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Prominent festival promoter and Coachella operator Goldenvoice on Monday announced it had ended its relationship with Sean Carlson, founder of the Los Angeles music festival FYF Fest.
Carlson founded FYF Fest, once known as Fuck Yeah Fest, at age 18 in 2004. Since 2011, FYF Fest teamed with Goldenvoice and its parent company, live entertainment behemoth AEG, and it has become one of L.A.’s leading festivals, with bills featuring artists such as Kanye West, Nine Inch Nails, Björk and The Strokes.
Goldenvoice did not offer a public explanation for its decision to part ways with Carlson. FYF Fest’s publicist declined to give comment on the matter. In rumors and social media postings, however, allegations of sexual harassment have swirled. Over the past month, SPIN has spoken to at least four women who have accused Carlson of sexual misconduct, including one who alleges that Carlson sexually assaulted her. The alleged incidents of which SPIN is aware occurred between 2010 and 2015.
SPIN spoke to one man, a person who worked with Carlson from 2006 to 2010. Frustrating logistical problems at the 2010 FYF Fest was one of the reasons he stopped working with Carlson. The other, he said, was his discomfort with Carlson’s treatment of women. “One of the nights of the  festival there was a house party,” he recalls. “Sean rolled up to the party and was just like, groping girls … y’know, grabbing their asses and just being super-aggressive. It seemed like he was kind of joking around at first, but then they’d say, ‘No, stop that,’ and he would just keep doing it. That was the thing I saw in person, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m out.’”
The man described Carlson’s conduct with women as an “open secret” in the L.A. music scene, a description echoed by multiple others. “I think that most of the women work in the industry and are just terrified of coming forward and giving their names and being blacklisted,” he said.
Of the women SPIN spoke to, and whose allegations and stories are shared below, all but one requested anonymity. When we provided Carlson with a detailed list of allegations brought to SPIN, he stated that two of the allegations were true and disputed the facts of two others, while maintaining that his “conduct in both of these incidents was inexcusable.” His comment, including an apology for his behavior, is available in full at the end of this piece.
Natasha Ryan, a former freelance music photographer, says she met Carlson while working on assignment at Matador Records’ “Matador at 21” anniversary festival, held at a Las Vegas casino in October 2010. Late on the festival’s first night, Ryan says she attended a VIP afterparty in a casino suite, joining other partygoers in a hot tub wearing her bra and underwear. “This guy just kept coming up to me and trying to take my bra top off and I had to keep batting him away,” she says. “I didn’t know who he was. I was just hoping he’d leave me alone.”
About an hour later, Ryan was alone, waiting for a bathroom, when the man she later identified as Carlson approached again. “He just started grabbing me and trying to kiss me and was trying to pull me into the bathroom to make out with me,” she says. “I kept saying, ‘Stop, get off me,’ and he kept saying, ‘But you’re just too cute to not make out with.’ He finally backed off after I pushed him off again.
“I didn’t want to say anything back then because I was still shooting for magazines and publications and Fuck Yeah Fest is really big,” Ryan says. “I just felt like, ‘I need to get the photos done.’ … I knew I had been violated but I didn’t know if I should call the police or tell anyone.” She adds, “I thought no one would care and that my incident was isolated.” Public allegations against former publicist Heathcliff Berru in 2016 helped Ryan realize the music industry was listening, and she’s now prepared to come forward.
Ryan provided SPIN a copy of an email she wrote to her mother several days later, describing her encounter with Carlson. “He kept trying to get me to go to the bathroom with him, forcfully [sic] grabbing my wrist and not let getting go at one point,” Ryan wrote. “And when I was in the jacuzzi he kept coming to the edge and grabbing my hair so he could tell me to ‘hang out’ with him.” SPIN also spoke to Ryan’s mother, who remembers discussing the incident with her daughter in a subsequent phone call.
This section includes a graphic allegation of sexual assault.
A second woman, “Beth,” requested anonymity in order to protect her professional reputation in the mental healthcare field. Beth knew Carlson as FYF’s founder, but was introduced through friends at a backyard barbecue in L.A. in 2013. “He seemed really dorky — he had like a Napoleon Dynamite vibe to him,” Beth remembers. They chatted, and when he asked for her phone number, she gave it to him.
Later in the evening, Carlson asked Beth if she would like to “go make out” in a bathroom inside the house. “He just seemed so not-good with women that I was like, ‘Aw, that’s kinda sweet, he’s trying,’” Beth says. “So I was like, ‘Give me a minute,’ because I had to use the restroom first.” She passed up the nearest toilet, assuming that was where Carlson intended to meet her, and found a second one further inside the house. “I didn’t expect anyone to be back there,” she says, and so she didn’t lock the door.
