Both on social media and elsewhere, much chatter surrounding last weekend’s Free Press Summer Fest focused on how the festival seemed somehow different this year than in the past. Although no public announcement was ever made, the apparent drug-related death of an 18-year-old girl after the festival on Sunday has prompted the revelation that FPSF has belonged to someone else, namely Live Nation, for about six months.
According to abc13.com, Megan Tilton, a recent graduate of The Woodlands High School, was transported from the FPSF grounds at NRG Park to Memorial Hermann Hospital, where she later died. Her mother, Julie Tilton, told the station, ‘[the doctor] said that at the festival, Megan was given a form of tainted ecstasy, and it stopped her heart. They were unable to revive her. They worked on her for a very long period of time, but they weren't able to save her.”
Tilton's death is the first fatality in the festival's eight-year history. The news was enough for Free Press Houston publisher Omar Afra, after expressing his condolences to the Tilton family and noting that a GoFundMe page has been set up for her funeral expenses, to confirm that controlling interest in the festival had shifted to Live Nation. Under the headline “An Open Letter to the Community From Free Press Houston,” he wrote:
What started out as a collaboration by half a dozen knuckleheads in the community who had no business in the music industry eventually grew into a leviathan larger than the people who created it. We have been proud to see this little festival turn into an important civic event that has made Houston a better place for live music. However, after bringing in more and more partners, and as the festival takes on its own inertia, we have come to a place where we can no longer contribute to FPSF. We’ve done what we can. We put our heart and soul into this event and it’s grown into a community fixture, though it’s time to let it go. The majority interest of FPSF was sold to C3 Media effective December 18th, 2015, producers of Austin City Limits (ACL), Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, and C3 was purchased by LiveNation last year.
December 18 was also the first day of the Day For Night festival, the two-day winter carnival of music, food and digital art that Afra in his letter said was completely funded by the sale to Live Nation and, he emphasized, remains under FPH’s exclusive control.
Over the phone this evening, a saddened Afra said Tilton’s death had suddenly put things into perspective.
“We got into events [like FPSF] because we remember being that kid [where] music was one of the few things that made the hair on the back of our necks stand up,” he said. “That’s why we were inspired to get into this business in the first place. [Her death] just underscores how sad this is this happened. It just reminds us these kids are the most important thing to us; all this other stuff seems so big — all the melee of a festival and the music industry, and…for once in my life, I’m at a loss for words. It just sucks. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve got a kid her age, and all I can think about is her mom.”
Afra says that, spurred by questions by media, artists and sponsors alike, he had already been planning to announce FPSF's change in ownership; the change in atmosphere had become so apparent that FPH’s own music writer, David Garrick, wrote a highly critical review of this year’s festival in which he called FPSF “a shadow of its former self.” What held him back, Afra said, was not knowing what his and the other original FPSF organizers' role would be within the new management structure.
“Over the last several months, we didn’t know what capacity we would be involved,” Afra said. “I think it was before we went through the motions that we realized what was there. There are a few things that we helped out with; we didn’t know what level of help we’d have to provide, how quickly they’d pick up the torch. Everybody did a good job.”
FPSF was founded by FPH; Houston promoters Pegstar Concerts, who now control White Oak Music Hall and Raven Tower, booked the first year and became partners the second year. Noting that he was only speaking as publisher of FPH and not in any official FPSF capacity, Afra said the festival will retain its name, and that the negotiations with Live Nation went on for about a year and were about as amicable as such things could be.
“We didn’t want to poo-poo the fest,” Afra said. “We wish the festival the best. We want to see FSPF continue to be awesome.
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“I’m excited to see the exciting things they do with the festival, and will always be their biggest fan,” he added. “I remember when we started this thing in 2009. We never, ever thought it would work, and now handing the reins to Live Nation has allowed us to start another Houston event that’s completely independent and that we have creative control over.”
In light of Tilton’s death, Afra’s own memories of this past weekend sound especially bittersweet.
“This was the first time ever I spent time with my son walking around watching bands, the first time I’ve ever had the chance watching this thing I helped build with my kids,” he said. “I think every other festival they’ll remember their dad running around like a crazy man.”
As of 9 p.m. Wednesday, Tilton's GoFundMe page had received just over $33,000 in donations.