Last year, the concert promoter Sean Carlson put on what was perhaps his most successful event. He had been organizing shows around his native Los Angeles under the name FYF—including his marquee event, FYF Fest—since 2004, when he was 18. As part of the 2011 incarnation of FYF Fest, Carlson had arranged a secret show by Arcade Fire at Los Angeles’ Ukranian Cultural Center. There was free cotton candy, soda, and water, as well as sing-alongs by the deliriously happy fans, who’d spent the day unraveling clues about acquiring tickets. The show was a sweaty, joyous success, and two days later, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Not long after, Kurt Soto, music program manager for the sneaker company Vans, approached Carlson. Vans had recently begun operating a renovated 25,000-foot Greenpoint warehouse, which they’d turned into a skate park, and the company wanted to explore the idea of putting on music events there. He thought Carlson might be the man to make it happen. “They saw that I was able to go into a unique room and create a really unique atmosphere,” Carlson says.
“I thought that it would be a great thing to do also on the east coast,” says Soto. “Also to replace the [JellyNYC-sponsored] Pool Parties once they went away, just to have something there, going on.”
The first show at what was dubbed the House of Vans—with No Age, HEALTH, Cults, and Ceremony, as well as free beer and food—happened just a few months later on the Greenpoint waterfront.
Carlson has total creative control over the Vans lineup. “They haven’t come back to me and said no to any of my bookings,” he says, a fact corroborated by the execs at Vans. “I wouldn’t be interested in doing a job if I was given a list of bands and just told to go book them. That would be a waste of time.” According to Fabien Moreau, whose firm Forward produces branding events for Michael Kors, Cartier, and Absolut, this type of long-term collaboration is key to building successful events. “In the field of brand sponsorship, ‘one-night stands’ are less and less successful,” Moreau says via email. Successful events, he added, feature the brand as “more of a partnership rather than sponsorship.”
The Vans House Parties are, in a way, an attempt to counterbalance Vans’ longest-term music sponsorship: The Warped Tour. A resounding success in the 1990s, the Warped Tour still attracts big crowds, but it has also drawn the ire of anti-authority, anti-capitalist punks. In organizing events for such a cantankerous group, Vans found themselves seen not as on the side of the punks but as somehow taking advantage of them. (One typical comment comes from The Queers’ Joe Queer, who told The Wire in 2006: “Fuck it. I just don’t like that shit… To me, a punk gig is a small sweaty club with the audience right in your face knocking over the mic stand and boogying off the energy.”)
There’s also the issue of the crowd that Warped attracts. As Chris Overholser, the communications manager for Vans, puts it, “The Warped Tour has a little bit more of a defined group of genre music that it caters to, and a music fan that it caters to.” The Vans House Parties allow Vans to expose itself to a different demographic.
“Our bread and butter is punk rock, but we also have grown,” says Vans’ music and entertainment manager Anna Sherwood. The House Parties do host punk-leaning bands—Converge and Ceremony played last year, and the July 12 show has H2O and 7 Seconds on the bill—but there’s a broader spectrum of bands, one that attracts the crowds who have lined up for similar free shows in previous years.
But have these events actually helped Vans sell more stuff? Moreau, the branding expert, is quick to point out that events don’t necessarily lead directly to increased sales. “It is not like a coupon promotion, infomercials or internet flash sale where you see your return on investment shortly after the activation,” he says. “With events, the brand is working on the brand perception, trying to maintain a strong and valuable brand equity that pays off in the long run… It is undeniable that events sponsorship has done very well for brands in the long run, and have ‘fueled’ their cool factor.” Whether this “cool factor” translates to dollars is hard to measure.
The people at Vans are cagey on this point. “We never went into this thinking, ‘We’re going in trying to, like, sell more stuff in New York,’ ” says Sherwood. “We did it because we wanted to bring something special to this community.” When pressed, however, she says that “Vans is more successful now than it’s ever been.” When I ask Overholser if the House Parties have helped sales, he hems and haws before somewhat cryptically saying that the shows “coincided with [Vans] being more available in New York than ever before”; the brand has opened several stores in the metropolitan area in the past year and a half.
It’s easy to be cynical about initiatives like House of Vans, to discount them as somehow meaningless or sinister because they involve a corporation selling products (and doing so successfully, if the statements by Vans’ employees are any indication). But a longer view—a passionate young concert promoter given free rein to book bands he loves, a bunch of shows with worthy bands and a great atmosphere (and free drinks), all of it totally free—offers a more complicated picture.