The Healing Power of Rock’n’Roll: An interview with Hangout Festival Co-Founder AJ Niland
AJ Niland is the co-founder of the Hangout Music Festival. This year’s festival will be held May 20th-22nd in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Artists playing this year include Paul Simon, Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket, the Drive-By Truckers, Umphrey’s McGee, Warren Haynes, Xavier Rudd, and many more.
AJ recently called in to discuss the how the festival came together, his favorite sets, and how the festival persevered after the devastating oil spill.
McClain Johnson: How’d the idea for the Hangout Festival first come together?
AJ Niland: It really was my company and my partner in the festival, Shaul Zislin, got together to do some other events at his property in Gulf Shores.Â We came to visit in October of 2009 and saw that the ten acres that surrounded were prime real estate for a festival. We had been looking for a festival grounds for a number of years.
We wanted to kind of avoid the cow pasture or the city park, which are both great settings, but they’ve been done so much. We wanted to stand out and be different, and we were searching all over.
Right under our nose, in our own market, was a beach site. The city of Gulf Shores believe in our vision. November of 2009, we pitched them the idea, they agreed, and we were off to the races after that.
McClain Johnson: Who was the first act that you booked for the festival?
AJ Niland: Oh man, I can’t even remember at this point. It seems like a lifetime ago, last year. I want to say that it was Alison Krauss and Union Station. It was either them or Black Crowes. One of those too were, I believe, the first band that we booked.
AJ Niland: That’s sort of how it’s done. You know, it’s really a feel thing. I can say that myself and Todd Coder, who are the buyers for the festival. This is really our only artistic touch on the festival. There’s a lot of great staff that has their input, gets their part in the festival. Graphic artists that actually do the art and the artists that do the performing.
In terms of putting together the puzzle pieces into a festival that is greater than the sum of it’s parts is what we try to do. It’s what we do for a living as promoters. That’s kind of our touch. We really feel that we’ve got the musical taste of the average Joe and the folks that this festival would appeal to. We just, kind of, programmed it based on what we liked and what we think that the market will like. That’s basically it.
We put a dream list together and we go after it. A lot of the bands say no, a lot of the bands say yes. You kind of readjust the puzzle pieces and hope that the end product is what sells.
McClain Johnson: You guys do cover so many bases with the acts you pick
AJ Niland: That was definitely a big goal of ours too. One of the things that we strive to do with this festival was keep it diverse. I have a pretty diverse musical taste, and Todd does as well. A lot of our friends do.You know, it’s really kind of an appreciation for music in general. Definitely one of the things we’re proud of is how diverse we can be with the lineup. I think it just appeals to a much larger demographic.
There’s a little something for everybody. It’s definitely something that we’re proud of and we think is very important.
AJ Niland: I wish to say I got to see more sets than I did. I was bouncing around, putting out flyers here and there. I got to see Ray Lamontagne’s set. I’m a huge fan.
McClain Johnson: Yeah. He’s a beast.
AJ Niland: I really enjoyed it. I thought The Roots were fantastic. Trey Anastasio was fantastic, though I didn’t get to see much of his set. John Legend. The headliners were great. That was a little downtime I got to carve out.
I think the set that kind of epitomizes Hangout year one was Franti’s set on Sunday. We had a huge storm come through. We had to evacuate the site because of a tornado threat Once we were able to reopen, Franti stepped up to the plate ready, willing, and able to play. He got up there and just got the crowd’s spirits going. The clouds parted, literally, and the sun started shining. It was just one of those really cool moments. It was a sigh of relief and, at the same time, an omen that the rest of the weekend was going to go well. Ben Harper at sunset that day into Trey Anastasio was great.
McClain: With the spill and everything, you guys were so committed to making the fest happen.
AJ Niland: Anytime you do something you try justify the reasons for doing it. You try to predict all the bad things that can happen that can prevent you. An oil spill is not anything any of us ever had imagined. It was just so far out of left-field. It was so wild, but we were so far into it at that point, that it just convinced us that we had to get it done. We believed we had a great festival going.
We also are residents of the area, so there was a huge sense of fear and what if. The doom and gloom that was portrayed really had people’s spirits down. Then there was this sense of doing this for our community.
Then it really turned into a charitable event that we did for the whole Gulf Coast.
It was unquestionably the wildest, weirdest, and most stressful time that I could have ever imagined. It definitely prepared us going forward for just about anything.
The way that we look at our safety plans going forward. The way that we look at our risks going forward. The way that we perceive what dangers are in place. It completely changed our perspective.
It made it much broader. It makes us much more cautious. Again, it’s just not something you could ever dream up in advance.