“I’m sitting there urinating and then the door just barges open, and it’s Sean. I’m like, ‘Oh wait, hold on a second, I’m actually peeing, hold on,’ and he just came in and wouldn’t leave,” Beth says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I don’t wanna do this in here, I wasn’t planning on you coming back here.’ And he just didn’t say anything. He just looked completely different, like his eyes looked dead. I’ve never seen anything like this before. He did not look like the same person. He shut the door and he must have locked it, because he put his hand on it and I couldn’t open it.” Beth remembers standing between Carlson’s body and the bathroom door, struggling to get it open as Carlson’s outstretched hand held it shut.
“I turn around, and his erect penis is just out of his pants,” Beth continues. “I remember trying to bargain with him, rationalize with him, like, ‘Hey, you’re a really cool guy, let’s go on a date first, I don’t wanna do this, I’m not ready to do this, please, let’s not do this’ and he kept asking me to kiss his penis. I think that’s when I realized, oh my God, this is not okay, this is really a problem and I’m scared. I felt trapped — I mean, I was trapped. So he just kept demanding that I kiss his penis, and I did. In my mind, I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll just do this and he’ll let me go,’ which in retrospect does not make sense. But at that time I was super panicked and I just couldn’t believe what was happening.”
In her memory, Beth says, she watches herself kneel down for the kiss as if she were outside her own body. “So I did it and I stood up. He kept his hand on the door and I kept trying to pull the door open,” she says. She happened to be wearing a long dress and no underwear. “He lifted up my dress, and his erect penis was touching my butt. I just felt like, ‘Oh my god, this guy is about to enter me, what the fuck is happening right now,’” Beth says.
Beth then managed to open the bathroom door, escaping into a dark and unfamiliar hallway. “Before I realize where to go, he came out behind me and pulled by my wrists onto this couch that was in the front of the house — completely in the front of the house, so nobody in the back at the party could hear us at all,” she says. “I didn’t scream, I didn’t yell, I was just in disbelief that this was happening. But even if I had, I don’t know that anybody would have heard me.
“He pulled me on top of him, he had me pinned down by my wrists,” Beth remembers. “I’m struggling to get away and he’s like, trying to kiss me. And then somebody opened the back door, thank God, because that sound startled him and he loosened his grip on my wrists and I was able to pull free.” Beth says she fled to the backyard and insisted a friend take her home immediately.
“I’m pretty well-educated in terms of my body, my safety, my awareness,” Beth says. “I never expected to be in any kind of situation where I didn’t have control, where somebody wasn’t respecting my wishes. I’ve definitely kissed guys before and they’ve tried to go further and I’m like, ‘No,’ and you have to say it a couple times, but this was completely different.”
Beth provided SPIN screenshots of two text messages she received over the next two days. The phone number on the messages matches a number listed in public records as belonging to Carlson. The first text read:
Hey [Beth], I owe you an apology how I acted last night. It wasn’t ok and I want you to know that I am sorry. I hope that I can show you in the future that I am a good person. And we hopefully we [sic] cross paths soon. I will make you smile and laugh. Have a good day : )
“When I got that I was like, are you out of your fucking mind?” Beth says. “So I just didn’t respond.” The second text read:
Hey [Beth], want to send you one more text and apologize to you for how i acted. I know an apology means nothing but I hope in the near future that I can make it up to you and show you that I am a good person. – Sean
Again Beth did not reply. Several days later, at the urging of friends, she approached police to file a report. SPIN has reviewed a one-page version of that report, which includes a brief summary of the alleged attack. We have also confirmed her story with a friend who accompanied her to the police station and was present during her full interview with an officer. Beth ultimately decided not to pursue charges, a process she says police warned could take months. “The thought of having at least one more year of going through this again and again really was not something I was able to do at that time,” she says.
For about two months after the barbecue, Beth remembers suffering anxiety, sleep disturbances and a feeling of being “on edge all the time.” Even now, she says, seeing FYF billboards is upsetting: “I get this like nauseous feeling, a panicked feeling if I see that and I’m driving,” she says. “It all comes back to me.”
“Sarah,” an artist manager and freelancer, says she met Carlson through a colleague at an L.A. office where, at the time, she worked for a record label. She and Carlson were friendly, she remembers, even after she turned him down for a date.
But at a party in spring 2015, Sarah says, Carlson got “pretty wasted” and crossed a line. “He came up and we had a friendly conversation, and then [he] kind of just stuck his tongue down my throat, forcibly made out with me,” she says. “I pulled back and resisted the first time, and he didn’t really seem to get it and went in a second time, and I think a third time.” The next day, Sarah says, Carlson texted her an apology. She accepted, and after that, “I tried to keep a neutral and friendly tone” in the relationship.
