Free Press Summer Fest

FPSF's Jagi Katial Looks Forward to What Happens Next

The countdown is officially on. Free Press Summer Fest 2016 is now scarcely three and a half months away, returning to Eleanor Tinsley Park June 4 and 5 after a weather-induced one-year detour to NRG Park. Like last year, Tuesday’s blind presale sold out in about 20 minutes, mercifully minus the glitches of years past. Ticket prices are now sitting at just south of $150 (general admission), where they will remain until the lineup is revealed on March 1. According to Jagi Katial, whose Pegstar Concerts supervises the talent-related aspects of the festival, the number of tickets made available through the blind presale is not quite half of the overall total, but it’s in the vicinity.

“My goal is to sell as many tickets as cheap as I can,” he says. “I like supporting and patting people on the back for being early buyers for any show. Look, the people who buy the tickets first are most likely return customers. They're the ones who deserve to be able to get the best price for the best show, you know? It's always a combination of trying to sell them as cheap as humanly possible while making sure the economics of the festival will maintain.”

This year’s lineup of some 55-plus acts will be typical of FPSF, Katial promises — all over the place. (One act inadvertently leaked on Tuesday, when recently reunited Swedish hardcore greats Refused announced an FPSF date as part of their summer tour.) The festival will again partner with Red Light Management, the artist-management firm that represents dozens of acts who would make perfect FPSF fodder, everyone from Chris Stapleton and Tiësto to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and even Kool & the Gang. (Probably the most controversial artist in FPSF history, R. Kelly, is also a Red Light client.) A different arm of Red Light also sends consultants to festivals like FPSF to help them run more efficiently.

“This was [Houston’s] only event of this scale,” Katial says of the two organizations' three-year relationship, “and they have people who in different aspects of the music industry, work on things this size: whether it’s management, the record side or the actual festival-production side — or other concert-production side on stuff this size or much bigger, constantly. This is a level of experience, insight and aptitude that they brought to the table that we physically can’t have because we don’t have that experience. That’s what they bring to the table — experience and the ability to execute things in a more customer-friendly way.”

Katial is an especially busy man these days, between the recent opening of Raven Tower and the ongoing construction of the multi-stage White Oak Music Hall, which is scheduled to open its outdoor stage with French electro-pop act M83 on April 9; the two indoor stages are set to open in June. The day we spoke, Monday, Katial had just met with a crew in charge of planting the grass at the new venue’s outdoor area, which will be known as The Lawn at White Oak. He doesn’t even try to distinguish between FPSF mode and White Oak mode, he swears.

“Both things are just always running,” he says. “There’s no switch. Booking the festival started in June last year. So it's just sort of like a constant; everything's working at the same time. Which is good, because it would be hard to think about one thing without thinking about the other.”

While we had him on the phone (which is not easy to do this time of year), we wanted to ask Katial about what the FPSF team had learned from last year, when the Memorial Day weekend flooding, coupled with another bout of heavy rains a few days later, forced organizers to relocate the entire festival to NRG Park’s Yellow Lot in barely more than a week. It was pretty much touch and go until the moment the gates opened, with added inconveniences even including extra landscaping; Katial figures he probably rented “between 50 and 100 trees” to lend a little more shade to the grounds.

Katial says FPSF was on pace to outsell 2014 when last spring’s storms blew through. He admits the festival took a hit, both financially and attendance-wise — nothing was intrinsically wrong with the new site, he says, but at times of crisis like that, “I think people had other things on their mind, and people didn't have money or commitment to go out and party for two days at that time…they had shit to deal with” — but says he’s proud of the way FPSF’s staff was able to rally and pull everything together at the last minute.

“To be able to save the event, move it, execute it, I wouldn’t use the word ‘flawlessly,’ but I would say as far as the end result with the customer experience, I would say that was flawless,” he says. “We knew the end result; we knew what we were dealing with and what didn’t work out the way we expected to, but the fact that the show happened safe and all the bands played and everyone who had a ticket was able to experience the show, I think I noticed an overall confidence [and] reassurance to everybody.

“Moving forward and planning this, it’s a city park and it’s under construction; there’s always things that are being thrown at us that we’re not planning for, or that we don’t anticipate,” Katial says of this year. “I think we’re just approaching those things with some renewed confidence that we didn’t have when we were dealing with a [possible] cancellation. Spirits were pretty low that week.”

Note: This article was edited after publication to correct the amount of time until the festival.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray