Dallas' Power Trip was the sole regional participant at this year's Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, so we asked frontman Riley Gale to document the band's experience at the festival, to help give our readers some insight into what things are really like behind the scenes at a concert of that scope. Below, he details his band's experience.
Every year, around the end of spring and continuing deep into the fall, caravans of trucks and vans filled with tattooed freaks, bearded men, and people from all walks of life travel to dozens of cities around the country, setting up tents, food stations and various performance platforms, preparing local residents and travelers for an upcoming weekend spectacle.
I'm talking about the dreaded music festival season.
As the heat begins to rise and summer looms, music enthusiasts can always anticipate two things: plenty of humidity, and plenty of irritatingly large music festivals declaring themselves as the next Lollapalooza.
But after burning myself out on a few Warped Tours as a teenager in the early 2000s, I quickly learned that being awash in a sea of thousands of people, as they obnoxiously ebb and flow throughout park grounds while the sun cooks me alive and I lose all my cash to over-priced water and beer just so I could watch a small handful of bands I enjoy from hundreds of feet away, just wasn't exactly my idea of a good time.
I am probably describing a very familiar scene to you: It's that anxiety-triggering landscape that is the largely attended, multi-stage, corporate-sponsored carnival known as a weekend outdoor music festival. And until five years ago, I avoided them like the plague.
The thought of being stuck at an overpriced drug-and-alcohol fueled circus like Bonnarroo or Austin City Limits makes me cringe in extreme discomfort. Don't even get me started on the idea of camping out at one of these things. It's not like I have a social phobia. But, on the surface, it seems that most of these festivals are driven by excess. They are organized -- more like disorganized -- to cram as many attractions and as many people as possible into a single event, with a complete disregard to whether or not people are actually enjoying themselves.
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I guess lots of people really enjoy going out into a field, dropping a bunch of bad acid, and getting as primal as possible for a couple days. And, much of the time, horror stories about these events come straight from the artists, where many of these fests are notorious for underpaying and underfeeding, treating any artists (except the headliners, of course) like complete garbage. And due to increasing popularity, musicians looking to tour or to catch a break are forced to endure these festivals, with a constant stream of more fests and "showcases" popping up every year, mimicking the same platform, desperately attempting to separate themselves from the pack but only succeeding in watering down the whole.
It's just not my thing.
But then, something happened. Along came Transmission Entertainment's annual FunFunFun Fest in 2006 to give me a solid kick in the butt, and turn my perception of outdoor festivals completely upside down.
After talking so much trash on the festival circuit, why would I bother in the first place?
Well, because, from what I could tell, Transmission did it right, starting off small, and luring me in from the beginning.
I went to the first installment of Fun Fun Fun Fest, at that time a one-night event on a beautiful, mild, Friday in November. I went to see one of the main headliners, the legendary Detroit hardcore band Negative Approach.
The show was so great, that I've excitedly attended the festival each year since that time, watching it grow and evolve to what it is today. With its fifth year easily shaping up to be it's largest in terms of attendance, with big-name bands like The Hold Steady, MGMT, Suicidal Tendencies, and Devo being booked, I was thrilled when Transmission Entertainment's owner Graham Williams asked my own band, Power Trip, to be a part of the event this year.
I've experienced the fun fun fun of the fest as a spectator. Now was my chance to embrace it as a musician.
If you haven't attended or aren't already familiar with Fun Fun Fun Fest, describing it to you would do it no justice. It will sound no different to other fests -- except that it might be considered smaller compared to a 100,000 person mega-fest like Bonnarroo. But, by looking closer, or in experiencing the festival firsthand, a lot of organizers could stand to learn a few lessons on how to run a fest.
Why? Because the people who run FFF give a shit about their audience and their artists -- two very crucial factors that other absentee corporations and festival organizers seem to disregard. That's the reason why bands like Municipal Waste insist on coming back year after year.
The fact is, as the mastermind behind FFF, Graham Williams has managed to craft a different beast entirely, separate from its festival competition and local peers such as ACL and SXSW.
It is a very wholesome beast, whose entire purpose is to connect true music lovers and their beloved artists -- not to line the pockets of a few select organizers looking to earn their rent for a year by utilizing a social network of independent musicians and the do-it-yourself know-how that can only be learned through years of working in the "underground" music business. At FunFunFun, size doesn't necessarily matter. Transmission seems to realize that there is importance in scale -- that 100,000 tickets sold does not determine a fest's success. There's no overcrowding of audience or bands here, and no corporations overstepping their bounds as sponsors. Instead, FFF wants to level the playing field by taking the "breakout" underground hype and marketing of SXSW showcases, adding the mainstream allure to create a massive audience, and then blending the two into one of the smoothest, most enjoyable, and progressive festivals to happen every year.
