From Baauer to BROCKHAMPTON: Building an empire with FOMO
In our latest feature, the team behind FOMO break down their story, their 2020 lineup and look forward to the future.
Header image and in-article images by Jordan Munns (excluding posters).
Any Australian at all involved with the global electronic or rap scenes has probably been to a show organised by Jess and Anand Krishnaswamy. After founding Brown Bear Entertainment - later shortened to BBE - in April 2013, they’ve come to tour musicians amongst the world’s most incredible, adored and experimental: Baauer, TNGHT, DJ Snake and Kaytranada all within their first few months as a touring company (plus many more); Mura Masa, Gesaffelstein, SOPHIE, Jamie XX, Tourist, Disclosure, ODESZA, Boys Noize and others since joining them in the six years since.
In 2016, however, after three years of bringing some of electronic’s brightest minds around the country to places they’d otherwise perhaps not explore, they decided to take a big leap. Combining their close-knit team with that of Brisbane’s Steven Papas - known for running QLD institution Oh Hello, a venue often found holding BBE events in the years prior - they took their expertise in electronic music, intertwined it with an increasing talent pool of new-coming hip-hop still prevalent three years later, and created FOMO Festival: a new force to Australia’s then-reviving music scene.
Launching at Brisbane’s Riverstage, FOMO Festival promised to bring together the learnings of BBE across the years into a festival-sized package that felt like the future of Australian festivals. The lineup was eclectic and diverse, with Jamie XX and Boys Noize sitting alongside Skepta, RL Grime and Flight Facilities, and in a time where festivals were largely centralised across the populous New South Wales and Victorian markets, FOMO’s inception in Brisbane felt like the beginning of this movement branching out. Even the way the festival ran felt like something you couldn’t find anywhere else: all the acts playing on one stage, for example, to eliminate clashes.
Three years later, it’s become apparent that FOMO’s forward-thinking nature has caught on, and something has clicked. In 2017, they branched out to Sydney and Adelaide (the latter particularly unexpected, as even festivals the size of Listen Out skip South Australia today) with Flosstradamus and Empire of the Sun side-by-side to JME and Goldlink. In 2018, they brought Post Malone and SZA around the country, including to Melbourne for FOMO By Night – a small, market-testing package of the line-up’s shining stars. Finally, in 2019, came Nicki Minaj – an international headliner who despite being one of the biggest acts on the planet, wouldn’t really make sense on any other stage – alongside Rae Sremmund, Kali Uchis and Mura Masa, as well as new pop-up events in Perth and Auckland.
FOMO 2020, meanwhile, encapsulates the festival’s many attractions. Despite its mammoth growth in such a short time, the festival is still exclusively held on one stage – albeit slightly bigger stages, in new venues for their Brisbane and Melbourne locations – and includes a lineup that brings together FOMO’s drive to book acts ahead of the curve. Electronic-wise, there’s a mix of old favourites and new forces - Kaytranada, Madeon, Meduza, Ninajirachi - while the festival’s establishment in hip-hop remains present through BROCKHAMPTON, Rico Nasty, Sydney drill star Chillinit and one of 2019’s biggest acts, Lizzo.
Here, Anand and Jess Krishnaswamy – joined by Steven Papas – break down FOMO Festival, from its inception in 2016, right through to their plans for the future.
The Start of FOMO:
Within the first year of BBE becoming a touring staple of international electronic music, a close connection to Oh Hello – the now-retired Fortitude Valley nightclub and live music space – its crew was born. BBE’s first-ever Brisbane show as a touring company (Baauer, in May of that year), was hosted in the venue, as were many, many more across the years: Ryan Hemsworth and Kaytranada’s co-headline tour (which was used as the venue’s second birthday), DJ Snake, Rustie, Lido and Cashmere Cat included. Eventually, when beginning to concept a festival based in Brisbane, the decision to go with someone who knew the city and its electronic tastes in-and-out felt like an easy choice.
From here, FOMO was born – and it quickly proved to be something nobody expected.
To kick this off, we should really go back right to the start because the greater BBE team have years of live music experience behind you and you've worked closely with festivals throughout that time, so what triggered the conversation to launch your own thing?
