When 20-something punk fans Stephen and Page decided to get married in 2011, they emailed the promoters of their favorite music festival, Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest, asking if they could reserve a corner of the grounds during the November event to hold a little ceremony for their closest friends. Festival co-owners James Moody and Graham Williams of Transmission Events said no. Instead, Moody and Williams booked an afternoon slot on the festival’s Yellow Stage for the wedding and hired an officiant–punk godfather Henry Rollins.
That kind of creative engagement with fans has made Fun Fun Fun, founded by Transmission Events in 2006, stand out in the growing annual lineup of multi-day music festivals. While it’s much smaller than some of its counterparts–daily attendance in 2012 was estimated at 15,000, versus 75,000 at the city’s other fall festival, Austin City Limits–Fun Fun Fun has grown steadily every year, attracting “rabid fans,” according to Moody. For example, several years ago, Transmission added getting a tattoo of the fest’s logo as a joke entry to the event’s annual scavenger hunt–and people actually showed up with Fun Fun Fun tattoos on their backs, hands, feet, and even inner lips. “We said well, the least we can do now is let you into the fest for free every year,” says Moody. “We call it DFL–down for life.”
FFF8, held at Austin’s Auditorium Shores this week, will feature a wide range of acts including Slayer, Snoop Dogg, M.I.A., Descendents, Jurassic 5, and Patton Oswalt. But beyond the entertainment, Moody and Williams have cultivated a unique brand, aimed both at growing Fun Fun Fun’s audience and hyperserving a demographic interested in a very specific vibe. Below are six creative tactics that Moody and Williams, who also own marketing agency Guerilla Suit, are using to inspire attendees to go all in for fun times three.
The Austin City Limits festival expanded to two October weekends in 2013, and the second weekend was not yet sold out during the intervening week. Transmission realized that while there is only a small overlap between the events’ audiences, there were still a large number of potential festival goers with limited funds making purchasing choices.
“I had been in negotiations with [astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson to present the scientific differences in festival choices,” says Moody. “We thought it would be hilarious for him to draw on a dry erase board and show the way your brain would react to certain stimuli, and the result would be you’re more suited to this type of activity, for example clearly you respond more to wrestlers (representing Fun Fun Fun’s wild side) than banjos (ACL’s folkier aesthetic).”
While the discussions with deGrasse Tyson didn’t resolve in time, Transmission whipped up an “intentionally badly designed” unbranded survey at FestTest.com, asking visitors to make choices in a series of two photos–between Simpsons character Nelson and the band Nelson, Crocs and Chucks, and Dance Party (a photo of people raging on a dance floor) and Lance Party (a photo of Lance Armstrong behind a drum kit). At the end, the survey indicates the user’s percentage preference for Fun Fun Fun Fest vs. ACL. To promote the test, Transmission took out ads in local papers, again unbranded, that gave the URL and said only “Fest Test” or “Get Tested.”
One of Fun Fun Fun’s ticket promotions is a contest sponsored by hard drive manufacturer Seagate, with prizes including not only festival tickets but also a Seagate drive, a custom guitar, music production software Ableton Live 9, an iPad, and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.
“It’s obviously hard to stereotype, but we find a lot of our audience are really into design, social sharing, etc.,” says Moody about partnering for a ticket giveaway targeted specifically to creative professionals. “We never expected when we were thinking about sponsors that hard drives would be who we’d be working with. But when you look into the ‘creative class,’ it’s filmmakers, photographers, designers, who are a huge part of our audience of nerds, and need a lot of digital storage. We run as many programs as we can to market to hyperniches. As a small fest we don’t sell out, so we’re always looking for subniches within our audience.”
FFF8’s theme is “Vannin’”–i.e., a tribute to the culture of owning and road tripping in custom vans. It seems vague, but for the Fun Fun Fun demographic, it makes perfect sense.
“One day hipsters stopped buying Vespas and started airbrushing eagles on the side of vans,” says Moody. “That’s what we were waiting for. We worked with these guys who did a documentary on vanning called Vannin’ that highlights communities like those who attend the Van Nationals. Once the younger set got interested, those communities got busier, and we were like ‘Dude, let’s do something around this.’”
Transmission bought and designed their own custom van for FFF8 and hosted a screening of Vannin’ on a lawn, inviting all the custom vans in the area. At the end of the screening, unbeknownst to the attendees, they announced the 2013 festival lineup (in 2012, Transmission rented out a bingo hall, put the bands on bingo balls to announce the lineup, and livestreamed the event).
Other than the announcement, there’s no real action around the theme, says Moody. “It’s just a vibe or spirit animal to help people wrap their heads around what we’re about. We like to wink to a theme, but we don’t overdo it.”
In 2012, Fun Fun Fun earned national press (including an appearance on Good Morning America) for inventing the world’s first Taco Cannon–a contraption made of a dozen T-shirt cannons fused together to shoot tacos into a crowd. The cannon has been used both at the fest and for promotional events, inspiring predictably intense frenzies. In a related effort, Transmission designed a Taco Locator mobile app, helping festival goers to find all the taco purveyors in the festival’s neighborhood.
“Tacos and queso (melted Tex Mex cheese sauce) are a wink wink in Austin,” says Moody. “We live or die by it, and we have really serious opinions about it. We get a strong contingent of out of towners, so we thought let’s put it in an app so we can walk you right there.”
FFF’s YouTube channel has 52 video uploads, some of them performances from past events, but many others creative promotional clips, including line-up leaks, annual recaps, and an emotional/hilarious goodbye to original venue Waterloo Park, created when the park was due to undergo renovations and the festival relocated to Auditorium Shores in 2011. The videos are produced by FFF video chief “Piggy”–also the man behind hugely popular (95,000+ followers) Instagram feed ThatLooksLikeADick–and designed to go viral.
“I don’t even know if this fest would exist if we had to run it off a print budget, and we didn’t have content sharing like social media,” says Moody, adding that increasing print ad prices “pushed us deeper and deeper into content development, creating programs and copy that could be shared.” Moody says the FFF audience is made up of “people who really know their shit relative to music or comedy, so we have to stay on our toes to keep it interesting enough for them to share–it’s really hard to raise the bar every year. When you’re not in the mainstream, you have to reach niche markets within niche markets where they are. You can’t do Google ad networks. And sometimes those markets are in dark and creative corners.” Like ThatLooksLikeADick.
Brand-sponsored stages have become the norm at music festivals (see Lollapalooza’s Red Bull Sound Select Stage, or the now-legendary giant inflatable Doritos vending machine at South By Southwest). But Transmission is taking a much more targeted approach to sponsorship, focused on what Moody says are two of the biggest movements in the fest’s demographic–comedy and craft beer. Shiner is the fest’s biggest overall sponsor, and Fun Fun Fun’s first stage partnership, with comedy collective Jash, is entirely content focused. Jash, a YouTube channel started by Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and Michael Cera, will create content leading up to and during the fest–and will bring a hot tub.
“It’s not like we’re partnering with Best Buy,” says Moody. “We’re partnering with these total nerds who create content that works for us.”