From the Minors to the Big Leagues
With its second consecutive sellout, The Hangout Festival has become one of the major players on the Festival Circuit.
Three years ago when we received an email about a first-of-its-kind music festival on the coast, we had no idea that The Hangout Beach Music and Arts Festival would become a staple in our festival coverage.
But since that first year, when Rodrigo Y Gabriella, Zac Brown Band, OK Go, The Roots, Trey Anastasio and Classic Tab and a host of others left us shaking sand from our sandals, we’ve come to look forward to the annual pilgrimage from the Volunteer state to Gulf Shores, Alabama.
There’s no doubt that the Hangout has grown leaps and bounds over its short history. In 2010, attendees totaled about 12,000 from the information we gathered. With a capacity of double the initial attendance, festival organizers still adorned smiles throughout the weekend.
Those organizers are many in number, but it all started with Huka Entertainment’s AJ Niland and beachfront entrepreneur Shaul Zislan.
As the pair walked along a public section of beach at the end of Highway 59, they imagined a festival that would be among the best in the world one day…a festival that would last for 20 years or longer.
In just its second year, The Hangout Festival boasted one of the finest lineups ever to grace a poster and even nabbed the ever-elusive Paul Simon, who hadn’t played a major US festival in years.
Niland and Zislan had accomplished what they had set out to do in just their second year together. Then, within a few weeks of announcing the initial lineup for 2012, general admission passes were sold out.
With that, it was official. The Hangout was here to play ball and they’re nabbing some acts that other festivals have whiffed on in the past.
BLANK caught up with Niland and asked him about everything from his family background to the new additions to the festival site. Here is our conversation with the Huka Entertainment founder.
BLANK: For starters, your family lineage has a steep history in the sports world, did you ever get into the sporting world and how did you end up in music?
AJ: Yea, my family has a sports background. It all goes back to my grandfather, Joe Niland, he was an All American in Division I college basketball, played professionally prior to the NBA’s existence and he then went on to become General Manager of the Buffalo Braves, which is now the Los Angeles Clippers. He was there during the hayday of Bob McAdoo. Then he took some time off from the NBA and became a special assistant to Bill Polian with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL in the mid Nineties. He stayed on with Bill until Bill retired after their fourth super bowl loss in a row in 1994.
He had two sons both of which are college basketball coaches. My uncle is at Penn State and my father is at the University of Mobile. My grandfather’s nephew is John Beilein, the head coach at the University of Michigan. He’s probably the most notable of the clan.
I started in professional sports myself actually when I was in high school. When I was 17, I was working in AA baseball for the San Diego Padres in Mobile and had the opportunity to take over the team remotes. I didn’t necessarily lie about my age but I was never questioned, so I was given a full-time job while still in high school. After a couple of years of doing that I went off to college and my passion was always music. So I was able to use what money I had made during those days to start Huka (Entertainment) and promoted six or seven years before creating the Hangout festival with Shaul Zislan and now here we are. My time with the Padres organization in Mobile was great, I’ve got a couple of championship rings and got to meet and work with a lot of great players like Jake Peavy, Oliver Perez and Khalil Green.
BLANK: After the first year, you mentioned to us that you wanted to do this festival for 20 years if you could and planned as if you will from day one. After two consecutive sellouts, do you feel as though you are well on your way to achieving that?
AJ: There’s always room for improvement. As far as booking I feel like we’ve done a good job all three years. Last year was kind of lightning in a bottle, having so many schedules align as they did. A lot of the bands that played last year ended up blowing up this year and we’re hoping for the same thing this year. We’ve stepped up the headliner aspect and we will continue to do that. The concept continues to be a major festival lineup in a boutique atmosphere.
BLANK: What’s more fun, the long stretched-out period of booking the festival or the actual 3 or 4 days when the festival takes place?
AJ: (laughs) Both of them bring their own unique challenges. I enjoy them pretty much equally but the booking has a bunch of ups and downs over a few months and the festival itself is a three-day whirlwind. The good thing about booking the festival is that you get to see the lineup come together and you get to see it blossom and then during the festival you get to see how it’s executed and see how the fans react. It builds up anticipation during the booking period and you get the satisfaction or dissatisfaction on the site.
BLANK: Which is more hectic?
AJ: They are equally as hectic in my mind. It’s two different sets of challenges. On site, it’s being proactive and reactive to the needs and wants of the fans. You’re playing host to the party. The booking is the preplanning for the party. You’re trying to make sure that the punch bowl is filled and the chips and dip are out and so forth. You’re trying to perceive what the fans are gonna want months down the road. They are equally stressful and fruitful.
BLANK: What has been the economic impact that The Hangout Festival has had on southern Alabama?
AJ: We get tremendous support for the local community and the municipality. Any event that draws 40,000 or 50,000 unique people down there for a weekend is going to leave a lasting financial impact. Between the oil spill shows and the festival there has been upwards of 100 Million dollars that has been left by patrons enjoying this location. Most importantly, a lot of the folks who are coming down here for the festival are first time visitors to the area so it’s a fantastic opportunity to show off the coast and what this part of the country has to offer. That part of it is really fun.
BLANK: Would if be safe to say that this year’s lineup celebrates the past a little bit more than in years past?
AJ: I don’t know if I’d say that. There is definitely an aspect of folks who have had long careers. We’ve always tried to reach back and bring some old mixed with the new. Take the headliners for example; Dave Matthews has had a career that dates back 25 years now. Red Hot Chili Peppers are the same, but both of these bands are still very relevant. Having Randy Newman and the Steve Winwood, that kind of goes back to what we were doing in year one and year two with Motorhead and Alison Krauss. It’s mixed in with the newer stuff that a lot of folks want to hear too, like Young The Giant and The Alabama Shakes.
