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Pemberton Music Festival: Preparing for the second incarnation

Expectations, anticipation and an overwhelming desire to see Blondie

What's the single best reason to head north to the Pemberton Music Festival in the next day or two?

"It will be the best festival in Canada this year."

This according to A.J. Niland, CEO of HUKA Entertainment, the New Orleans-based company which is producing the second incarnation of the Pemberton Music Festival that starts today and goes through Sunday. Niland believes that the July 16 -20 event will be one that will be so outstanding that people will lie about having attended. He also predicts that the economic impact on the region — Pemberton and Whistler — will be $20 million.

As this goes to press, cars, trucks and RVs are already carrying happy festival campers up Hwy. 99 and into the Pemberton Valley. By Friday almost everyone will be loaded in and the festival will move into full swing. And if a straw poll of the people interviewed for this piece is any indication, Blondie is definitely going to be a hot ticket with the over-40 crowd. But of course, with close to 100 acts, ranging from grunge granddaddies, Soundgarden, to the ethereal St. Vincent, there will literally be something for everyone and lots for fans of rap and electronic dance music.

As I write this piece, the festival is still 10 days out. Yurts are popping up and trailers are being brought onto the site. The site needs more work, the highway needs widening and the grass needs more water. Day tickets are still a rumour. Ticket buyers are getting antsy waiting for their wristbands to arrive. And face value tickets for the three-day (five if you include the limited entertainment load-in days) festival are easy to come by on Craigslist. Initially projected to attract an audience of 40,000, the number has been reduced by more than a quarter.

The heat may be on, but the players involved in bringing another major music festival back to the Pemberton Valley are playing it cool. Everyone is talking "building year," "year one," and "commitment to the long haul." While there will inevitably be problems, as with any first-time event, everyone involved in this new version of the festival is immensely optimistic. They are certain they have done their best to mitigate problems that marred the last festival, notably traffic and security, and they're ready to rock.

Between July 16 and July 20 the Pemberton Music Festival is expected to grow to a community of between 25,000 and 30,000 music fans. They will enjoy everything from a reunited Outkast to the Hallelujah Train with Daniel Lanois. Deadmau5, a newcomer when he played the Bacardi Dance Tent at the 2008 Pemberton Festival, will headline on Saturday night, turning the site into a dance party of epic proportions. There is a distinct possibility that controversial rap group Odd Future may have an impromptu concert as four of its members — Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator and Syd the Kyd — are at the festival as solo artists. Bob Saget the dull dad from the sit-com Full House will delight in the unabashed filth of his stand-up comedy. A good time will be had by, if not all, then certainly most. Because generating good times, or as the company's website says: "Creating Your Favourite Festivals," is the heart of HUKA's business.


The seeds for the company were sewn slightly more than a decade ago when Niland was booking bands as the Minor League Clubhouse Director for the San Diego Padres while still in high school. In 2004, HUKA was founded, quickly establishing itself as a force in music promotion. In 2010, the company produced the first of its festivals, Hangout in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

"I wrote the business plan for Hangout when I was still in high school," says Niland. "Then I had to go out and find the money."

He found it. HUKA's roster quickly grew to three major festivals in the southern U.S., the aforementioned Hangout, New Orlean's BUKU Music + Art Project and Ft. Lauderdale's country-flavoured Tortuga. The success of these events made Niland decide to expand HUKA's operations into the Pacific Northwest. All he needed was a great location. Sunstone Ranch in Pemberton fit the bill perfectly. Thanks to a pre-existing relationship between HUKA and the locally based Sunstone Group's parent company (Janspec, a holding company of the philanthropic Turner Foundation), the two groups came together giving Niland the opportunity to execute his vision of the perfect Pacific Northwest festival.

"We're creating a really awesome music experience in an amazing natural environment," said Niland.

When Niland talks about the Sea to Sky corridor's natural environment, he sounds truly humbled.

"The first time I drove up here I realized I hadn't really noticed driving up as I was too busy just looking around. It was the Howe Sound seduction. It was like I'd had an out-of-body experience."

HUKA is taking full advantage of Pemberton's natural environment in its set up. As with the 2008 version of the festival, the main stages back onto Mt. Currie, but the rest of the festival's stages and amenities ring the perimetre of the site, affording a huge open, grassy space. If the site blueprints are an indication, this will be a spectacular looking event — another hallmark of HUKA's production.

What audiences can expect onsite is a clean, uniform, aesthetic look, from the stage design to the vendor booths, as well as some cool, not to mention cooling, surprises such as a waterslide that's free to those who register their wristbands online. Water will be available throughout the site. Porta potties will be cleaned regularly through a "secret system" and will have the added bonus of being shaded. And traffic —the bane of attendees, performers and community members last time the festival came to town— will flow freely.


Niland figures if they address the transportation issues this year, then the "stigma" surrounding the festival will fade. He believes the traffic issue had a significant effect on booking, resulting in what he considers an atypical HUKA line-up.

"Even the first batch of the legends couldn't get over the stigma of 2008," says Niland.

