FPSF's Journey From Crazy Idea to Civic Institution

A crowd watches Austin's The Sword during FPSF's very first day in August 2009.
A crowd watches Austin's The Sword during FPSF's very first day in August 2009.
Photo by Amber Roussel

We tried our best to come up a question for Omar Afra that was a clever play on "seven year itch," but failed miserably. It's just as well -- the co-founder and producer of Free Press Summer Fest says he wasn't thinking in those terms anyway.

According to Afra, the date of the lineup announcement could be revealed as soon as Friday morning. For at least the past week FPSF's Twitter account has been pinged steadily by antsy fans wondering when it's going to drop. Right now Afra says the roster for FPSF's seventh go-round, which returns to Eleanor Tinsley Park on June 6 and 7, is about 98 percent finalized, but he and the festival's other senior staff are still working up a few last-minute "curveballs."

"When we start getting to this period where people are expecting it, you kind of have to step back and say, 'We could put this out today, or we could spend a last few minutes polishing everything," he says.

In less time than a full presidential administration, FSPF has gone from an ambitious extension of the Montrose-focused Westheimer Block Party produced by Afra and his comrades at Free Press Houston to a $14 million windfall for the Bayou City, according to a 2012 University of Houston economic impact study. No doubt it's much more popular than three years ago, considering the past two festivals have sold out and the latest blind presale dried up in about four hours last month.

While his partner Jagi Katial and others at Pegstar remain "laser-focused" on making sure the talent engine runs smoothly as possible, Afra has other things on his mind. These days he figures he spends most of his own time on negotiating with vendors and city officials, as well as brainstorming ideas to continually tweak the FPSF brand.

The crowd for Afrojack at FSPF 2012
The crowd for Afrojack at FSPF 2012
Photo by Marc Brubaker

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"As much as we want the festival to be about the bands that are playing it, we also want it to be about the attendees and the experience and how much fun [it is]," he says. "Like, 'How good of a hang is this festival?'

More and more, Afra explains that making FSPF a quality hang depends on engaging its audience -- whose typical age is a shade under 25, he notes -- with eye-popping videos and other graphic enticements. And a generation that has grown up on YouTube and smartphone mini-movies is no longer content with "something they and their friends can do on the software that comes with their computer," notes Afra. Therefore FPSF calls on photographers and videographers from all over the city, he says, but one of his closest advisors in that capacity is Kiffer Keegan, who worked at Comedy Central for years and is now a serious player in the New York advertising/videography scene -- and who happened to grow up with Afra.

"He's basically the Michael Jordan of his field," Afra says. "It just kind of worked out perfect to where this is one of my best friends from growing up, and as this festival has grown his repertoire has grown like crazy. I think he gives us this kind of worldwide global relevance, while at the same time he's got a Houston connection.

"He's one of us, you know what I mean?" he adds. "He comes down several times a year and pigs out on Mexican food and we work on the creative."

REWIND: More Info on the FPSF Blind Pre-Sale & Pegstar's New Venue

Houston Press: What are you guys doing to go after all the people who continue to move to Houston? Omar Afra: I wasn't born in Houston; I came here when I was two years old as a refugee from war. Before my dad passed away, I remember him saying that of all the places in the world he had lived, Houston was his home. I think that's the great thing about Houston. The definition of being a Houstonian is different than in other places, and I think Houston is very welcoming of its "Newstonians," because that's kind of been how our city has grown.

Every year I meet people who say, "This is the first one I've been to," and these are people upwards of their late twenties as opposed to 22, which tells me these guys are new. I ask them, "Where are you from?", and they say Seattle or Austin or New York or whatever. Maybe they got a job in oil and gas or not, but it's something that they kind of knew about before, that they've got this great festival in Houston.

But I don't know that there's a concerted effort to say "Hey, you guys are welcome, too," because I think that kind of goes without saying. That's how welcoming Houston is.

How much can you talk about what the park will actually look like this time? It seems to move every year, and I know a lot of that is dependent on the renovations that have been going on. Last year was largely a transitory year, and this year there will be important changes, but nothing that really changes the nature of the festival. We're still, main stage, same place, still got the big stage over in Sam Houston. But we're lucky to have a city government that's really behind us. We talk to festival producers in other cities, and I'm not sure they get the same kind of support we do.

I say this with no bullshit or smoke or mirrors, but Mayor Parker and the Mayor's Office of Special Events have been super fucking supportive. I think in 2009 when we first started out, it was kind of touch and go, like, "You guys want to do what?!" It takes so much work from so many different city groups, and by and large we've had nothing but supportive people. I think after doing the first one, a lot of the city said, "Well, these guys have got a lot of work to do to make it right, but this could be a great civic event."

Story continues on the next page.


Free Press Summer Fest co-founder Omar Afra says Houston Mayor Annise Parker (left) and her administration have been "super fucking supportive" of the festival.
Free Press Summer Fest co-founder Omar Afra says Houston Mayor Annise Parker (left) and her administration have been "super fucking supportive" of the festival.
Photo by Marco Torres

To what do you attribute the mayor and her administration being so supportive of the festival? Well, a few different reasons. I think just by looking at the amount of people that come to this festival, the city should be supportive, because there's a constituency that wants this. Also, of course there's the economic [and] cultural impact, both of which are pretty important. You look at the festival, and the average attendee is 23, 24, and these are people who should be voting (laughs), could be voting, [and] they're people who are technology-savvy.

We like to think we've got a really diverse group of savvy attendees. In my mind, they're a constituency like any other.

What did you think when you read that economic-impact study about FPSF that U of H released a couple of years back? Well, part of me was like, "Whoa, that much moneyyyyy!" (laughs). Part of me had a very cool sticker shock. But at the same time, when I step back and look at the forest for the trees, and realize how many different groups from Houston are working year-round on this. This is something that literally year-round the city is working with us on this, and our sound company is working with us on this, and there's people that work on this year-round from our general manager to graphic designers. It takes so many people and so many groups to make this happen.

It kind of goes without saying that despite the numbers that...man, I don't want to use a Hillary Clinton quote and say it takes a village (laughs). Despite the fact that we're at the helm of this thing, this is largely a community effort. It felt like at one point Jagi and I were pushing this thing along, but further down the road it just took on an inertia of its own. It's just kind of become, in Houston at least, Christmas for young folks who are tuned to art and music.

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