Anand: We always had a general plan to do something bigger. Steve's originally from Brisbane and ran one of the best nightclubs there for a very long time - Oh Hello! - so he had real in-depth knowledge about the city and its market. We always had a rough plan in place to do something because there was a gap in the market over that New Years period - there was Beyond The Valley, Field Day, Falls and Origin, but nothing Brisbane or Queensland-specific.
After the death of Big Day Out, Future Music Festival, Stereosonic and others, there were definitely kids crying out for something new and fresh in Brisbane. Around the time of the first FOMO, we had tours in place with RL Grime, Skepta, Boys Noize and Keys N Krates, and we thought if we could add a few more cool acts here, we should be able to make something work.
We were incredibly lucky enough to get acts like Jamie XX and Flight Facilities and a few other great acts to fill that gap to make a festival and ended up doing 8,500 people in our first year. It all came from identifying a gap in the market and trying to give the Queensland and more specifically the Brisbane kids something they didn't have: an eclectic, musically-diverse, one-stage festival.
The whole idea of bringing some fresh and new and exciting is something that's seemingly stuck with FOMO over the years too.
Anand: Yeah, definitely. In terms of the format - the concept of everyone being together - was very much a case of us trying to put on a festival that we ourselves would be really keen to attend, and we just really wanted to simplify the process after years of working with festivals.
Let's just simplify it to the experience of what music is all about: one great stage with big and special production where you don't have to split up and lose your friends to see acts. Togetherness is the key. You don't want to have your two favourite acts playing at the same time either. We tried to remove as many of the boundaries or complaints we'd find having worked on other festivals and big shows. We just wanted to keep things simple, and I've found that trying to do one thing really, really well usually derives a better result.
For any festival, its biggest drawcard is the lineup. While some festivals – Coachella, Glastonbury, even Splendour – may sell out regardless of a top-tier lineup, brand recognition and trust can only go so far (just look at the now-defunct Big Day Out, for example). If you struggle to programme a lineup which fills that distinct niche whatever it may be – location-wise, genre-wise or so on – there’s a strong chance your festival will struggle, something that FOMO have luckily avoided thus far with some of Australia’s most out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to lineup programming.
In fact, despite how much FOMO has grown over the years or how the cultural shift has pronounced certain genres over others, every FOMO lineup feels distinctly like a FOMO lineup – and that’s a big drawcard. At the end of the day, it’s about talent. Jamie XX, Nicki Minaj and Lizzo for example, are three very, very different acts existing with different spaces and different niches. However, it’s hard to deny that they’re each amongst the genre’s respective best – at the time, Jamie XX’s In Colour felt just as boundary-pushing as Lizzo is to pop music and R&B today, and that Nicki Minaj has been for her whole domination of US rap.
Not many festivals could book someone like Nicki Minaj in their fourth year. How does that happen?
Anand: We're always trying to do things a little bit differently to what everyone else is doing as a way to stand out. With Nicki Minaj specifically, we've always been massive fans of her - she's an icon - and we had a great relationship with her agent. To be honest, it was a real no-brainer.
In fact, I was a little bit surprised because a) she's played so few festivals in the world and b) she's never played a touring festival in the world; so when they were open to it, it actually made a lot of sense for both parties. We're always trying to be ahead of the curve.
Jess: Generally, our best work is often done with international acts. We actually find it quite hard to book and work with local teams, because everything we've done with previous has been focused on international touring. It's way easier, for example, to get a Nicki Minaj deal done than book a hot, local act – festivals are always after those acts and they're constantly touring with plans booked up often two years at a time.
Anand: Literally, for a hot, local artist you're competing with 50 other festivals in the New Year peak period. Also being a one-stage event, you get something with us that you can't get at a festival with multiple stages full of acts, splitting people up and moving the crowds around. If one of those artists are going to come out here, they're going to come for something special: Nicki hasn't been here for eight years, for example.
This segues into this sense of timing, because it would be incredibly difficult to lock in acts 18 months in advance, not knowing what their careers are going to look like by the time the festival rolls around. However, between Lizzo, Post Malone, SZA, Kali Uchis - it seems like FOMO has a real knack for this. How do you have that kind of foresight?
