In just a couple of years Pemberton Music Festival has gone from cheeky upstart to this summer's premier mega-concert event in British Columbia, but that doesn’t have organizers at New Orleans-based Huka Entertainment gloating.
Instead when reached in the Big Easy, Huka cofounder A.J. Niland is gracious about Pemberton forging ahead in a year Live Nation pulled the plug on its high-profile Squamish Valley Music Festival.
“The festival marketplace has taken a hit with a lot of cancellations,” Niland says. “It’s not really good. People sort of categorize us as competitors, and oftentimes we are competitive with one another and have been in the past. But it’s not great in the festival market for any festival to get cancelled. That’s not something that we root for.”
Niland acknowledges Huka had challenges putting together the 2016 edition of Pemberton Music Festival, which will take place in Pemberton July 14-17 with a lineup including headliners Pearl Jam, the Killers, and J. Cole. One of the biggest problems is the Canadian dollar has taken a beating the past year, not a good thing when many acts are paid in American greenbacks.
“I can definitely tell you that I’ve never watched the currency as closely as I have the past couple of years—I’ve been rooting for the Canadian dollar,” Niland says. “That definitely has made things more challenging. A lot of the expenses are in U.S. dollars, and the revenue you’re taking in is in Canadian dollars. Essentially the difference comes out of profits.”
That hasn’t been the only hurdle.
“The festival market worldwide took a hit this summer,” Niland notes. “There’s been a record number of cancellations. A lot of pundits and industry insiders over the past couple of years have been talking about the festival bubble and when things would come to an end. I think we’re starting to see that take place now, and the dollar being down has exacerbated things a bit.”
The number of festivals still taking place around the world, meanwhile, means fierce competition for artists. Niland says Huka pursued Pearl Jam for three years before landing the band for Pemberton 2016.
“There’s only so much talent, and that talent can only travel so far between dates,” he states. “The biggest factor is the lack of talent to go around. Our biggest challenge for booking Pemberton is European festivals. July is European festival month, so for acts based in North America they tend to want to hit that flood of festivals all at once.”
Both the Squamish Valley Music Festival and Pemberton Music Festival have competed for fans and talent the past three years. (For the Straight's take on the rivalry, click here.) The arrival of Huka into the market no doubt rankled powerbrokers at Live Nation, which had staged a popular but troubled three-day festival in Pemberton in 2008.
Asked about the cheekiness of setting up on the site that Live Nation abandoned, Niland laughs and then jokes with “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
He then goes on to say that careful planning helped Huka to avoid the traffic, dust, and sanitation problems that plagued Live Nation’s 2008 concert on the site.
What Niland finds incredible was that he stumbled on the Pemberton site not even knowing it had hosted a previous festival.
“My journey to Pemberton really started with Pearl Jam,” he says. “I was looking for a place to pitch them a festival site in the Pacific Northwest. I’d been looking in Washington and Idaho and a friend of mine tipped me off to the site of Pemberton. I unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—was unaware of the 2008 event at that time. This was late 2011, early 2012, and I made a visit. I’d been to Vancouver quite a few times, but had never been to the North Shore or West Vancouver, let alone up the Sea to Sky highway. That first trip up the corridor [to Pemberton] I was just blown away by how beautiful it was.”
Fast forward to 2016, and Pemberton Music Festival is not only established, but praised for having one of the most beautiful settings in the world. Understandably, Niland is thrilled with this year’s lineup, where the undercard includes genuine hip-hop legends (Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube), street-cool up-and-comers (FKA Twigs, Coleman Hell), cherished heritage acts (Billy Idol, and EDM giants (Kaskade, Bassnectar).
And as stoked as he is, he’s not going to gloat about Squamish folding its tent. Instead, in some ways it seems like he’s going to miss the competition.
“I hope this isn’t an insensitive politically incorrect analogy,” Niland says, “but you wanna be picked up at the bar because you’re the best looking girl. Not because you’re the last. From that aspect, it’s sort of bittersweet. It hopefully means a little more growth for us than we were expecting this year, but it’s still to be seen whether this [the cancellation of Squamish] will have a positive impact.”