The name Fun Fun Fun continues to speak volumes on the fact that there is something for everybody to love here. Every year, Williams goes out of his way to listen to what loyal festival-goers want to see the next year, so the audience is almost always guaranteed to see some of their favorite bands performing along side artists they've never heard of before, but could certainly enjoy.
Sure, you can attempt to criticize the lack of "good bands" appearing if you want -- with a huge chance of looking like a total poser with a narrow musical scope. Face it: Neither hipsters nor real music enthusiasts give a shit about seeing The Eagles in 2010. The fact is, FFF makes things happen and snags artists that other festivals can't. For many bands, including Power Trip and a good handful of other Texas locals, this is the biggest opportunity they've been given. And for the reuniting bands like Polvo, Floor and the Descendents (out of state sales tickets saw a huge boost after they were announced to replace Devo), it's an opportunity to see just how much they've been missed and how much the fans truly appreciate their favorite artists.
But is there a secret to FunFunFun's success, especially behind the scenes?
Not really. In fact, to describe the backstage atmosphere of the fest would sound like any other Austin area show. Why? Because much of FFF's success was putting the people who know Austin best in charge of the key aspects of the fest. Above the standard hired hands on staff to sell drinks and check wristbands, the administrative and managerial component of Fun Fun Fun is comprised of Austin's most experienced gigging professionals.
When I run into bar owner Jared Cannon early Saturday morning, he has little time to talk. Cannon, known for his sense of humor and casual demeanor, carries an attitude of straight-up badass focus and determination. His eyes point downward as he listens to more on what's being said on the other end of his earpiece rather than any stupid story I'm trying to tell.
On any other weekend, Cannon can be found overseeing his two downtown bars, Red 7 and The Brixton. But, this weekend, he is working as festival production manager, and is one of Williams' most valuable right-hand men. My band Power Trip frequents Austin quite often, and the entire fest seemed comprised of these familiar and experienced local bar-scene participants. Local promoters, sound guys, bartenders, bouncers, designers, and musicians alike all gladly step up to help Williams as stage managers, security, and to help fill in the various gaps it takes to keep a large-scale festival running smoothly. Williams can be seen amongst the crowd every year, riding a silver BMX bike around the park, methodically checking each stage's status and meeting with anyone who might need his attention.
The success of FFF has proven that the work involved in running a show doesn't change in nature, only in scale. Like any event like this, there is always a task to be completed, and a high amount of focus is necessary. But veterans of countless late nights and the loosely controlled chaos of SXSW take on their roles with relative ease, seeing the festival as just another weekend cash job.
So what makes it so easy?
"It's just like every other night." says Chase Worlow, a familiar friend who acted as stage security at the black stage, arguably the most rowdy area of FFF due to its mostly metal/punk line up.
He elaborates: "Just about everyone working here is friends, so we're all laid back and don't really care if something goes wrong, and I think that makes things easier for everyone, including the people in bands, to deal with any problems. Of course, some artists can be rockstar assholes, but it's like, we've seen all that before. Despite that, it's still easy for everyone to view each other equally and that makes the work that much easier. We're all here to have a good time. We never have problems with the crowd really."
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Josh Ferguson, security at the hip-hop/dance-oriented blue stage repeats Worlow's sentiments almost identically. It's clear that the staff isn't around to sweat the small stuff like stage-divers and backstage groupies. Instead, the focus is on their task at hand to achieve the bigger picture, to keep the bands happy, and to get them on stage, ready to deliver the best performance they can.
It seems the real accomplishment achieved by FFF is knowing that you don't need to sell out core values to achieve something bigger. Hopefully, and more than likely, we won't ever be seeing a band like Limp Bizkit headlining the "T-Mobile and Rockstar Energy Drink Presents: Black Stage!!!" at FFF any time soon. Williams and his crew have managed to keep one foot firmly planted in the underground, while broadening the horizon of what independent music itself can accomplish.
Other event organizers have already begun to adopt some of FFF's ideas and strategies, and though other similar festivals may arise (Levi's Fader Fort at SXSW is eerily comparable).
But there is only one fest around that can claim the title of being the most Fun... Fun... Fun...