude.
I don’t have a mission statement, I didn’t have a business plan. I just want to put on a good show for my friends.