Anand: I think first and foremost, all of those artists you mentioned at the time had incredible music - that's always the first thing we look at, as we don't book anything that we personally don't like - and a strong, likeable image.
It really comes down to a combination of things. With Post [Malone], Jess and I were in Dallas -
Jess: Austin, it was, just as White Iverson was blowing up.
Anand: We were at a little festival over there called JMBLYA which Future was headlining. Post only came out for three songs, but after that, we just knew that he was going to be the next big thing.
Jess: It wasn't necessarily about Post himself or his music, but how the crowd reacted to what he was doing. It was undeniable that he was going to be huge. He just came up with a guitar because there were sound issues, and literally every single kid knew every single word to his songs. I was like "woah, okay this is special and I think it's going to be able to connect." That was the big thing about Posty: it was how the kids were reacting to him. We had him on the Diplo tour with Nina Las Vegas and Anna Lunoe, and by the time the tour finished, you could tell he had something special.
Anand: With the examples of Kali Uchis and SZA, that was 100% music-based. Both of those artists were ones we've loved for a long time, and then they both released absolutely monster albums that were just undeniable and it came down to us being like "this is the kind of music we want to promote and bring to Australia.” It just so happened that other people connected with it as well.
Jess: Booking insane female talent of that size is not easy, but it's really important. We were able to get Kali because we had SZA. Now, we were able to get Lizzo because we had Nicki. A big, amazing talented female artist or diva - diva in the sense of a queen, not the stereotype sometimes held against female talent like this - needs to know that you have the capacity to market them in the right way and look after them; respect them; make sure things the things that are important to a female can be met in an appropriate way. Now that we have such incredible female artists that we've worked with in the past, it makes those conversations of booking them a lot easier.
Anand: In that respect, the SZA booking was ground-breaking for us. That definitely paved the way for Kali, then Nicki, then Lizzo, and all the future 'divas' we're bound to have in the future.
This ties into navigating things like inclusivity at festivals and having that balance, which I take is something that you have to have on your mind throughout the whole booking process and planning, right?
Anand: Our whole team is very diverse, and we know that our ticket-buying customers come from all different walks of life.
Jess: There are no festival owners like us in the country, so it's really important for us that our team reflects that and our lineups reflect that, because the kids that come to our shows are incredibly diverse in terms of background and I don't want anyone to feel like they can't be comfortable at FOMO. It is for everybody to enjoy.
A festival that's built off inclusivity is more likely to be inclusive itself.
Jess: Give me Lizzo any god damn day of the week over a whole bunch of mediocre, white hyper-masculine men that just get too many bookings already, you know?
Steven: It also reflects on our sponsorship and what other brands we work with, so we take pride in being diverse, and who we work and partner with for FOMO. It's not just music, it's the overall picture too. It's pretty important that we don't take the quick buck and jump on the bandwagon.
Charities, and Giving Back:
Festivals - generally speaking - aren’t a big, money-making business (just look at the closure of many of Australia’s biggest and best festivals across the years due to dwindling finances), and FOMO is no different. However, despite this, one promise they’ve constantly made to themselves across the years is to always give back, and that’s a core ethos that’s been present since day-dot. Over the years, FOMO Festival have supported two of Australia’s most brilliant charities: Heaps Decent, which works with young people from diverse Australian communities to engage them through music and art, and the ASRC, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Jess: From our sponsors to the brands we work with from a partnering perspective, we don't want to work with any shifty people or brands. We support the ASRC - the refugee charity - and we support Heaps Decent, which does incredible stuff with Indigenous communities and disenfranchised people in remote areas of the country. They're two charities that really mean a lot to us personally.
FOMO partnering with charities is something worth bringing up actually, because that's not really something you often see in an industry where money is such a major stressor, but it's something you have done from the start. What's the importance of doing that?