Then, when it happens, you’re just sort of holding on and hoping that it works out for the best. The good things that came from that was that the festival did happen.
Even though, tourism was down, because of the spill and the media attention. We were able to bring folks down that weekend and give the economy a shot in the arm. The state brought us in to do a series of free concerts, to bring in more tourism and revenue, to synthesize the tourist season being destroyed.
Our entire state depends on that tourism revenue for his budget. This whole sense of curing the illness with rock’n’roll. The fact that our state had called on us to do it was a huge honor. It kind of changed the perspective of the festival staff and what we were doing. It made it a cause and something we all got behind very passionately.
We brought down Jimmy Buffett to his hometown, Gulf Shores, for the first time since 1983 and filmed it live with 50,000 people on CMT. After that, Bon Jovi and Brad Paisley. All stadium sized shows that we got to do on the festival site. It broadened the view of what the Gulf Coast had to offer, that businesses were open, and that it was business as usual. The beach was clean. Those were really, really proud moments. It definitely gave use a huge credit boost going into year two as well.
McClain Johnson: Who are you most looking forward to seeing play this year?
AJ Niland: That’s an unfair question, because I love everyone. I can definitely say that I’m pretty stoked to see Paul Simon. I’m really, really excited to see Paul Simon because he’s such an icon. I’ve never had the opportunity to see him before. I think in the setting, on the beach, it should be a magical moment.
I’m definitely excited to see My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, I could keep going on.
I’m hoping that I have time to see
everybody. I’m pretty stoked at the lineup we were able to put together for this year.
We really wanted to make it a goal to keep it diverse, but to elevate the quality, and to take that next step into becoming a mature and major festival. I think we accomplished that.
That’s what gives me the most pride. Again, I think it’s diverse and it accomplishes so much in appeasing a broad audience. It’s music that music lovers can get into. It has a cohesiveness, despite it’s diversity.
McClain Johnson: You guys are picking so many top-tier acts that you know are going to put on quality shows.
AJ Niland: Oh yeah, definitely. That definitely brings it’s own sense of excitement. It was really important to us to really choose acts that were known for throwing good shows, because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not so much about selling records in the festival game. It’s about putting up a lineup that’s really going to rock and that people are going to be jazzed about.
We want people to walk away from it saying “Ah! That set was just incredible.” we want the board tapes to be sent around as “best show ever” or best festival set ever for that particular artist. I think that the environment has a lot to do with that One thing that we saw last year was that a lot of the artists that came in, they had no idea that the beaches existed in Alabama.
When you’re standing on top of the stage, and there’s a huge crowd of people in front of you. It feels like the traditional festival environment, and then you look out and you’re on a beach.
There’s waves lapping next to you and there’s palm trees. How can you be in a pissy mood? I’m not a performer, but the energy that get just watching it is incredible.
It gets me jazzed an excited to be there working. I think it has the same affect on the artists. Providing that setting, I think is really lending itself to the experience. In addition to the performances, which I think are instigated by this beautiful setting.
McClain Johnson: How long have you been wanting to put on a fest like this?
AJ Niland: We’ve been promoting entertainment along the Gulf Coast since 2003. Seven-eight years at this point. My wanting to do a festival goes back to my childhood. I became drawn to this business by the festival experience. It’s just magical and communal.
It makes you feel so good. I remember going back as a child and sitting on my father’s shoulders, as a real young child. Checking out the festival experience and just being drawn to it. I was too young, but watching the Woodstocks on TV, ’94 and ’99, with the exception of the fires in ’99. The vibes of the Phish shows, the vibes of the Dave Matthews shows, the vibes of the Panic shows, the vibes of the Dead shows.
Going back through the early ’90s, and with the Dead, obviously way, way back. There was just this magical, communal experience that I’ve been drawn to for a long time. I would say that we probably started out with the intent of doing this much sooner.
There were a lot of great festivals that came out long before we could even sign a legal contract. They paved the way for what we do now. They were in traditional settings of a farm, cow pasture, or a city park. We wanted to do a festival, however, we really wanted to set ourselves apart and do something different.
We didn’t initially intend to do a beach festival. Seven years into being in business, we stumbled upon it after looking for that entirety for a unique festival site. We came upon something in our own backyard that we had overlooked. That was in October of 2009, and we just pressed forward at that point.
We literally searched the entire country. One of the most ironic things was that we searched the entire country, thinking we had weeded out everything in our local area. For the site to turn out to be the public beach 30 minutes from my house definitely was one of those things where we we kicking ourselves saying “How did we not think of this sooner?”