Learn more about the Pemberton Music Festival with my interview with A.J Niland and talent buyer Sascha Guttfreund

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Next month British Columbia will see the return of the Pemberton Music Festival after a 6-year hiatus. The ambitions of the organizers are lofty as they want nothing less than to create the best camping festival in Canada this summer. Under the new management of Huka Entertainment, they are confident that they brought the right team to deliver the goods. EDM Canada was happy to talk to A.J Niland (CEO and Co-Founder of Huka Entertainment), and Sascha Guttfreund (talent buyer for electronic dance music acts for Pemberton) where we had an extensive conversation about the Pemberton Music Festival. If you're considering going this year, then this interview is a must-read. 


Pemberton is coming back to B.C after a 6 year hiatus, what can fans that attended the first festival expect with the 2014 Pemberton Music Festival?

A.J Niland: There's a tremendous amount of upgrades. The first thing we did when determining on whether or not we'll be coming back was to get in and sort through the issues that presented themselves in 2008. We sorted through all of the complaints which were obviously being traffic, dust, garbage, and port-a-johns. A lot of the things that were very apparent was sort of due to poor planning and poor execution. I am the weakest link in my team, and we have an extremely experienced group of individuals that do most of the major festivals in North America that came and vetted the property, vetted the site, identified the things that we needed to fix and how to fix them. Once we as partners have determined that the investment was good for us, we decided to press forward.

The biggest issues of traffic, dust, and trash component were found to be easy fixes. The work that they did upgrading the roads for the 2010 Olympics greatly improved the roads while we completely revamped the traffic plan. We're bringing a traffic crew that's done a bunch of major festivals including Coachella over to Pemberton. We increased the size of our site by 100%, so we went from 150 acres to 300 acres. That increased the number of entrances to the site, and thus the amount of traffic that we can pull off the road at any one time. In addition to that we are limiting camping to 25,000 people. Everyone else is going to park and ride from various locations. People who are residing or staying in a hotel in Whistler will be able to take an awesome shuttle system. That eliminated the traffic component.

For the dust mitigation, we brought in a guy named Steve LeGros and he is known as the “Grass Whisperer”. He does all of the NFL and major league baseball stadiums that have natural grass. He came in and put together a landscaping program that included permanent irrigation into the site and laid down some new seed to create a dense thick patch of grass that will eliminate the dust bowl effect.

On the waste side, we've got Clean Vibes coming in. They are known from the phish festival scene from back in the day, and most importantly from Bonnaroo. The trash component will be a 24 hour service that includes curbside pick-up in the campgrounds as well as constant clean-ups during the day.

Those issues being addressed mixed with the fact that it is one of the most beautiful festival sites that I've ever seen in my whole entire life, I believe the experience will be out of this world.

If a fan was planning on taking the car from Vancouver or Whistler, Squamish to Pemberton – what kind of commute can they expect?

A.J. Niland: It really depends on when you come in. We are opening camping early on Wednesday instead of Thursday. So depending on when you come in will be the determining factor. Every festival has a sort of a wait but the hours upon hours of waiting in the past have been mitigated. If you get there on Wednesday, Thursday, or late Friday afternoon, you'd probably breeze right through. But for the people that come in late Thursday evening/Friday morning, there will be a little bit of a queue. But we'll get them off the road, off the main highway, and on to our property with a few miles worth of queues on the property that's going to keep that traffic flowing. It all depends on when folks come, but we've got a pretty strong plan in place to make that wait as little as possible.

Is taking a shuttle over to Pemberton the fastest way into the grounds?

A.J. Niland: If you're camping, just come in and park. But if you're just coming in for the day, just park in Whistler because there isn't any on-site parking. The shuttles run constantly, and we're using the same operator that we've used for all of our festivals and others including Coachella. The shuttle system is robust, it has a lot of buses, and they're entertaining as we put movies on them. Bands and comedians that will be at the festival will also do pop-up shows on the buses. We're known to make the shuttle ride fun. There will also be a tour guide aspect to it as you pass major sites on the way to Pemberton. We have these fun upgrade sweepstakes where you'll reach under your seat and there's VIP upgrades for the day. The shuttle ride will take approximately 20-25 minutes and drops you off right at the front gate. If you're parking and riding or staying at a hotel in Whistler, using the shuttle bus is definitely the fastest and only option.