Jess: Look at the privilege we have to be able to do what we do. It's an supreme privilege that we get to get to work in music and that we get to connect with so much amazing talent. That we get to do all these really rare, special things in our day-to-day lives… and also look at all of the young people – in terms of our attendees – that we have access to. With this wave of big, soulless, multinational companies coming into small markets like Australia and New Zealand and trying to crush all the diversity and flavour of all of the locally-bred and born events and companies, it's really important that we use our platform to make sure that we can better the lives of people who aren't as fortunate as we are to literally own a music festival.
It's not just about just having fun, it's nice to be able to give back in some way and shine a light on issues and causes because people are becoming more and more apathetic. The shit that I see at the moment: you have to pay something like $600 to get a floor ticket to an artist you saw a year and a half ago for $80 is disgusting. We want our events to be reasonably-priced, and to be able to - in whatever small way we can - advocate for causes that are meaningful to us.
Steven: It's very easy to get jaded in the music industry because there's a lot of negativity, whether it's from the media or customers; everyone has an opinion on everything. It's a very difficult industry to be in, but at the same time, we get to wake up every day and work on a festival we created... There are so many people out there who aren't as lucky as us, and we can never forget that. I think that the reminder to try and help people out there who aren't as fortunate as us is so important to have, because it's 100% a privilege to do this. No matter how big FOMO gets, it'll always be important to us.
How FOMO Comes to Life - and How it Stays Safe:
“It must be so great being able to work on a music festival for your career!” It’s something that a lot of festival owners - and people in the music industry full-stop - hear often, and although it is an incredible privilege to work on something you’re passionate about day-in, day-out, there’s also a lot of work that goes into bringing a festival together. It’s not, as some people might believe, a job that only lasts around booking lineups and the festival’s run. It’s instead something that takes years and years: the lifetime of a FOMO Festival, for example, is about 18 months, while others such as Glastonbury are often planned two years in advance.
That, and festivals aren’t exactly all about the lineup, and there’s a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes. From licensing permits to venue hires to safety run-downs to production, building a lineup is only a slither of the work to be done.
As a punter, the way festivals are built is kept relatively behind closed doors. When it comes to a festival the size of FOMO, what's the process of putting it all together?
Anand: Everything is always led by the lineup. For instance, I'm currently working on the 2021 lineup - those discussions are all-year-round and they don't stop.
Jess: All of the venues, safety, licensing and so-on happens at the same time - it would be impossible to put a lineup somewhere if we didn't do this stuff straight away, regardless of its size.
Steven: It's our fifth year now, and at this point, it just becomes a systemised approach.
Jess: It starts from selecting and locking down our venues and then we expand out from there in terms of rolling out our team - a national team that oversees everything in terms of how we build the sites and the national production and everything, and then state-specific teams.
Steven: This all happens around 18 months before the festival commences: bookings, venues and everything else is a full, 18-month job.
Anand: There's really no rest period in building a festival. It's never perfect and you can always do better, and a lot of the time when we don't have headliners to lock in or venues to confirm, we're working out how we can do better.
Jess: We're also doing a lot of additional things. If you just do one event a year and that's what you do, then yeah - you get to take a month off at some point - but we don't, because we're always growing and expanding; moving into New Zealand and trying to do additional things. We haven't got our supreme package completely finalised yet in terms of what our tour looks like, it's always changing and growing based on what we feel the market wants or trying to improve things and make them better. Basically, Anand is always working on bookings year-round; Steven is always working on event site, production, operations, safety, dealing with every council, every venue, every emergency service and so on.
A festival is an obscene amount of work. You can't just book Nicki and sell x amount of tickets - there's so, so much you have to do to make sure everything works and can go ahead.
Just look at how many festivals pop-up and then cancel because they can't get police clearance or council clearance; it's such an important job.
Anand: It is the most important thing. Anyone can have a crack and try to book a few acts - anyone can give that a go, providing you have the money to pay them - but when it comes to nailing stakeholder relationships and all that, people get done. If you don't know what you're doing, you can't put on an event for 10,000 people because the safety concerns are enormous.
Steven: One of the other things that we definitely try to do, for example, in Western Sydney, is we are going into these venues to complement the community and work with the community and give back to the community. It's not just about a one day thing for us, it's about the bigger picture too. So as you can see now, there's more and more going on in Western Sydney and in a way, that's thanks to FOMO and FOMO's vision to expand that area, and that's always what we did in going to New South Wales from Queensland.
