So what’s a good ole boy from Mobile Alabama doing running one of Canada’s largest and most scenic music concert festivals? Glad you asked!
Organizer of the highly successful Hang Out Beach Festival staged at Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Tortuga Beach y Music Festival staged at Fort Lauderdale, and the Baku, EDM, indie festival in New Orleans, (which they joined forces during the event’s sophomore production), Niland was casting his festival net even wider when he stumbled on his latest target.
“I discovered the site while looking for another location,” explained Niland on the phone from Pemberton, British Columbia where his company is preparing the execute their second successive Pemberton Music Festival, a four-day event , July 16-19, staged in the shadow of spectacular Mount Currie just 15 minutes’ drive north of Whistler. “Just out of the blue, I was offered an opportunity to view the site and when I saw photos of the place I thought they were `doctored’ – I mean no place is that beautiful”.
A car drive over Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Bridge and a trip up the Sea To Sky Highway convinced Niland otherwise. “I mean just the experience of driving up that highway was spectacular. It’s the Canadian equivalent of California’s Big Sur. And to get to the site and see one of the most beautiful mountains and this flat valley that would serve as the concert site was absolutely breathtaking.”
Of course Niland soon learned the site had a less than auspicious history. Live Nation, one of North America’s leading concert promoters, had staged a previous concert there in 2008 which had attracted the likes of The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails and the Flaming Hips. Yet the sheer logistics of directing upwards of 30,000 people up what was then a two-lane highway with the resulting traffic chaos and additional problems of removing waste, both trash and human caused what seemed to be insurmountable problems. To the extent that Live Nation passed on their option for 2009 and the site was left uncultivated until Huka Entertainment revisited the site in 2013.
“There was a lot of scepticism by the local authorities over whether we could achieve what Live Nation failed to achieve. The thought was, if Live Nation couldn’t pull it off, how could we possibly succeed,” noted Niland. “But we are a company that focuses on festivals and the expertise we provide, not just creatively on the talent side but also with a production team that is very experienced. We were blessed by the 2010 Winter Olympics, which widened the road and we created a six-lane, three kilometre long off-ramp from the highway that addressed traffic congestion from people having to stop and turn off the highway (which caused much of the initial problem). With this problem solved, we were able to be a lot more efficient clearing garbage off the site. We were able to re-organize the way the parking and camping was laid out on the site. We tackled the dirt and dust by installing permanent irrigation and just generally addressed all the previous problems.
“People have said our execution of the 2014 festival was virtually flawless,” Niland continued. “I have a whole list of flaws to address this year but most people didn’t notice them. We pride ourselves on being a Turn Key operation. From start to finish we execute and organize an event and then we leave the site in probably better shape than it was when we arrived. Especially when you are operating under the suspicion of people that are doubting you, it just makes future execution that much easier.”
Talent-wise, Huka Entertainment strive for a diversified lineup balancing key international performers with established and up and coming domestic performers. Niland launched his 2014 festival with the likes of Soundgarden, The Flaming Lips, Deadmaus 5, Nine Inch Nails, Sloan, The New Pornographers, Metric and Matthew Good and this year’s lineup boasts the likes of Kendrick Lamar, The Black Keys, J-Cole, Tiesto, Jane’s Addiction, Alice Cooper, Ludacris Weezer plus Canuck talent in Billy Talent, Sam Roberts, Glorious Sons and July Talk, Niland has his work cut out for him filling four stages plus one comedy stage at the venue.
What makes life even more interesting is that Live Nation has re-appeared on the scene to stage the Squamish Valley Music Festival, now in its second year, just down the road from Pemberton , August 7-9 with an equally impressive lineup boasting Mumford & Sons, Drake, Sam Smith and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers.
“We don’t want to repeat what we have this year, next year,” acknowledged Niland in booking his seasonal lineup. “But we also don’t want to book any of the bands they (Squamish) have this year, next year. Having two festivals back to back really diminishes the available talent and forces us to dig a little deeper, but that’s the challenge of doing business.”
It doesn’t hurt Niland that his Huka Entertainment business, also executes major festivals at Gulf Shores, Alabama ,Fort Lauderdale Florida and New Orleans, thus allowing Huka to execute multiple bookings with key acts.
“At one point, artists would take one-off dates and this made it easier for festivals to have different lineups,” noted Niland. “Now the artists want to tour festival to festival which creates a homogenous atmosphere. We leverage to the best of our abilities to use our buying power to get the right bands at the right time.”
Growing up the son of a college basketball coach, Niland found himself on the move during his formative years. From Tampa Bay Florida, Niland suffered the culture shock of moving to Mobile Alabama during his formative years. “Because my dad was a college basketball coach, every few years we moved. With a coach, if your winning, you move to a better job but if you are losing you have to find another job”.
With Mobile devoid of any meaning full concert activity,, Niland constantly found himself travelling out of town to catch shows. Then just as he was about to enter college, Niland hooked up with high school friend Bennett Drago and decided to form a small agency in 2004 to book talent into Mobile nightclubs.
“We had a lot of passion but we didn’t know what we were doing initially,” confessed Niland. “Whereas other promoters were ripping bands off on their riders and fees, we were taking care of ours. To the point they started asking us if we would be their promoter in Birmingham, New Orleans and other places.”
As their Huka Entertainment was taking off, the agency got involved in booking festivals an 2008 and in 2009, in looking for a site to stage their own festival, found the perfect location in their own backyard, Gulf Shores, Alabama. “We were the first major festival to be staged on a beach in Alabama, people didn’t even know Alabama even had beaches!”
With the Hang Out Music Fest , launched first in 2010 (before wrapping things up in 2013), Huka then expanded to another beach location for the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, which has now ran for two years successfully. They then joined forces with the Buku Music Project in New Orleans before Niland pointed his sights north to Canada.
“The people who buy concert tickets right now are the IPod generation,” analyzed Niland. “They grew up listening to singles rather than albums, and while we like to curate music from artists that are really creditable, we are aware that people are accustomed to press shuffle on their IPod and listen to a broad spectrum of things. There is no reason why a festival should be any different.”
As for Pemberton being an on-going event, Niland says there is a perception that the venue is hard to get to but it really is just an hour and a half drive up some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.
“What we are selling is a total unique experience,” concluded Niland. “It’s the trip, the scenery, watching some of the most popular artists in an amazing setting and the fact you can either camp out or stay in a luxury hotel just down the road in Whistler. Ultimately, my whole desire for being in this business does not come from listening to records but from being at a live show and from that special feeling you get when you attend a concert. And when we can stage a live show at a special venue like Pemberton, all the special challenges we face are all worthwhile.”
Four-day tickets go for $1199, single day tickets sell for $129.00 and single day VIP tickets are available for $450.00, For further information, contact http://pembertonmusicfestival.com.
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