How many people are you expecting over at Pemberton in 2014?

A.J. Niland: I think we'll be around 25,000 – 30,000, that's my guess. And we're well on our way. We've done the majority of that selling already. The next few weeks we'll either see the status quo or a bump, but for a first year festival we think that's pretty amazing. We're super pleased right now.

How many stages?

A.J. Niland: Currently 6. There are 5 music stages, and 1 comedy stage.

"We're building an EDM stage structure that has never seen before in North America." 

Will there be a stage specifically for EDM?

A.J. Niland: Oh yeah. We're building an EDM stage structure that has never seen before in North America. It's a component of the Sahara tent from Coachella and the Carl Cox tent from Ultra. Our stage will be completely reconfigured in a new way that will give us a bit of a signature look. We're also really excited about the production that will go into that stage.

So you're bringing in the mega structure over to Pemberton?

A.J. Niland: Yes, a version of the mega structure. But the shape is what's changing because it's going to be more like a clamshell. It's kind of hard to describe as it's something they’ll you'll have to see when you get there. It's not going to be a full tent, but more like a partial tent because we anticipate the stage to be very popular.

Huka Entertainment has run many festivals in the U.S – are there any similarities that your organization can apply to the upcoming Pemberton Music Festival in B.C to make it even better?

A.J. Niland: The importance is on the appearance and the aesthetic and this is something we're definitely bringing to Pemberton. When we organized the Hangout Festival in the U.S., we had 30 acres of Alabama beach front, and there wasn't much in terms of vegetation or amenities, just sand and water. We planted 300 palm trees per year on the site, and donated them to the city afterwards. We like crisp clean lines, and use sight lighting and other things that amplify that experience. One our biggest gifts to the festival world was the VIP pools at the Hangout. We built two in-ground pools that sit at the foot of the mainstage at the VIP cabana structure. Unfortunately we're not bringing the pool, but we are bringing the same elevated cabana structure and super VIP structure with hot tubs to Pemberton. We'll be taking this rustic mountain vibe and making it even more cool and rustic, paying homage to the location.

So that explains the $1500 Super VIP package that I saw.

A.J. Niland: Yep. In addition to better shuttle, better camping, better viewing, that ticket comes with almost free beverages that we're not able to make free because of regulations. We're also offering 5 star on-site dinning. There are also other tricks up our sleeve that we cannot talk about yet. There will also be a lot of amusements and rides available around the site as well.

Tell me about the 2014 Pemberton lineup

A.J. Niland: As Sascha and I can attest, it was a long labour until the final delivery. We had an opportunity to launch a lineup much sooner than we did, but we weren't stoked about it because it was too similar to a lot of the other lineups that we're out there. We wanted to set ourselves apart, so we took the extra time much to the public's chagrin to really put forward what we thought would be a much better experience and will ultimately pay off. I think we achieved that. The competition with other festivals in the region was tough, but ultimately we're incredibly proud of what we put out.

Sascha: It was easy, I don't know what he's talking about. (Laughs) Nah, I think it was difficult. A.J is a humble dude but to come from the tremendous success he's had producer in other markets and come to Western Canada with no experience in the marketplace was difficult. As a promoter, whenever you go in somewhere, there are a multitude of artists, agents, and managers to consider before going with a promoter.

The lineup at Pemberton speaks to the willingness to believe in the vision that we passionately portrayed to people. It was not easy in the beginning and for better or for worse and we had to overcome a bit of Pemberton's past. A.J gave me a lot of leeway in what I felt would resonate with the demographic that was described to me. We did our best to stand by what we feel is tasteful as curators and to appeal what exists locally. We did our best showcase hip hop influenced dance music to even acts like Tritonal. We tried to bring a multitude of dance music from all over the map and I think we did a good job there.

"...We wanted to provide quality from top to bottom and stick by guys that we think will be big in the future." 

What was the general philosophy behind forming the electronic dance music lineup choices for Pemberton?

