In November, Huka Entertainment announced that it had appointed music veteran Evan Harrison to serve as the company’s CEO. Huka Entertainment produces Tortuga Festival, Pemberton and Buku festivals. Harrison’s expanded roll frees up founder AJ Niland to focus on the experiential side of the company’s events. We caught up with Harrison to learn about his plans to lead Huka and their iconic festival properties.
So what’s your story? How did you get your start in the music industry?
I’ve been working in music for about 25 years. I started at label BMG in the mail room in San Francisco and spent eight years learning the business from the ground up. In 1998 I did enough creative promotions that I had got the attention of corporate headquarters in New York. They were building out the first online marketing division. They asked if I’d move to New York to head it up. I said, ‘Absolutely, would love to, but I know nothing about online.’ The answer was, ‘It’s ’98, nobody really does. It’s about a marketing skill set, and it’s about understanding artists in the business and you’ve got that part.’ That was an opportunity of a lifetime and I moved back east and built out an online marketing department.
So we’re talking early dotcom music?
Yes. Back then, if you didn’t get on the radio, then you didn’t get a spin on VH1, or MTV, or CMT and that meant there was nothing going on for you. I stepped up and said, ‘Hey, I’ll get you on the front page at AOL and that will be seen by millions of people.’
Where did you go next?
A bunch of us left BMG and we created AOL Music. I ran that for a couple of years and got recruited by Clear Channel. I thought it was pretty fascinating that Clear Channel really didn’t have anything going on with digital. The guy named John Hogan was the CEO of the radio conglomerate. He was still a partner. Live Nation was still part of the company at the time. The one question he asked me was, ‘Is it too late to make money online?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not, but you have to be willing to change the culture of the company. You’re going to have to back me in doing that.’ I worked for him for eight years. We created iHeartRadio and it became a profitable division.
And now Clear Channel has changed its name to iHeartRadio — it’s their main brand.
Yeah. That’s kind of funny. Radio programmers are not too different from live event promoters. These are guys who are pretty set in their ways. They weren’t necessarily thrilled to have somebody younger than them telling them that things need to be done differently. Now you flash forward and it’s the name of the company and they’re championing it.
How did you hook up with AJ Niland?
I met AJ through some folks in the industry who said, ‘Hey, you’re going to really like this guy. He created a music festival on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. He’s looking for somebody to help him grow the company. We think you guys will get along great.’
What did you talk about in those early conversations?
We talked about the festivals that already existed — Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Coachella. We wanted to improve the experience. The thinking was that as you get a little bit more money in your late 20s, you don’t want to sleep in a tent and inhale dust. You might want to see the same-level artists, but go to something a little more boutique, maybe on a beach. AJ created Hangout Fest and now he was interested in trying to scale this thing out. I became a partner in the company. Our plan was to build and add more festivals. I was going to join them and run the business and he would be the creative force.
Didn’t you guys team up with Sillerman and SFX early on?
Yes, we did a deal him. We were one of the first ones in. AJ and I were flying around the country helping him buy into companies to acquire. He bought our company. They were funding the launch of our first new festival called Tortuga Music Festival. About two weeks before the festival, they told us we should cancel it. We used that as an opportunity to buy back our independence. We went and launched the Tortuga Music Festival, which was not too dissimilar from Hangout, but it is country music this time around. Next was Buku in New Orleans.
What happened with Hangout?
AEG now produces Hangout Music Festival, and AJ and I briefly parted ways. I wound up taking another corporate job, because as you can imagine, we went from being fully funded with a partner to being on our own. We raised money, kept everything alive and never had to let people go. I just wasn’t able to join full time. I took another corporate job, this time at Univision. When that contract expired I joined Huka as CEO, just over a year ago. AJ continues to run all things creative. He is the detail guy for the festivals. I run the business.
Charity is an important part of Huka Entertainment. What are you guys currently working on?
We just announced that we’ve raised $100,000 for local grants in Pemberton, B.C., for a variety of local arts organizations. Charity is also a very meaningful part of Tortuga. We actually named it Tortuga after the sea turtles that breed on those beaches. We donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservation efforts through our partner Rock the Ocean down in the beach in Ft. Lauderdale.
Let’s talk about Pemberton. It used to be a Live Nation property. When did you guys relaunch it?
Three years ago. When we were presented with the opportunity to bring back Pemberton, we talked to a lot of people about the challenges and the experience. We felt like there were challenges we could overcome. We put a lot of time and attention into making sure the shuttles flowed properly and built out an irrigation system so there is grass and not dust, all those things that make a difference. We had a 105,000 in total attendance last year, up more than 50% from the first year. People noticed the enhancements. They felt the changes. They had a great time. That’s really been the model for us in all of our festival builds.
What’s changed the most since you’ve taken over Pemberton?
The evolution of our camping experience. Previously, campers were buying access to the camping space. What we’re doing this year is selling plots. It’ll be up to 4 people per plot. Not only will that ease load-in and load-out, it gives campers options.
How do you compete as a festival when AEG and Live Nation are so dominant in the space?
It’s clearly tough when you’re up against some of the buying power and leverage that you’re competing against. We have strong partnerships. We have a unique way of doing things. I think there is a lot of respect across the industry for how we go about promoting a show, from the programming to the fan experience. It’s clearly a different vantage point, but we’ve found great success in really establishing our niche and going to places and getting in at a time when they’re really wasn’t as much competition.
Last year, you guys announced a partnership with Ticketfly. How does that work?
We found like-minded partners who really appreciate what we’re going for. We tell them our challenges and warned them ‘you’re going to have to carry some water too.’ When I met with their CEO Andrew Dreskin, I made it clear that I’m not just looking for a transactional ticketing partner. I had unique needs because we’re constantly creating different kinds of packages and lots of them that haven’t been done before. I have a technology background. I was looking for a partner who we could develop new products together with. While we’re talking about our challenges, it was important to me that we had a development team assigned to creating new products. We set it up in a way where we come to the table with challenges and together we problem-solve and create new solutions.
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