He claims that artists were frustrated by the waits that resulted in them being unable to make their sound checks on time. This shouldn't be a problem this year with a transportation plan that includes a new road that will lead drivers off Hwy. 99 and onto 80 acres of parking across from the festival site, extensive bussing and multiple parking areas to manage traffic flow.

While traffic management will be substantially better than last time, there are other issues that may affect the event's success, specifically place and time. The Pemberton Music Festival occurs within a month of the established Squamish Festival less than 100 kilometres away.

Niland seems undaunted by the festival at the other end of the corridor. He believes the two festivals will offer different experiences and attract different audiences. He makes an analogy about fan loyalty comparing a couple of competing cheesesteak joints that operate across the street from each other in Chicago. Each succeeds because the other does, each having developed a core of fiercely loyal customers.

Asked what it's been like to be an American producer working in Canada, Niland admits that some of the rules and regulations have been very different from what he's used to. An example?

"In the U.S., once you're in one of our festival's V.I.P. zones everything is free, in Canada we have to charge for liquor," says Niland.

While the differences in licensing and permitting have been surprising, the head of HUKA adds that local governments and community partners have been helpful in navigating the bureaucracy.

"We really see this as a multi-community event. The Village of Pemberton, Mt. Currie, the SLRD and the RMOW have all been great," says Niland of the local governments. "And Whistler has been a great lodging partner."

Another thing that makes this weekend's festival different from the other festivals HUKA has produced is that the Pemberton Music Festival is being held on the traditional territory of the Lil'wat Nation. As such, the festival will open with a prayer in the Ucwalmicwts language, followed by dancing, drumming and the singing of a welcome song. And the welcome the festival will be receiving from the Lil'wat Nation is a genuine one.


"We've done our homework on the festival, investigated the security and operational plans and have a level of confidence that they will be able to deal with many of the traffic and other issues that challenged the event in 2008," says Lil'wat Chief Lucinda Phillips.

"This is year one of the festival and we look forward to learning how our community can participate in a greater way through incorporation of traditional arts and culture, employment opportunities and supporting our entrepreneurs. The Lil'wat Nation is proud to host this festival in our territory and is a willing partner in economic opportunities that benefit our community and the region."

From local government to production partners, everyone involved has positive expectations for the event. The second incarnation of a major music festival in Pemberton, on the lands now known as Sunstone Ridge, four kilometres north of the centre of town, has been a long time in the making.

In 2008, the then named Raven's Crest property was the site of the first Pemberton Festival produced by Live Nation's Shane Bourbannais, then president of the company's Canadian operations, who had a home in the Pemberton Valley. The spectacular setting seemed the right place for the Euro-style festival the company wanted to create in Canada. From concept to execution, the event took a scant eight months — and a lot of money — to pull off.

With a line-up that including Coldplay at the peak of their career, Jay-Z, Tom Petty, Flaming Lips, The Tragically Hip, Nine Inch Nails and Death Cab for Cutie, it was an epic event. It was an enormous gamble that Live Nation obviously thought would pay off. Despite a number of hiccups, the event was deemed a success and the town was poised for a repeat when suddenly the fate of the festival was up in the air. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) became very concerned about the impact the festival had on the land, a piece of property with an agricultural contribution that amounted to little more than second cut hay.

In 2009, Live Nation decided to shelf the festival because the ALC's approval to use the land came too late to facilitate production. This, coupled with onerous policing costs, an inability to come up with an acceptable transportation plan and issues with liquor licensing, ultimately made the company deem the proposed 2009 event financially unfeasible. But there was a glimmer of hope as Bourbannais hinted that the festival would be back in 2010.


Daniel Sailland, CAO of the Village of Pemberton (VOP), has been involved in the process of bringing the festival back since he took the job in 2010. That process included being part of three-man delegations, including Mayor Jordan Sturdy and Raven's Crest landowner Cam McIvor, that travelled to London to meet with Live Nation and entice the company to resurrect the festival.

Sailland, who has since resigned as CAO to take a position in Qualicum Beach, says that while the trip generated no commitments from Live Nation, the door remained open. Over time it became apparent that the mammoth music promoter was not interested in walking through that door and back into the Pemberton Valley. The development of the Sunstone Group was a game changer, with the new company having links through it's parent company to the music business and a hip, young festival production company called HUKA, a group Sailland has clearly enjoyed working with.

"HUKA's been very committed to mitigating the problems that happened last time," says Sailland.

While the VOP will directly profit from the rental of some lands the festival will use, like each of the three governments involved, the Village sees the festival as a long-term economic driver in the region.

"It's going to bring future tourists to the town, potentially upwards of 30,000. It's an event that promotes the valley and has low impact but high value. Before, during and after the festival it can really help support our small businesses," says Sailland.

"It will generate interest in what our town has to offer. It will have a tremendous benefit to the area."

Lynda Flynn, CAO at the Squamish-Regional District (SLRD) echoes Sailland's sentiments.

"This festival is good for the entire Pemberton Valley and everyone, everywhere, is going to see economic spin-offs," says Flynn.

