Hangout director talks about making music festival
By JARED BOYD, Al.com
GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) — Born in 2010, in the midst of the BP oil spill, The Hangout Music Festival has grown from a beachside jam of nearly 15,000 patrons into a premier event on the calendars of music fans and industry folk, alike.
As the 9th entry into the annual three-day throw down looms in the horizon, much of the hardest work has already been completed by a team of professionals, led by festival director Sean O’Connell.
“We are often openly looking at the year following, even by now,” O’Connell says. “We are already having conversations about 2019. Whether that’s music, or talent, or what the site looks like. The planning cycle is truly a full year.”
In his reality, O’Connell accomplishes each year what most music fans can only conjure in their daydreams.
While the lot of us will continue to wonder what it is like to dream up our own music festival, O’Connell shares what it is like to program an event that has become a yearly pilgrimage for an approximate 40,000 partying patrons.
The story of Hangout starts with founders Lily and Shaul Zislin, who expanded the festival out from their Hangout restaurant in Gulf Shores. The couple has had O’Connell pushing buttons from behind the curtain since the event’s inception. In 2013, he left a festival consulting company he started to dig into Hangout full-time.
“I always said if I retired from the business and worked on just one festival, it would be this one,” O’Connell says, relaxed in a chair with the coastal sun beaming into his office, which overlook East Beach Boulevard. Come May, the sands just along the busy street will transform into the festival’s grounds.
O’Connell regards Gulf Shores, a locale unlike the muddy campgrounds often associated with the traditional American music festival, as the most essential thread to Hangout Music Festival’s success. A mixture of southern hospitality and tropic adventure, the city and its amenities serve as more than a backdrop the activities planned for concert-goers. Instead, O’Connell says, the beach, and the town around it, is a focal point to the logistics of the festival’s operations.
“90% of people who come want to come back to Gulf Shores on vacation,” O’Connnell says, noting surveys make up a large part of the festival’s strategy. “People are spending five nights here. They are eating in local restaurants and patronizing local businesses. They are digging what they see here.”
“There are a lot of people responsible for creating this vibe. It’s a reflection of the people working the festival, serving drinks – they are from the area. It makes fans want to come back.”
But, there are disadvantages to producing such a massive gathering on the beach, O’Connell admits.
“Nature, itself is a challenge,” he begins. “The wind of the coast is always going to be an issue. But we have a team that comes in from all over, that are really the best at site operations, safety, production. We can respond to those challenges. ”
“I’ve been working here a decade and still can’t quite figure it out the tides. And I’ve made some calls sometimes that we’ve had to change last minute and run out and move things around. Literally, the venue has the ability to change in size.”
Hangout Fest looks to keep ‘incredibly positive vibe’
In the way O’Connell speaks, it is evident that the movement of large people, as they interact with the experiences he and his team have created, enthrall the festival director even more than the music which takes center stage. A common word in many of his reflections is “flow”. He imagines out-loud the way Hangout fans will react to changes his team have planned.
“One of the most exciting things about the Hangout Festival, is that almost every spot that we had that was a pinch point (in the past) – where people got hung up, we don’t have those anymore,” O’Connell says. “I think fans will appreciate how wide open the festival site is and how much space there will be to move through the festival.”
“I will often put on a hat and sunglasses and walk through the sand, when I can, at some points, and talk to people,” he says. While incognito, he’s able to gauge the way people participate. This year, he and festival creative director Lilly Zislin are throwing several new attractions into the mix.
They’ve added new stages. They have added more misting stations for patrons to cool off. They are putting grass in areas along the beach. They are testing out potential non-permanent artists installations – finding out how they react to saltwater, sand and whether they can withstand the wear and tear of a curious crowd. They are even giving fans a waterslide to enjoy.
One of the most impressive changes: a revamped vision for the festival’s ever-enchanting VIP and “Super VIP” accomodations. As it has in past years, the VIP Grove will include swimming pools and up front access to the main stages. The top-tier package bears a $1,699 price tag. O’Connell argues in favor for its value.
“When you buy a VIP ticket, it’s pretty much all-inclusive. You get drinks, you get food. At a lot of other (festivals), you don’t get that. You just get to an ‘area.’ That’s something we’ve really doubled down on this year.”
“We always have the other part, which is, if someone goes to the general admission part of the Hangout experience, we want them to feel as good as a VIP does at any other show.”
The Killers, The Chainsmokers, Kendrick Lamar to headline Hangout Fest
But, what about the music?
O’Connell, who has a large hand in booking each act and choosing which stage they appear on, says there is no “crystal ball” when it comes to predicting who fans will be enticed to come and see each year. Although, he says, unlike some other festivals, his focus is always going to be the most current lineup, rather than looking to appease tastes of the past.
“I think when you look at the lineup over the years, you’ll see we are booking music that is incredibly relevant and important. I don’t book for genre. I don’t book young or old. I book in the moment,” he says.
“We were the first to say, ‘Yeah. The Weeknd is a headliner.’ I remember when we booked Outkast, which was exciting for me. People raised eyebrows, but it was a moment.”
O’Connell also makes room for forecasting upcoming talent, a move he says is truly coming full circle this year.
He remembers fondly hearing pop singer Halsey close one of the festival’s smaller stages in 2015. “I called the agent and said, ‘Tell me more about her. Who is the manager? Is the record coming out?’ I did my research.”
The artist returns to Hangout this spring along the upper ranks of acts. Her 2016 collaboration with headlining DJ duo The Chainsmokers “Closer” was certified as a 7x platinum seller by the RIAA.
“Now we have an artist who is coming back, who has grown with us. That part is really cool,” O’Connell says.
O’Connell names Michigan-bred Christian contemporary rapper NF and Australian psych rock singer Tash Sultana among rising acts from this year’s lineup that he hopes resonate with fans long after the festival has wrapped up.
He says the expansive tastes of Hangout fans have gone far to change the perception in the music industry that Alabama is only about “country music and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” as he puts it.
“One of our partners told me: ‘If you went nine years after Woodstock, the most popular music in the U.S. would’ve been disco and punk rock. We’re nine years (out from the first Hangout Festival). If it wasn’t working, we wouldn’t be seeing the kind of people who are buying tickets. It’s a cool crowd. There are people who’ve been coming for nine years, and they grow with us,” O’Connell says.
“It takes excitement and a little bit of bravery. We’re constantly changing things up. If you came four years ago, this show doesn’t look anything like it will this year. And that’s exciting. You never know what to expect when you come back!”
Hangout Music Festival will shake down Gulf Shores, beginning on Friday, May 18, through Sunday, May 20. For more information on pricing, payment methods, lodging, lineups, vendors, rules, shuttles and more, visit the festival’s website. Stay tuned to AL.com for contniued coverage of the festival, in the days leading up to the party, as well as news and fun from the festival grounds each day.