Sascha: When looking at different festivals you see a lot of meat up top and then it gets really really skinny when it gets down low. Even with the smaller guys that are coming up like Kaytranada and XXYYXX, we wanted to provide quality from top to bottom and stick by guys that we think will be big in the future. Whether they're at the top of the lineup or at the bottom, all of these guys are going to make their way up festival lineups for the rest of their touring careers. In terms of philosophy, it was to do avoid doing too much of the same thing. We wanted the lineup to be very diverse and appeal to a multitude of sounds. You have to understand that there are 25 year olds out there that listen to Tyler the Creator, also listen to Frank Ocean, who also listens to Deadmau5. So we're appealing to these consumers by giving them acts from a multitude of genres in dance music and outside of it.

A.J. Niland: Our weekend coincides with Tomorrowland which created an even bigger challenge because that is a gravitational pull to Europe that is very very difficult to overcome, especially in the EDM space. So it was an even bigger challenge to program EDM on this event than say at another startup because of the competition.

Is the lineup finalized? Can we expect more EDM bookings for Pemberton?

Sascha: We have one more slot for, who is an up and coming dance act, and that's it.

Is it becoming harder for a talent buyer to book EDM acts in the past year considering the boom in EDM globally? Have you noticed DJ fees going up dramatically?

Sascha: Absolutely. I don't think it's only dance music, I also see it in hip hop music. All of the festivals happening in a short time period is also contributing to the rising of the fees. Las Vegas and festivals are the two things that are contributing the most to this inflation of DJ fees. Both are because of the ancillary forms of revenue, whether that being sponsorships, etc. For us we wanted to focus on dance acts that really have the ability to sell hard tickets. There are dance DJs out there that only do soft ticket, that only go into clubs with club nights with guaranteed draws no matter what. From top to bottom in this festival, we have guys who have gone out there to tour and have sold out rooms by themselves. That demonstrates that these guys have real fan bases and we took hard ticket histories into account.

What's your view on the current state of major festivals in North America? Canada?

A.J. Niland: I think there's still a lot of growth festival wise in Canada. I think it's a less saturated market than the U.S. I think there is still a little bit of growth left in the U.S. I think it's going to boil to who can hone in the experience. Jazzfest in New Orleans is very different than Lollapalooza, which is way different than Coachella, which is way different than Bonnaroo. I think festivals are becoming a little bit more mainstream and popular. I think the stuff we're doing with the VIP experience at Pemberton is opening it up to a wider demographic. We want to see the younger guys hanging out in the GA and VIP, while older guys who want to stay in the scene can take advantage of the super VIP packages. It's definitely tough from a competition standpoint but as long as there's enough talent going around, as long as their fees don't get too high, festivals are going to keep on trucking on for a little bit longer.

Is the current consolidation in the festival market with Live Nation/Insomniac and SFX good or bad for an organization like Huka Entertainment?

A.J. Niland: We've been a part of that consolidation, and we've also not been part of that consolidation so we sort of a first hand account. I think the consolidation side in the EDM space is contributing to a lot of the big growth. I think it's a great thing for the fans to see this drive towards more production at festivals. How long that lasts I'm not sure. It also sort of deteriorates and evens itself. It's no different than the previous bill roll up in the entertainment industry, where it had its positive effects and negative effects. I think the festival world as a whole as yet seen a major consolidation. Right now the hive is happening in EDM.

"All of our eggs in the Canadian basket are in Pemberton"

Following Pemberton, does Huka Entertainment have any future Canadian plans?

A.J. Niland: Not at this time. All of our eggs in the Canadian basket are in Pemberton. Our goal is not a modest one, it's pretty lofty. We're trying to create an experience that has never been seen in Canada. We're working really really hard to make the experience over the top. Some of that we cannot even market in advance as people are just going to have to believe it and see it on site. It's going to take all of our effort and attention to achieve that in Pemberton.

Why should fans go to Pemberton this year?

A.J. Niland: Because even if it wasn't a festival, it would still be an amazing place to be. If you throw a festival on top of a setting like that, it's one of a kind. There aren't too many one of a kind things that exist anymore, especially in the festival and music space. The lineup is top notch, the experience is going to be over the top, the weather is gorgeous, the surroundings are amazing. You can't create that, you can't buy mountains or climate. Pemberton is intent on being the best camping festival that Canada has, and why not experience that.

My thanks to A.J Niland and Sascha Guttfreund for the interview! 

If you'd like to know more about the Pemberton Music Festival, click below to check out my feature as part of The Great EDM Summer Festival Guide 2014