Three years ago, on a small side stage of Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest, the rapper Big Freedia introduced Austin to New Orleans “bounce music,” the hip-hop subgenre that prominently features what—thanks to Miley Cyrus’s performance at this year’s Video Music Awards ceremony—has since become known far and wide as twerking.
Onstage, Freedia’s scantily clad dancers, nicknamed the Shake Team, twerked so vigorously that some of them had to hold on to a speaker cabinet for stability. It was 45 minutes of sexual suggestion and profanity that you are not likely to see repeated at the more conservative and significantly larger Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“We’ve got some latitude to take chances, because when you’re in the mainstream, that’s when you have to be politically correct,” said James Moody, a principal of Transmission Events, Fun Fun Fun Fest’s promoter. “We don’t want to be a giant music festival. We wouldn’t be good at that.”
Now in its eighth year, Fun Fun Fun Fest was one of the first in what is now a growing sector of the business known as micro-festivals, alternative-leaning affairs like the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and FYF Fest in Los Angeles that don’t aspire to the big leagues. Fun Fun Fun, for instance, sells 15,000 tickets a day, compared with the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s 75,000, and this year’s lineup balances out headliners like Snoop Dogg, Slayer, and the comedian Sarah Silverman with dozens of acts that are perhaps too loud, salacious or obscure for many of the mainstream festivals. They include Pelican, an instrumental metal outfit and a Brooklyn trio of twelve-year-olds who bang out punk songs under the name Unlocking the Truth.
To draw the sort of fans who want to see those sorts of bands, Transmission Events engages in aggressive—and often irreverent—marketing tactics. Moody notes that since fans of punk, metal and dance music skew younger and less affluent than the mainstream rock audience, the festival targets fans from cities close enough to Austin that they would not need to buy airline tickets, places like San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and Corpus Christi.
And rather than spend a lot of money on radio campaigns and magazine ads, Transmisson Events markets through social media and reaches out to fans in places they’re likely to congregate—coffee shops, skate parks, craft beer halls, and brick-and-mortar record stores. In October, Fun Fun Fun and six record stores across Texas teamed for an initiative, offering anyone who bought a three-day festival pass at one of the stores a voucher good for an album from one of the artists playing this year’s festival.
“People in record stores who are still buying records, still loving vinyl, still really into looking for the next thing, are the people who tend to admire our festival,” Moody said. “They’re generally music nerds. That’s our audience.”
Conventional wisdom around Austin suggests the record store offer is evidence that Moody and his team are feeling a little extra pressure to be creative; the recent expansion of Austin City Limits to a two-weekend model pushed it closer to Fun Fun Fun and may have discouraged some money-conscious fans from attending both. But Moody contends that the crossover between the two events is less than people may think and that Austin is big enough for two music festivals in such close succession. “We’re not going after Tom Petty, and they’re not going after Slayer,” he said.
Even so, an online “fest test” that Transmission used to promote this year’s festival was the first time Fun Fun Fun had officially poked fun at ACL. On a page labeled Comedy, participants were asked to choose between Sarah Silverman and Lionel Richie, who was ACL’s 2013 headliner. That sort of attitude is par for the course. Last November, Fun Fun Fun’s official iPhone app sent nearly 8,000 users push notifications at 4:15 a.m. on a Saturday. Rather than promoting a sponsor or alerting ticket holders to a change in the lineup, this one read: “Hey girl can I com over? I been drinkin bout you. Hollr.”
“People wondered if we got hacked or an employee got drunk and hijacked our account, but we sent those notifications because we thought it was funny and we thought they’d think it was funny,” Moody said. “I think when you deal with 75,000 people you have to homogenize your language. With 15,000 you can feel like you have a more intimate relationship and be as sharp or funny as you’d be with friends and family.”
A lot of people feel so committed to the festival that they have marked themselves for life as loyalists. Since 2008 the Fun Fun Fun Fest has challenged fans to participate in scavenger hunts made up of intriguing, sometimes questionable tasks that will allow them to win free tickets. That first year, as a joke, the festival offered a high point value to anyone who had the festival’s logo tattooed on his or her body. In the years since, Moody said, he has seen more than thirty such tattoos, from a large one on someone’s back to a tiny “#fff” on the bottom of a woman’s foot.
“It’s weird, but good weird,” Moody said. “That’s true loyalty. I don’t even have one. I probably should. I feel terrible about that.”