Interview: AJ Niland On The Hangout Music Festival

Monday, May 2, 2011 - by Fil Manley

A string of festivals dot the aural landscape throughout the country, starting in April and running through August, giving tie dyed in the wool festival goers a range of venues to choose from. My all time favorite festival was the now defunct Langerado (2007), but a new contender has, as of last year, stepped up to fill the void.

The Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala., is not your average music festival. The promoters of the Hangout chose 15 acres of pure white sand beach as their venue. Just enough space to fit 35,000 people, which is how many they expect for this year's soon-to-be sold out show.

Last week, I interviewed A.J. Niland, one of the founders of The Hangout. We quickly found ourselves talking about the BP oil spill. It was an eye opening look into the hardships coastal communities in the area have and are still suffering through. Last year’s inaugural Hangout festival started on May 14th, 2010, a scant 26 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded 90 miles away.

Now, a week later, we were struck with yet another tragedy when 180 tornadoes tore through the south and east, from Texas to New York, killing hundreds of people and causing Billions of dollars in property damage.

I had just sat down to write this story when the storm hit. I feel lucky. I was sitting at my computer, trying to think of what to type when a vicious wind shook my house and a 70-foot hackberry tree fell 10 feet from my office window. The whole experience lasted 10 seconds. The tree missed my house, the house next door, and no one was hurt. I’m grateful for that, but I’m also very aware of the fact that many people were not so lucky.

I’m excited about getting to go to The Hangout. I’m excited about Paul Simon, The Foo Fighters, Michael Franti, The Avett Brothers, and one of my favorite artists, Matisyahu, but I’m also acutely aware of the fact that this festival takes place against the backdrop of not one, but two wrenching disasters, one a slow-moving environmental disaster, the other a bullet from the blue which came and went in minutes, leaving destruction in its wake.

I think about the economics of disaster, going back to New Orleans and Katrina, where some residents still have not received the government assistance they were promised, and I wonder how all of this will turn out. I’m glad that in the face of so much tragedy, that I’m still going to be allowed to celebrate life when and where I can, with other, hopefully, equally grateful people.

Last year, AJ and his partners in Huka Presents, their production company produced multiple benefit shows, bringing in much needed dollars and donations to a battered coastal economy.

FM – AJ. I heard the first year was a great success, despite the problems you encountered.

AJ – The first year was something else. I’m one of the founders with Shaul Zislin, and my company Huka produces the festival.

Shaul and I sort of got a late start on the festival, not by design. We sort of put the idea together and decided to move forward with it, under a short time frame, founding the festival in November of that year. Usually you spend 12 to 18 months putting one together, but we did it in 7 months. It went off pretty well. There were a lot of things we liked about it, a lot of things we’ve changed for this year.

We were hit by the BP oil spill which was something none of us could have imagined or predicted. That put a pretty big hurt on the festival in terms of draw and public perception of the area. But overall, the response we got was pretty overwhelming and positive, just in terms of the festival itself and the experience for those who wound up coming.

We took a hit, took a blow for the first year, but we decided that given the response, and the atmosphere that we felt, it was worth going for a second year. So we ramped it up, decided that we wanted to go bigger and better, added an additional stage and went after bigger headliners and we’re doing ok this year. Response has been good and we’re working really hard right now to put together a program that people will enjoy.

FM - What was the overlap on the oil spill?

The oil spill happened April 20th, I believe, and our festival was May 14th–16th. So, we were three weeks out at the point. It was an absolute nightmare for everyone. At the early stage it was compared to Katrina in terms of the way it was handled and sort of flubbed, but for us, we were just trying to hang on. We literally were the front lines. It was 90 miles directly south of our site. You couldn’t be any closer to the oil spill, being on land, than on our festival grounds. So, obviously, aside from the media hit that we took, there wasn’t much positive spin going on to what was happening. The oil didn’t hit shore until July, but the public perception and the story the media was pushing was the devastation.

So, despite the fact that we felt like we had something positive going on, we just couldn’t portray that, and our sales took a dive. Headliners started to question whether it was safe to come. Obviously, we were working very closely with the state and environmental authorities and the coast guard.

It definitely took daily monitoring. It was sort of like the blob because it moved at just a few miles an hour, and it was current based. We would wake up one morning and it would be ten miles off shore and we would be sweating, hoping it wouldn’t make land fall, then the next morning it was 40 miles in the opposite direction. It kept coming and going at this very slow pace and it was ominous. It was definitely an experience in my production career, like nothing I’ve ever been through. Like nothing you would ever sit down, and plan an event, and then write down that this could happen.

It’s one of those things where we grew up, me and my business partners grew up down on the coast. From a personal standpoint, it was demoralizing. It was like your favorite playground as a kid was contaminated. It was there, staring you in the face every day, from all accounts, due to error and negligence, and it wasn’t brushed under the rug.

FM - Not until they started spraying dispersant on it…

AJ - Exactly, now it is under the rug. There are still tens of millions of gallons down there, floating around in little droplets. It is, and it continues to be terrible. I moved to New Orleans, and over here obviously, they were hit with Katrina, and over here, obviously, they were hit because of the fishing industry.

