Evan Harrison is the CEO of Huka Entertainment, a company that produces destination-site festivals including Pemberton Music Festival (British Columbia) and Tortuga Music Festival (Ft. Lauderdale). Evan has a long history in the digital music space. He was the first head of digital marketing for BMG, leaving the label group in 2001 to join AOL, where he went on to become head of music and radio. In 2004, he joined Clear Channel as president of digital, where he played a critical role in creating the company’s multi-platform strategy, and ultimately, iHeartRadio. In 2012 Evan created a similar strategy for Univision, overseeing the company’s approach to music on radio, television, online and in the live sector. He helped build Huka Entertainment with founder AJ Niland on the idea of developing festivals at destination locations where the destination becomes the star of the event and a community is built around that backdrop. In addition to Pemberton and Tortuga, Huka has a growing touring division which promotes concerts across North America. Huka also co-produces the Buku Music + Arts Project in New Orleans. Huka’s concert division has relationships with approximately 50 venues. Among the acts booked by Huka are Chris Stapleton, Bassnectar, Ray LaMontagne, Brett Eldredge, Sam Hunt, Slightly Stoopid Grace Potter, Kenny Chesney, Pearl Jam and Kendrick Lamar.
Evan talked to me about how digital music changed the industry and how festivals and live experiences are changing the relationship between artists and their fans and the overall music business landscape. He also offered up some predictions about where festivals and other live events are headed in the future.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Evan. How did you first get into music?
Music was a core passion for me from a really young age. My mom is an abstract sculptor, so she opened the door to the Arts for me early on. When I started showing interest in music, she really pushed on me to explore that further. She was having art shows in SoHo, back when SoHo wasn’t very safe. I would come into the city for these, and my uncle, being a bit younger than her, shared his vinyl collection with me. I learned about The Stones and The Beatles. I saw my first live music when I was eight during the height of Beatlemania, standing on a seat in a room filled with marijuana smoke an screaming people. I realized after this live experience that music was more about just listening to a record.
My parents always encouraged me to go after what I was interested in, so I got a guitar and participated in Battle of the Bands, which was a lot of fun. My first job ended up being working at Musicland, where I got paid to tell people what music to buy. It was a lot of fun.
In college, I needed to get an internship for school credits. My choices were go to Club Med as a water ski instructor or come to New York and work for a record company for free. Obviously, I chose the latter. I remember going to every record company and begging them to hire me so I could work for them for free. The excitement I felt even just walking into the lobby sucked me in. It felt so special, and I wanted to be a part of it.
I got lucky and got a job working for a guy who oversaw Alternative Radio promotion for what was Mercury Records at the time. He taught me the ropes and had me clean his fan … but he also let me get on the phone and talk to program directors about new bands at a time when alternative music was first coming into its own.
I asked him how I could get a job like his, and he suggested I go back to college and work at Tower Records or do a shift on my school radio station, then work for a commercial radio station, ask my favorite labels if I could do inventory counts for them at record stores. He basically told me to dive in. So, I did all that.
After I graduated was a pretty soft year economically. I chose to move to San Francisco without a job because the people who I reached out to there were kind enough to give me an information interview though there were no jobs. I just stayed the course until I finally got my foot in the door at BMG Records in San Francisco.
And, as I know from your bio and your history, that led to a lot of opportunities and ultimately to Huka. I know what really got you into the digital space was your move to AOL Music. How did things change for you from there?
When I got into digital, they started looking at me as the digital guy. And when I went to AOL, they looked at us as the music guys. I was incredibly happy playing these roles. I learned from some great mentors, and we had a great team.
At AOL, things would cross my path once in a while, but I never strayed until I was recruited by the CEO of Clear Channel Radio in 2004. I thought that it wasn’t too late for radio to really make an impact in the digital space, so I started meeting with the CEO of the radio division. What he had shared with me at the time is that they tried things years earlier, at the end of the ‘90s, they spent a lot of money, but they often had nothing to show for it. So, they decided the Internet was not that important and went back to their business.