Everyone said we were crazy for going to Western Sydney for this festival because the only festivals that had gone out there were Harvest, which ended up moving after a few years, and some heavier stuff. We thought we could make it work, and it has.
Parramatta Park is something you didn't really see on lineup posters before, but now it's something that's seemingly more and more common.
Jess: We went there, people thought it was possible, and now there's a big shift of people doing the same thing. Technically, based on population growth, Parramatta is the actual geographical centre of Sydney. All the kids there are all about music - Kaytranada fans, Rae Sremmund fans, Amine fans - they all live out there. They're kids who have really good music taste, are conscious about things like diversity and are diverse themselves - there's a huge melting pot of cultures in western Sydney - and it just seems perfect.
Anand and I kinda grew up in the west/south-west as kids - my grandparents lived in Parramatta for 50 years. It's actually a really great area and when we went to the park, I was like "there's gotta be some kind of catch here because the venue is so beautiful, but nobody uses it."
It's really a perfect venue for us and has been so instrumental in the growth of FOMO. It carries everything we want FOMO to deliver - room for movement, close to public transport, a lack of sound restrictions versus inner-city venues - and it's so great. We did 12,000 there in our first year, and for a brand new festival in a completely new area where kids haven't had that experience, it was great.
One of the most important things for a festival these days is safety, because for many people, a wholesome time where they can be themselves and have fun safely is just as important as the lineup they're listening to. How do you ensure that happens at FOMO?
Steven: A big part of that is hiring one of the best and most passionate teams nationally that really get our vision and the needs of our patrons, but at no time, no-one - me, one of our team members, one of our stakeholders - can be complacent, because anything really is possible.
One of the big things festivals are battling nationally - but definitely in NSW - is pill-testing. What do you guys think of the debate as festival-holders?
Steven: We're still in the same boat as everybody else, really. When the government allows it I can do it, but I need that to happen first - and it feels like not much research is happening from the government to decide whether it's a change that needs to happen. It's illegal to test a pill, but when the government says yes, obviously FOMO Festival will be behind it 100%.
Anand: I will always be for anything that would keep kids safe because that's the priority. Whatever that entails, we'll be open to, but in the meantime, our hands are tied.
Jess: No parents should ever, ever get that call ever again.
The Future of FOMO:
Looking forward, there’s a lot to be excited about in FOMO Festival’s future. Their 2020 lineup is amongst the festival’s most forward-thinking yet, and they’re not even finished with adding to it (editor's note: A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie was just added to their lineup after this piece was written), despite it already being one of the season’s strongest. For a festival like FOMO - capable of bringing in the biggest acts in the world within their first five years - the sky is really the limit, as cliche as that may be. So, what’s next?
We've talked about the festival's creation, its growth and evolution, its lineup and its safety and so-on. What do you think the future of FOMO will look like?
Steven: I think we just want to get closer to mastering what the festival is, and how we can execute that. We're so far from being perfect - not that anything will ever be perfect - but we're not even close to reaching our full potential. We're still growing.
Anand: I feel like we just want to keep doing what we do; keep bringing fresh and exciting artists to Australia; always focus on things are the new; things that are fresh; things that will never be here; and trying to be ahead of the curve in terms of bookings, customer safety and experience. One thing that was very important is that we place a very high value on customer experience and production and making our festival the best it can be for people buying tickets. It's such a key part.
Jess: It's been a constant evolution really. When you're passionate about finding the next thing on giving a voice to the next exciting new talent.
Anand: We just like being on the next big thing. Chillinit, for example, is one of the first big, Australian drill-esque rappers to be given a big platform on a festival main stage. What's exciting, what's new, what's going to be groundbreaking - that's how we're evolving.
So you’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve and work out who the next Lizzo is before everyone else realises too.
Jess: Oh no, there's only one Lizzo. She's very, very special and she's a dream act.
Note: In the time since writing, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie has been added to the FOMO 2020 lineup.
FOMO 2020 runs across the country in January, alongside a special, one-off BROCKHAMPTON sideshow in Perth. For more information and tickets, head HERE.
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