Over here, there’s not a really big population center between New Orleans and Tampa. That whole central coast population relies on fishing and tourism and it’s a huge part of the economy. We lived in a condo from March last year, until basically December of last year. After the festival we wound up doing benefits.

I’ve never lived in a community where the spirit was just broken. No matter where you went, everyone was just sort of down. Its one thing when someone suffers a tragedy near you in a small group, but when it’s literally everyone you know, it’s wild and surreal.

FM – I was disturbed by the way the government tried to hide the magnitude of it from the public by blocking access.

AJ - Oh yeah, and down here, we got involved in a benefit concert because we needed an emergency influx of cash to the area. The state of Alabama derives 21% of their entire budget from tourism of the Gulf Coast. The fact that it happened in the spring, just after spring break and before the busy summer tourist season, so, occupancy was down 90%. There’s no chains, everything is locally owned, mom and pop. There are almost no hotels; it’s all condos which are owned by people all over the country. They’re able to afford it by renting it out. Then there are management and tourism companies.

We were trying to find a way that we could bring tourism down, sort of by force to synthesize the season we were losing. My partner Shaul put together a financial model and we put together a show model that basically did that. The state used a portion of the money, to produce the Jimmy Buffet concert, then Jon Bon Jovi and Brad Paisley. The tickets were distributed free, and people came and stayed in the condos.

We brought in 50,000 people at a time, and it sort of put a patch on the problem at the time and gave us something positive to look forward to.

FM – Wow, so, you were able to use the shows as a draw to prop up the local economy?

AJ - Just in having the shows, and we did it on the hangout site, on the beach, and it wound up turning out well. The financial impact of the concert was more than their cost and that’s how it wound up working.

Even to this day, there are still a lot of folks here waiting on their claims and financial assistance. Their homes were foreclosed, and their businesses are down, they can’t afford to pay people.

FM - My favorite festivals have been the smaller ones. I’ve found that the experience if more friendly, and I expect the Hangout will have that kind of vibe.

AJ - Yeah, we had a storm last year, it was pretty trying, a crazy experience. The whole idea for doing the hangout in year one, was the site, the experience. My business partners at Huka and I had been looking for a site for a festival. There are a lot of festivals out there doing what they do in a really good way.

Bonnaroo is arguably the best camping festival in the world, up there with Glastonbury. It’s a sort of a cultural paradigm. After that, Lollapallooza is one of the best art festivals. ACL is one of the best AAA festivals.

There’s so many who do what they do well. For us, it’s not about just putting on a festival. We spent literally years and years and years looking for a festival site. And it was all based on the experience. That’s 100% totally what we’re about. And the Hangout site, which belongs to my partner in the Festival, Shaul Zislin, is literally right on the water. And given that it’s in Alabama, we thought there might be some resistance at first.

That’s really the reason we decided that we would go for it and do it in seven months and just go for it. We didn’t want to get beaten to the punch, and we sure as heck didn’t want to miss out on being able to create what we felt would be a great concert experience. Obviously, the people who came to the first year agree.

I would say that the majority of time and energy we spend developing the festival is more about the experience, the décor and the layout and little things that people take for granted.

FM - Given the number of festivals that I’ve been to, I spend a lot of time thinking about logistics and how it affects a small town like Manchester, with Bonnaroo.

AJ - Oh yeah, the community has been tremendously supportive. It’s kind of a trusting relationship; in terms of how they expect us to take care of the city we’re in. It’s not a free for all, but they really go to bat for us when we need it. The community as a whole has been very supportive and has welcomed it.

It’s a fun event, but the economic impact is important. And with it being my home and Shaul’s home, it’s important to us. We want to leave a positive impact. We want to be there on the site doing positive work for as long as we can.

The site is just gorgeous. I can’t even describe it. I’ve been to every festival in this country and I’ve been to pretty much every venue in this country, east coast, west coast, north, south, Red Rocks, the Gorge, Canada, Mexico, and I’ll put our site up against any of them any day.

White sugar sand and emerald blue waters. People don’t even realize that Alabama has a beach and that’s kind of a cool juxtaposition. On top of that, the time of year, May is just beautiful; it’s warm, but not too hot. Rain, knock on wood is co-operative. Winds and ocean are co-operative. Then again, knock on wood. Mother Nature is always our biggest opponent.

We don’t have camping, so our acreage isn’t in the hundreds. Most of this is about condos and staying comfortable. I’ve done the camping thing, sublets, however, but it’s really truly affordable to come down, you’re renting a three bedroom condo, you’re splitting with three couples. You enjoy the sand and surf, take part in the late night shows and enjoy the bars.

We’re not trying to copy or replicate any other festival; we’re trying to create an elevated festival experience that anyone can enjoy.

It’s sort of for the more mature music fan that has been there and done that.

FM – Can you tell me more about the lineup this year?

AJ - Todd Coder and I buy talent through my company Huka. We set out to buy the bands that we want to see. We want to see a little bit of tradition, something a little bit new, some favorites. My CD collection is not one genre. We do our best to have a little bit of everything. Widespread Panic is headlining on Friday night. Foo Fighters are coming out with a new record, headlining on Saturday night and Paul Simon on the beach, on a Sunday evening with the Sun Setting. It’s going to be a magical experience.

Fil Manley

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