When he came to me, he was wondering if it was too late to make money. He saw what we were doing at AOL – debuting songs before the big pop radio stations debuted them – and he thought there must be money there. When he asked me to go to a big broadcast company and lead the effort to turn digital into something more than just an afterthought, it was the invitation of a lifetime. He wanted to figure out a way to integrate digital into the operation.
I spent eight years at Clear Channel working across various areas, like programming and sales. When I was president of the digital division, we created iHeartRadio the brand. Now that’s the name of the company.
That’s quite a calling card. And now, you’re working in touring with Huka.
Yes. After eight years at Clear Channel, I met my partner, AJ Niland, who was in his early 20s at the time. He was looking for a partner to help him grow his concept. He was a guy who was a music fan and had moved around a lot. He spent time in Buffalo, NY and then Tampa and eventually found himself in Mobile, AL, a town that didn’t have a lot of bands coming through. The idea was to get clubs booked by convincing agents to ride a band through town. If you do a good job getting people out to see the bands and getting bands people want to see, even more will come out next time.
So, that’s what he did. AJ had some money in his pocket, and he started going to all the music festivals to get a feel for what they were doing. He thought there had to be an opportunity to create something similar but on a slightly smaller scale at a beach. So, we went around looking for beach locations and happened upon Gulf Shores Alabama. He created the Hangout Music Festival.
That was his first festival, and it was right after that I met him, and we just clicked. He grew up on AOL Music the way I grew up on MTV, and we just started geeking out, talking about the Ryan Adams session I did and The Strokes and just all the music we loved. We talked for a long time, and I agreed to join the company as a partner.
About five years ago, we wound up signing a deal with SFX, who was rolling up companies. They purchased our company, and we were planning to launch a country version of the Hangout on the beach in Fort Lauderdale called Tortuga. It had an ocean conservation angle. Right when we were ready to go, we got into a little bit of a disagreement with SFX, who didn’t see things the same way we did, and we chose to part ways.
We launched the first Tortuga Music Festival on our own, and we sort of scrambled to get funding. I went, and took a full time job back in big broadcast media, this time at Univision. I spent a couple years doing that and helping AJ with Huka on the side. I eventually came back full time, and we’ve been primarily focusing on festivals for a couple of years now.
So, tell me about what the live festival space looks like these days. You guys occupy a pretty interesting niche. But festivals seem to be very rigid and large. Every time I turn around, there’s another festival. What is the ethos of what Huka does? What sets you apart from other companies running festivals and live music experiences?
Everything is different in the live music experience, and it’s an incredibly exciting time for music fans. When I think about how the business has evolved and the music cycle, I go back to how things were when I first got into the industry. When I started out, you would have to go to the local record store to learn about new music. You had to have either NME or one of the credible music rags. You also had to buy imports and have to really go out and seek information. Then, you would have to wait for the record to drop. Now, you’re connecting directly with the band, the cycles are pretty much the walls between recording cycles are down, content is being put out on a non-stop basis.
From a live music perspective, you’re no longer just waiting for that once-every-three-year tour date to roll through your town. We’re looking at a generation now that really values experiences over material items.
The music festival concept has been going on for many years both here and overseas. With Perry Farrell starting Lollapalooza and the way Coachella and Bonnaroo have really blown in up, music festivals have become a real rite of passage for young music fans.
And for young artists too.
It’s great exposure and provides opportunities for them. And there are two large live music companies with tremendous buying power out there, AEG and Live Nation, so we needed to find a niche from the beginning.
AJ’s concept really started from the fan’s perspective. We put ourselves in the position of a fan and asked, “Where would I like to experience music like this if I don’t want to be in a large field where it’s pretty hot with 80,000 people?” That’s how the beach concept came about. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to see this at the beach?” And that concept in and of itself is great, but there’s another thing that makes the business more attractive for us and the barriers to enter that much harder, and that is, it’s really hard to do.
We built a music festival on the beach with the idea of leaving no carbon footprint and no waste. It’s so incredibly important and so hard to do. Creating an event within four walls or in a parking lot is a lot easier. Our specialty is creating events that are really hard to do in destination locations, and that is different from what everyone else is doing.
And just to go back to the artist: What makes an artist more suited to a destination festival than a more traditional type of music festival? Are artists participating in your music festivals different from those participating in others?