BLANK: What’s new for 2012?
AJ: Well we’ve expanded the site. The site itself is twice the size but it still has the same capacity, so there’s a little bit more room to breath and the walkways and pavements are going to be less crowded. There’s just going to be more room to enjoy what we’ve got to offer. The tent stage is much larger. It has almost 4 times the capacity. One of the things we learned last year is that we needed to get more people in that space. There’s going to be more beachfront this year. We’ve added a lot more in the department of shade and landscaping and amenities that people are going enjoy. There’s going to be some interesting elements added this year that I’d like to keep a surprise, things that are going to make people’s walk back and forth through the sand much more enjoyable. We’ve added some new amusement rides that are going to give people really great vantage points of the site just as the Mega-Drop and the Ferris Wheel have in the past, and those are coming back as well. There will be some more opportunities for people to get wet this year as well. Unfortunately, we can’t open up the ocean to the patrons but there will be more ways for people to cool down. There will be some expansions as far as the VIP pool deck and some increased VIP viewing spaces as well.
BLANK: Geographically, how did the festival expand?
AJ: We’ve moved an entire block north, so Beach Blvd. is now one of the main arteries to get to and from stages as well as the boardwalk. And the space between the two stages on the beach has increased as well. Bottom line, there’s going to be more room to breathe and enjoy the features. There’s gonna be a fresh seafood tent this year too, celebrating the bounty that comes from the Gulf. Fresh Oysters and Shrimp, all that good stuff. That will add to the culinary aspect to the event.
BLANK: Is there anything being done about the cell phone coverage?
AJ: Cell phone service tends to work in a radius, so the fact that there are no cell phone towers south of us kinda hurts us a little. But, we’ve put our technical team behind it and they are working on it right now to make sure that cell phone signals improve
greatly. We’re working on better Internet service for patrons as well, so we anticipate better communication this year.
BLANK: What are some other legitimate problems that you have addressed?
AJ: The lines getting in and out we’ve improved greatly. We have all the wristbands going out in advance so that people can just breeze through the gates when they arrive. There won’t be a wristband exchange program this year, which really slowed things down last year, and most importantly our shuttle service has been increased and improved significantly. That was probably one of our weakest areas last year due to the demand. We’ve brought in CID Entertainment, which handles most of the shuttle service in the festival world. We’ve increased the number of busses and stops and we’ve streamlined the service. There is now going to be entertainment provided on the buses and some other cool giveaways. Basically, the shuttle is going to be the first part of the festival experience. It’s not just going to be a bus ride.
BLANK: If the shuttle doesn’t come to a specific area, is there a place to park or lock up your bicycle?
AJ: There is definitely bike parking at the festival site. There are a couple of park’n’rides as well and information is available on the website for that, but the shuttles are strategically loc ated, starting two miles out and going outward. There is a shuttle stop within walking distance of every major cluster of condo’s. For the most part people are covered.
BLANK: Tell us about this Thursday Pre-Party.
AJ: The third annual pre-party is presented by Dos Equis and has been expanded from inside of the Hangout restaurant down to a second stage. It’s a very low-priced ticket, just something to get folks tuned up and ready for the festival. Tickets are only $15 in advance and the lineup is Big Gigantic, Preservation Hall Jazz Band,
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Boombox, Perpetual Groove, Zoogma, Nobody Beats the Drum, Delta Rae, The Kingston Springs, Tauk. The Gates open at 2:00 PM on Thursday for this event. Then we also added Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s to the regular festival lineup today as well.
BLANK: What’s the latest on Late-Nite shows?
AJ: I can’t really comment on that at this time. We’re working through what we can do. We’ve had some city restrictions that have come about as part of renewing this year. We’re in the final stages now of planning/determining what we can do based on our new agreement. We want to provide the best experience for the patrons that are coming and we’re going to do everything we can, but the city is tremendously accommodating to us as is and we just have to address all the concerns with the locals before deciding anything on the late-nites.
BLANK: What can we expect from the next round of lineup additions. Are there a handful of acts to be announced?
AJ: There’s definitely some more lineup additions coming and not necessarily in the music space. There’s another program we have yet to announce that will be hitting in the next couple of weeks. We’re excited to see what happens when this gem drops. We think there will be a great reaction to it.
BLANK: Does is have something to do with comedy?
AJ: It just may!
BLANK: What do you think about the modern world of message boards and social networks where people are patrolling the Internet to find out the next bit of info or artist lineup? You put in a lot of hard work to keep these things quiet, are these things fun or annoying for you?
AJ: It’s definitely fun. I was one of those kids on the message board at one period of time, trying to figure out who’s going to be the supporting act on the tour or where the tour is going, so I can totally relate. We monitor it and we’re definitely conscious of what folks are saying and what they’re looking for. It’s a good gauge for us to understand what the needs are. You know, it’s tough sometimes to see the critical aspects of it but we appreciate the honesty and it drives us to work harder and make improvements. I’m really shocked sometimes at how accurate these guesses are. I’ll be damned to know where they come from, but it’s definitely cool that people care and take time out of their day to talk about it. We’re listening and we want to be here for a long time.
All photos by Rusty Odom except first one, which was taken by Dave Vann.
At this time VIP tickets are still available for The Hangout Festival.
There are three tiers of VIP, which offer different amenities. Tickets can be purchased at www.hangoutmusicfest.com
And feel free to check out BLANK’s Hangout Message Board located at www.hangoutfestival.proboards.com