When Los-Angeles-based promoter Goldenvoice announced last weekend it was making the “difficult decision” to cancel its hometown FYF, both fans and many in the live music biz alike expressed their dismay – especially those who have long considered the music gathering an integral part of their festival season.
While Goldenvoice declined to give a reason for pulling the plug, a Billboard report cited sluggish ticket sales for the July 21-22 event as the rationale behind the festival’s cancelation. Two sources with knowledge of the situation substantiated the report claiming FYF’s advance ticket sales were a relatively small percentage of Exposition Park’s 80,000-person capacity over two days and at this juncture wouldn’t cover headliners Janet Jackson, Florence + the Machine or Future’s fees. Seventy days out from the festival, Goldenvoice, which is owned by AEG Presents, apparently decided to pull the plug rather than risk substantial loss on its investment.
The big question now is what were the factors behind reported sluggish sales and what do they mean for the live business going forward?
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” says Kevin Lyman, the longtime promoter of the Warped Tour now in its final year. “High ticket prices, the headliners not being what the traditional FYF audience was looking for and a huge plethora of festivals and other options for things to do in the area all culminated in not many people buying tickets.”
Lyman’s insights speak to a “festival glut,” a term used to describe the wildfire-like proliferation over the last several years of music festivals entering the market. “I do think we have hit or passed the inevitable saturation point,” says David “Boche Billions” Viecelli, founder of the Chicago-based Billions Corporation.
Southern California in recent years has seen a slew of new festival entrants, including: Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco (also promoted by Goldenvoice/AEG Presents) which will have its second iteration in late June; Kaaboo now in its fourth year in Del Mar; Long Beach’s Music Tastes Good (founded by late promoter Josh Fishel) is now in its third year; and Dave Grohl’s Cal Jam Festival in San Bernardino is in year two, as is KCRW’s Music Tastes Good.
And of course the 800-pound SoCal festival gorilla in the room is Coachella, which regularly tops Pollstar’s year-end largest festival gross tally and can suck the air out of other regional festivals in spectacular fashion, as it did this year when some 250K attendees over two consecutive weekends saw Beyoncé’s career-defining performance.
For L.A. residents, however, who spend three hours in a car getting to Indio, pay for accommodations and a $430 GA or $999 VIP ticket, Coachella can be an expensive proposition.
“They can spend over $1,000 on Coachella and that’s their festival money for the year,” says Lyman, who intentionally keeps ticket Warped ticket prices low but has had his own issues with sales. “Last year definitely wasn’t our best year,” he says. “So we announced our final tour and now we’re having our strongest ticket sales ever. Is that a nostalgia play? Or is it, ‘Oh, Warped was a thing that we could always take for granted, it’ll be here every year.’ Now you can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll go next year.’ Maybe with FYF that crowd said, ‘Oh, I don’t like the lineup this year. I’ll go next year.’”
The question in citing FYF’s crowd is, who are they? As FYF has grown from its 2004 inception as a distinctly DIY indie festival with nary a major-label act to an 80,000-strong behemoth over two days with arena-level acts such as Janet Jackson, NIN, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliott and others leading the bill, the festival seemed to lose its identity.
“It started out as this counter-cultural thing,” says Paradigm’s Tom Windish, who over the years had had dozens of artists play FYF. “I mean, it’s called the Fuck Yeah Fest, it was at the Echoplex, it was underground and look what it became with Janet Jackson headlining. Who their crowd was and what it became are two different things.”
Warped’s Lyman puts it another way: “FYF was too cool, way too cool for me. It was cooler than Coachella. I had a person who worked for us at our office for a while, and she’s been gone for three years. And when I heard this, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the first year she didn’t call me for FYF tickets.’”
Some took issue with the FYF’s venue itself, which since 2014 has been held at the Exposition Park in the area surrounding the L.A. Coliseum, which one manager referred to as a “concrete jungle” and said last year he “didn’t get the vibe at all.”
Parking near Exposition Park in a car-centric city is difficult at best, though great public transportation options exist. And cooling down in sweltering mid-summer L.A. heat could be similarly frustrating once the air-conditioned Sports Arena, which hosted FYF’s dance music line-up, was torn down to make way for the new LAFC soccer stadium.
The City of Angels has a history of not supporting flagship music fests which either failed or left town including: Sunset Junction Festival, Sunset Strip Music Festival, the Electric Daisy Carnival (moved to Vegas), All Tomorrow’s Parties, The Detour Festival, Hard Day of the Dead, Together As One, Monster Massive, and Red Bull Sound Select 30 Days in L.A. Festival, among others. Jay-Z’s L.A. edition of Made in America Festival lasted just one year. Some of these, it should be noted, may yet return.
“For a city with 30 million people in Southern California, we’re very micro-niche people,” says Lyman. “If you look at any weekend there’s 10 festivals going on. So, does that make sense? We don’t step out of our comfort zones very easily. We stay in our same neighborhoods on weekends because we’re so sick of being on the freeway.”
Another contributing factor this year was the ousting of FYF founder Sean Carlson after he acknowledged sexual misconduct allegations. Goldenvoice severed ties with him in November and brought in talent buyer Jenn Yacoubian who was lauded for the diversity she brought to this year’s line-up, which included The xx, St. Vincent, Kali Uchis, Skepta, U.S. Girls, My Bloody Valentine and The Breeders among others.
Much like the line-up, the music business has a diversity of opinions on whether FYF’s cancellation is the first of many or an anomaly. “I’m sure a correction is coming in the festival market,” says Windish. “I don’t think FYF is the last thing we’re going to see go down. It’s just the first. For this year? I’m not sure, but in the future, I think there’s a bunch that have been teetering on the edge for a long time.”
Boche, on the other hand, has a more bullish outlook. The agency head said he believes the FYF cancellation will have “very little direct [impact on the festival market], although it may remind people that these events are more precarious than they once were.”
Both agents as well as Lyman agree that smaller, more focused events with “strong identities,” as Boche stated, stand to do better in a crowded marketplace.
“The festivals that I’m seeing are working are those little niche festivals,” says Lyman, “the ones that hyper-serve their audiences like the Wanderlust Festivals and the Flyover Festival.”
“The identity, the brand, the cultural identity is really important,” says Windish.
“And people will go to it regardless of who’s playing, because they love that brand. Riot Fest is a great example.”
Which speaks to the future of FYF which if it is to continue, may need to change its approach. “I don’t think they’re writing off FYF completely,” says Lyman. “If you go back and really look at it, I think they’re going to have to go back and hyper-serve a certain audience – perhaps that really hip Silver Lake, Los Feliz crowd.”