What I had found is that any time you’re creating a music festival, Year One is the hard one to sell. But we try and really elevate both the fan experience and the artist experience. The general admission experience to our festival feels like the VIP at another festival. At Tortuga, for example, we create a swimming pool on the beach at Tortuga where you’re looking at Kenny Chesney on the main stage with your feet in the water and drinking a Corona.
I think the key difference is that artists will give something a try if the people who they trust tell them it’s a good thing to do. And we’re making promises that we’re actually going to deliver. We pay so much attention to every little detail from the artist’s first experience. For example, they’re not eating crappy food. We put together a pretty eclectic culinary experience. We make it so the artists want to get off their tour bus and mingle. We vibe out the catering area. We don’t just have a tent. We decorate it and make it loungey and really fun. We make sure there are really ample opportunities for artists to relax and unwind.
And then, when the artist gets onto the stage, they look to the right and there’s the ocean, and their fans are out there in bathing suits. It sets a tone that really leaves a lasting impression. This year is our fifth year, and Kenny Chesney is back for his third time, Luke Bryan is returning after having been there before and we’ve also had Sam Hunt a couple times. Now, artists actually ask to come back and play the event.
It makes sense. It’s a great destination. I’m sure there’s a bonding experience too because it’s not in a parking lot, and people remember being on the beach together and the experience of it all.
I’m guessing as is the case with most festivals, you go for the big headline talent. How are you curating new talent? What is the method behind your selection of performers?
First of all, we’re a very data-driven, tech-savvy organization. That’s a given, because today, you have to be.
That being said, we’re also in the music business. We spend a lot of time talking to managers, artists, agents and labels. And we’re always making sure we have our finger on the pulse of what the next thing is. Dan Merker is our talent buyer and books out Tortuga as well as a bunch of our concerts. We do a couple hundred concerts a year across the southeast as well. Dan’s become a very prominent figure in Nashville and is there all the time. He has a great track record. Last year, we booked Kelsea Ballerini for Tortuga before she won all her awards. We were in there early. This year we went with Maren Morris really early.
Now, we’re reaping the rewards of the notoriety because we made the right bet there. We had Sam Hunt on our smallest stage. We booked him before his song went to radio, and the crowd was so large people couldn’t pass through from one side of the venue to the other.
Our tactic is to take educated bets and rock them right. We’re not scared to take chances. Last year we brought St. Paul and The Broken Bones. That’s not your typical act for a country and rock and roots music festival. So AJ plays a large role in the curation of Pemberton. Dan very much has his fingers on the pulse in Nashville.
We focus a lot on not just the top line and not just taking a couple chances the bottom line, but the meat in the middle. That matters a lot to us as well. And I think that’s what really separates our fest from some of the others.
That’s a good quality through and through.
I refer to an artist’s appearance at a festival a partnership, and I think this is especially relevant when you’re talking about something that’s destination oriented. The word “event” just doesn’t seem to cover it when you’re talking about something on this scale.
That being said, can you cite an example of someone who has been really successful when it comes to cross promotion – where they did a really good job of promoting your festival? Obviously, social media support is important, but has there been an artist whose marketing has really boosted your festival above and beyond their name recognition going into the experience?
I want to answer that, but let me start by explaining something: When artists are on the road, they’ll have a whole bunch of dates and a team around that helps them do what they need to do. You’ve been in the business for a long time, so you know that nothing really cuts through more than when the artist sees it themself. That’s usually the “a-ha” moment for us.
In Year One, we gave Kendrick Lamar probably better billing and better stage position than he’d been getting from the other festivals at the time. He came back next year and was our Sunday night close up in Pemberton in front of an audience of almost 40,000. That was a real moment for him. He made it clear in front of the crowd he wanted to come back every year. He really appreciated how we’ve stepped up for him.
So, to answer your question, usually it’s less about the marketing the artist is doing ahead of time; it’s more about the artist seeing it himself and experiencing it. There’s a little bit of a goosebumps moment. Pearl Jam closed out Pemberton last year.
That comes with a whole culture that is irreplaceable.
