The chance to make a difference sometimes comes in unexpected packages. Huka Entertainment, a popular concert promoter in Mobile, AL, set out to produce a large-scale concert festival on the beach in nearby Gulf Shores. With the white sands and emerald green water of the region as a primary selling point, they garnered a healthy bankroll from investors and signed on powerhouse acts like John Legend, The Zac Brown Band, The Roots and Phish's Trey Anastasio to play the three-day event.
The festival was dubbed "The Hangout," a nod to the laidback lifestyle and mellow hospitality of the gulf coast, as well as a local beachside restaurant. Then, three weeks before the first act would hit the stage, the BP Deepwater Horizon exploded at sea, and oil started oozing toward the shores. Although still miles away from land, the oil spill blotted out the festival's prime ticket sales period, and instantly changed the very identity of the event.
The Hangout would become "The Concert for the Coast."
This week, Huka Entertainment announced that all of the proceeds from the festival would support environmental groups. Moreover, volunteers who receive training for beach cleanup will be admitted free (tickets are $160). There will be extra latenight concerts on-site with $5 admission fees, with all the money directed to charities. Multiple organizations will be on hand staging a joint letter writing campaign about off-shore drilling. Environmentalists and musicians will appear side-by-side in panel discussions to talk about the spill. And all the performers will be donating signed memorabilia to support coastal recovery efforts.
The good will present at all music festivals is a great backdrop for marrying the best parts of a giant beach party and a political rally. Already, the Hangout is proving to be a microcosm of the teamwork and ingenuity a crisis can produce.
About 10 days ago, the festival's lead promoter AJ Niland put out an urgent call to various nonprofits that were associated with the festival. He sounded shell-shocked, but resolute. To paraphrase, he said "This isn't about making or losing money anymore, this is about celebrating this beautiful region of the country, and protecting it."
He asked our organization, the voter registration and civic engagement non-profit HeadCount, to come up with ideas on how make the festival live up to its re-stated mission. Similar conversations happened with organizations like Reverb, an environmental nonprofit founded by the guitarist from Guster, a band performing at the festival. Calls went out to multiple conservation groups as well. Within a few days, the skeleton of a plan emerged. Here's what we came up with:
• HeadCount will host the Sierra Club and the Gulf Coast Alliance at our booth. Together we'll stage a massive letter-writing drive on issues like offshore drilling and recently-introduced Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act, which would cap oil companies' liabilities from $75 million to $10 billion in the case of spills like this one. Letters written by fans will be sent to their respective congressional representatives.
• To give the letter-writing drive an extra push, artists performing at the festival will all sign a poster commemorating the event. Anyone who writes a letter at the HeadCount table will be entered into a drawing to win the poster.
• Festival goers will be asked in advance to bring items useful in beach cleanup, to be collected at the HeadCount booth. They include:
o Baby blankets
o Heating pads
o Large rubbermaid containers
o Heating lamps
o Rubbermaid troughs
o Large backyard portable pools
• Free admission will be given to anyone who can present proof that they completed a volunteer training for beach cleanup or protection.
• To raise additional funds for relief efforts, two latenight benefit shows were added to the festival: one featuring Alex B, Gift of Gab (Blackalicious), Big Gigantic as well as Keller Williams' Electronic Experiment. Tickets are available in advance only, with information at hangoutmusicfest.com.
• A panel discussion featuring Gardner, other artists and representatives of other environmental groups will be staged on the festival grounds at 1 PM on Sunday.
• All of this will be documented on video by CauseCast, creating a lasting imprint of the activity and a showpiece to maintain any momentum it all creates.
There may never again be a music event on this scale that plays out right on the front lines of an environmental and economic tragedy. It promises to be unique, poignant, and cathartic - the sort of combination that inspires great performances and unforgettable experiences.
I hope there is not another need to turn a well-planned festival into an improvised three-day benefit. But it's also fortunate, in a way, that this event was timed and located where it is. Music is a much-heralded catalyst for change. It also has the power to help keep an endangered coastline just the way it is.