Five months later, Sarah found herself with Carlson at a house party, where the scene was bleak: “It was like so many L.A. parties, if you show up at that time on a weekend when it’s just a smattering of people, some of whom clearly are on cocaine, and are doing it by themselves in secluded spaces, and no communal alcohol, and everybody sort of standing around wondering how they’re going to get home from this spectacular uber-mansion.” While at the party, Sarah says, Carlson crossed a line again. “I went into the bathroom at some point and he forced his way in behind me and tried to make out with me,” she says. “I pushed him out and rejected him.”
Sarah then spotted a close male friend, and the two decided to head home. Carlson approached them outside and suggested they ride in his Uber. His offer left Sarah “conflicted,” she says: “He had just done something really gross, but on the other hand, he was offering to do something really nice. And the fact that I had somebody with me who was really close to me, I felt like I was going to be in a safe space. But as soon as the car pulled up, [Carlson] very forcibly suggested that my friend get in the front seat, and leave us two in the back.”
As the car started moving, Sarah says, Carlson “distracted my friend into picking some music and turning the volume up while he proceeded to put his hands all over me and again try to make out with me.” Carlson repeatedly slid into the middle of the back seat, she says, groping her breasts and thighs as she tried to block with her shoulder and lift his hands off. Stuck in a moving vehicle and in front of a friend, she didn’t want to make a scene.
“I sort of silently tried to get him to back off, and he would, for like 20 seconds, and then try again,” she says. “This continued most of the way home. It wasn’t until I got home and got out of the car that I felt safe.” SPIN also spoke with one of Sarah’s former colleagues, who remembered Sarah recounting her ride with Carlson shortly after it happened.
Even after the Uber ride, Sarah says, “I was motivated to maintain at least a base level of friendly relations, mainly because it was in my best professional interest.” Through Goldenvoice, Carlson was believed to wield personal influence on FYF, Coachella, and other events year-round. “His close friends in the music world tended to be favored very heavily in his booking of the festival, both in the frequency they would appear on the lineups and the stages and set times they would be given,” Sarah says. She never worked for Carlson directly, but to a label employee like her, “it was considered very valuable to be close to him, or at least to have a friendly relationship.”
A fourth woman, “Jane,” is a former publicist who worked with Carlson for more than two years. In fall 2015, she ran into him and two other male professional acquaintances at a concert in Los Angeles. She told them she’d accepted a new job, and the group had drinks and talked on the dance floor. “As the night went on, Sean was just getting a little bit in my face, being overly flirty,” Jane says. She remembers him getting “too close,” putting his hand on her lower back as she tried to dodge away. “I kept trying to jokingly say ‘no’ in a way that wouldn’t be embarrassing, ‘cause it was a group of us so I didn’t want to make it uncomfortable,” she says. Jane felt Carlson should have known his advances were unwelcome, because he had met her boyfriend in the past. “Not that that should make any difference,” she adds, “but that was very clear.”
“And then at one point, he just decided it was okay to kiss me,” she remembers. “I had told him to stop getting into my zone a few times before, and I had to push him away.” The other men intervened, pulling Carlson aside and telling him to stop. Feeling shocked and upset by the encounter, Jane left the event. She didn’t bring up the incident again, she says, because Carlson was a professional contact and because she rationalized that “maybe he was too drunk.” Lately, though, her feelings have changed. “I didn’t want to keep this silent anymore,” she says. “Alcohol’s not an excuse. Nothing’s an excuse.”
Carlson provided the following statement to SPIN via email:
Incident 4 is true. Incident 3 is generally true, but I did not follow the individual into a bathroom. My conduct in both of these incidents was inexcusable.
The descriptions in Incidents 1 and 2 both contain serious misstatements and omissions. However, on both occasions I acted inappropriately and shamefully, and deeply regret my actions.
I am genuinely, unequivocally sorry. I lay fault at no one’s feet but my own. I am ashamed by how I acted and feel terrible for the pain that I have caused. Actions speak louder than words.
In December 2015, my years of recklessness and selfishness hit a breaking point; I had to make a promise to family and friends that I would change, or risk finally exhausting what remained of their compassion and support. I gave up alcohol for good, I embraced therapy, and I asked, sincerely, that my family and friends forgive me. Nevertheless, these corrective actions do not excuse my reprehensible conduct, and are small solace to those whose pain I am so sorry to have caused.
A Goldenvoice representative did not respond to a request for comment by press time. We have reached out to FYF Festival representatives for comment and will update this post should they reply.
This story first appeared on SPIN.
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