Another positive she cites of working to bring this year's festival to fruition, has been the increased level of inter-government collaboration.

"We really worked together to make the process easier for the producers and I think we all saw how well we can work together. Essentially, the SLRD acted as a support to the VOP in permitting matters, and helping with relationships between the festival organizers and the RCMP, Vancouver Coastal Health and Wildfire Management. Our experience with HUKA has been a very positive one."

Kerry Mahaffey, director of business and economic development for the Lil'wat Nation agrees with Flynn and Sailland about working with the festival producers.

"I'd say the experience has been really good. Sunstone and HUKA have been great about advising us about things they'd like to do. We've certainly benefitted far more from this festival than the previous one by renting IR2 (Indian Reservation #2, also known by its traditional name of Kwetsa7) for parking," says Mahaffey.


While Mahaffey won't disclose the actual figures of renting Kwestsa7 to the festival organizers, its clear he thinks the Lil'wat Nation has brokered a good deal.

"The festival organizers have made some significant improvements to the land. They paid to clear 60 of 80 acres of IR2 — this is a 10-year investment for the festival," says Mahaffey.

"Have you seen the superhighway they've put in?" he laughs, in reference to a secondary dirt and grass road that will take campers off the highway and to their parking spots across from the festival site. "It's amazing."

Mahaffey believes that there will be greater opportunities for the Lil'wat Nation in subsequent years, with potential for increased band revenue, employment and increased cultural awareness. He hypothesizes that in the next few years the greatest opportunities will likely be the Lil'wat Nation's land that surrounds the festival that will become increasingly valuable as the festival grows.

So far, the band has seen financial benefits from the festival in terms of land rental, service contracts and band member employment.

"The land clearing was primarily done by a company owned by us," says Mahaffey.

"As well, a number of our members have been working on remediating the festival site, operating heavy equipment and providing general labour."

Going into this year's festival, Mahaffey acknowledges that the community has residual concerns from 2008's event. As with all the communities involved, Mt. Curries chief concerns are around traffic and safety.

"I think HUKA is hanging their hat on getting rid of the traffic issues and their security plan looks really strong."

Karen Ross, president of the Pemberton Chamber of Commerce, is thrilled that the festival is coming back.

"HUKA and Sunstone are putting on an event that will bring $20 million into the region. These are new dollars, dollars coming from outside the area. There will be people coming from across North America and Europe. All of our members are going to experience the trickle down effect of that money."

Ross, who also owns the local Esso, was offered the opportunity to operate an onsite convenience store. However, the demands of such a venture in terms of staff and time proved too great this year, but it's certainly something she'll entertain next year.

"The festival offers a lot of opportunity to our local business community, but I think for a lot of people this is a year of 'wait and see,'" says the Chamber president. "That said, a lot of our local businesses have already benefitted from the festival. Our restaurants and grocery stores have been feeding the advance staff, local suppliers are being used and our accommodations are booked solid. It's great to see another event like this come to town."

Tourism Pemberton President David Mackenzie concurs.

"We're very excited to get behind this event. This is an amazing opportunity to give Pemberton a global audience," says Mackenzie. "Destination recognition is incredibly valuable. This kind of event makes Tourism Pemberton's job a lot easier."

"When you travel, you're generally asked where you're from. After the last festival when I said Pemberton the response was often 'Oh, the festival..."

Mackenzie says Tourism Pemberton hopes to have its updated marketing videos played on the big screens during lulls in the festival programming to create greater awareness of everything the valley has to offer.

But does anyone really know what to expect over the coming days? Nyal Wilcox, CEO of the Turner Foundation and one of the Sunstone Group principals, does.

"I've been to Hangout and Tortuga and they were both great festivals — both the music and the sites."

The Sunstone Group, which is acting as the landlord for the festival, has been working to ensure that Pemberton is another one of those great sites. The land developer cum festival partner has poured more than $1 million into remediating the festival grounds. Access roads have been created throughout the area, an extensive irrigation system is in place resulting in an expanse of thick, green grass, and camper parking has improved dramatically with the addition of the Kwetsa7 lands.

"We've put a lot of money upfront to improve the site from creating additional roads to dust control measure," says Wilcox. "We're not here for one-year, we're here for a multi-year run, it's like any investment, you hope to recover it over time."

Wilcox acknowledges that in the first year of the event there will be mistakes, but he hopes people will be willing to give them a chance so the festival can come back even better next year. His suggestion for locals is to plan ahead, doing tasks such as grocery shopping before the festival, as moving around town will naturally be more difficult with extra visitors.

Wilcox's other piece of advice: "Find the time to come out and enjoy this world-class event that's right on your doorstep."

It's impossible to say whether or not the Pemberton Music Festival will live up to HUKA's CEO's claim that it will be the best festival in Canada this year. Ditto on whether local players' expectation will be met. What is known is that an event that a small community has been clamouring will return, albeit under a new banner with a new style. It will feature bands than span the last four decades. It will also have an open-sided dance tent, a waterslide and Blondie. And that says summer fun... so bring it on! Viva la festivale!