Oh yeah. And Eddie Vedder had done his homework, and he talked about the town of Pemberton. He knew it has only a couple thousand people, and he was aware of the fact that we donated $150,000 from proceeds to local organizations. He called it out and understood the value and the impact of creating a community with 40,000 people sleeping in a town that only has a population of 2,000. And the impact of look you’re creating a community here with 40,000 people sleeping here in a town that only has a population of 2,000. So, you’re basically creating a pretty large city for British Columbia.
That’s pretty wild.
So, where do you see the festival experience going? What do you see for the future of music festivals?
Those who innovate and succeed will be invited to be a part of the larger companies. Because that’s a R and D strategy right there: Let somebody else take the risk and when something proves successful and seems to be attainable, and will withstand the test of time, that’s an acquisition opportunity right there. As an independent you have to work five times as hard because you don’t have the leverage or the buying power.
In terms of where it’s going, I think there was a novel concept a while back: cruise festivals, but then there was overkill. Some worked, and then some didn’t. And in some of these instances people got sick, and didn’t play out that well.
There are some really high-end things that are going on right now. We’ll see how those work out. I think it’s exciting to see so much innovation and music playing a part in so many different settings. As for what’s going to catch on, I think you’re seeing more and more artists and more and more fans wanting to see music in a different setting above and beyond the four walls.
I’m hearing a lot about Virtual Reality lately. Do you think VR is going to play a part in the marketplace in the future?
I’m a tech guy, so I meet with a lot of VR companies. I think the most exciting part of AR, VR, and the live music experience is to be able to bring your friends along who can’t be at that show with you. I think there are going to be some really cool opportunities where you can have a friend at home who could travel for that show who is literally feeling like they’re at the show with you and vice versa.
That would certainly be an experience and a shared experience above and beyond “Here I am [hashtag].” But I’m also noticing that there are art installations and experience installations. I was at Panorama not too long ago. I walked in and there was this sensory-deprivation light show kind of thing. Are there more and more of those things happening, or is that my imagination?
Art and music as art and bringing in graffiti artists like we do in New Orleans and various other forms of art into musical festival just makes a ton of sense. So, I think you’ll continue to see more displays with more technologies as a result.
And how healthy is the live music event/festival business right now?
The live event business – the sector itself – continues to grow year over year. There’s absolutely diversification; it’s definitely happening in the music festival space. But at the same time, some festivals are suffering. So I think there’s going to be a bit of a shake out. I think you’ll still see festivals that don’t have a differentiated offering or a stronghold in some way, shape or form start to drop out.
I do think that it’s a great sign more people are attending more shows, and the gross revenue in the sector is going up.
Is that specific to festivals? I know ticket sales are up for live shows. Are tickets to festivals also up?
I haven’t dissected that or seen the direct comparison. I guess that is the real question here: If you look at the same number of music festivals year over year are the numbers going up? I’m sure it could be answered, but I think it would be difficult, because there are so many new festivals being added all the time, with so many different caps – 2,000, 5,000, 10,000. There are just a lot more music gatherings happening outside of your typical club, arena and amphitheater.
The past few years I’ve been at SXSW, I’ve felt like it’s a festival that’s hit its saturation point and beyond. Is that a risk for larger festivals? I realize SXSW is not necessarily comparable to what you’re doing, because it’s a conference and not just focused on music, but is that saturation point something you are conscious of or even worried about for Huka?
Well, we’re off at the beach. We’re up in the mountains. We’re out there. So, that doesn’t worry me. But, I have heard people say that Coachella is not what it used to be. And how could it be? It’s evolved. And there’s a reinvention going on at Bonnaroo. I think all in all it is just incredibly exciting to me from a fan’s perspective, because the choices are plentiful.
And there is a lot of creativity going into the surroundings beyond just the stage and the artist. That adds to the experience; to really have thought and vibe and amenities taken into consideration just enhances the experience and will make fans want to go consume more live music, which is good for all of us.
To learn more about Evan Harrison and the work he’s doing in the live event space, visit the Huka Entertainment website. The Tortuga Music Festival takes place in Fort Lauderdale, FL and will be from April 7-9, 2017. The Pemberton Music Festival is in Pemberton, BC and will begin on July 13-16, 2017.