Photo |  Hangout Music Festival

Thousands of people are expected to head to Gulf Shores next month for the Hangout Music Festival, featuring Kendrick Lamar, The Killers, The Chainsmokers and more.   

On May 18-20, The Hangout Music Festival will bring a multitude of music enthusiasts to Gulf Shores for a three-day event that could be considered the world’s largest beach party. The ninth installment of this annual event will include scores of bright, up-and-coming musical acts such as The Glorious Sons, Dena Amy and Etana, along with big-name headliners, including Kendrick Lamar, SZA and The Killers.

While the masses prepare to take in surf, sun and music over the weekend, a team of organizers, including festival director Sean O’Connell, have spent months preparing a glorious experience for attendees. Lagniappe hooked up with O’Connell to get a behind-the-scenes look into Hangout Fest, as well as a preview of what this year’s festival will bring to Gulf Shores.

Stephen Centanni: How would you describe the Hangout Music Festival to someone who has never been?

Sean O’Connell: For me, the exciting thing about Hangout is that we curate an amazing lineup of talent that comes in from all over the world. We have so many stages of music.

The other part is that the focus for my whole team is always about the experience. When you walk through those gates, you’re on a beach vacation. Everything else happening in the world will completely disappear. You’re so happy to be with people from all over the world. At every turn, you’re going to find surprises and activities that you didn’t know exist. You’re going to discover great bands and make new friends, all on this incredible beach site that has so much to offer. That’s Hangout.

If you’ve gone to any other festivals, the thing that makes Hangout so special is that it’s really an easy festival. It’s not easy to do that as a producer, but that’s what we’re focused on. You don’t have to worry about anything. It’s three days of nonstop smiles, music and fun.

Centanni: How does it feel to be entering the ninth year?

O’Connell: It’s great. We’ve accomplished a lot. We focus on always reinventing this event and refreshing it and making it better. People are going to see a lot of changes for the good this year. We’re adding a lot of new things that you’ve never seen before. We’ve made a lot of changes to the layout. It’ll feel more wide open. It’ll be easier to walk places, and (have) more food choices and more stages and a lot of new experiences, featuring everything from psychedelic art projects and a roller disco and these beach club pop-up DJ experiences. We’ve got a new reggae stage called the Sunset Stage. We’re really excited to learn from each year, listen to our fans and make it better.

Centanni: When do you start planning for the next festival?

O’Connell: In many ways, we’ve already started planning for 2019. We started that process, but it is a year-round process. Pretty quickly, we look at what worked and what we want to improve on for next year. We’re always talking to partners who want to create new experiences. We’re always dreaming up things. A lot of that is inspired by the fans. There’s a constant dialogue with the fans throughout the year. The talent starts getting booked while we’re at the festival.

Centanni: What goes into selecting the artists?

O’Connell: This is my fifth year choosing the talent. I don’t have a formula, to be honest. I want to program music that’s incredibly meaningful and in the moment and incredible live. You look at an artist like Tash Sultana, who is coming from Australia, one of the best performers out there. The fact that she will be on one of our stages is so exciting. Then, we look back last summer and look far out and say, “We believe that acts like NF and AJR and Greta Van Fleet are really going to be bands that have really big moments.” That certainly goes into it. Obviously, we face a lot of challenges as far as where our artists are in the country during Hangout Festival or whether they’re touring at the time. Sometimes, artists aren’t available because they’re not on an album cycle or on tour.

We always have a wish list that starts with what I want on it. Then it evolves and become very exciting as it comes together. Then you’ll hear a record like St. Vincent put out. It just felt important that she be on this time. With other things like our Sunset Stage, we felt that reggae should be represented. That’s been in the works for a long time.

There is a balance to it. We do take great effort to make sure that at any one time, if you’re not a hip-hop fan, then there’s great rock acts playing. If you’re not an electronic fan, then you have alternative. There’s always three flows, if you will, of music that’s going on at any one time. Your day is full. If you don’t know every band, that’s okay. What we hear from our fans is that people get really turned on to a lot of new stuff that they didn’t know. That’ll be true this year. I think this is the deepest lineup that we’ve ever had.

Centanni: What’s your advice for first-timers?

O’Connell: You’ve gotta get a shuttle ticket. Shuttle passes sell out every year, and they’ll sell out soon. There’s not a lot of parking down there. The shuttles work, and they’re amazing. We spend a lot of money and resources to bring in hundreds of buses. They come from area buses and condos. If you’re coming from Mobile, there’s a parking lot on (Highway) 59. You depart almost right at the gate. That’s important. If you get there early, the lines are easy to get through. We’ll be publishing the schedule shortly so people can start plotting out their times. We have free water stations all through the festivals. You can bring a water bottle in and keep hydrated. We want to make sure that everybody takes care of that. Bring some sunscreen.

Probably more than anything else, find out what’s happening on the beach. I think that’s what people have been discovering. Out on the beach, we have incredible art projects. We have a wedding chapel where you can get married, for real or for pretend. The marriage license is only good for three days or until something better comes along. With that said, I think we average 15 to 20 real marriages a year.

There are two beach clubs where you can hear DJs and get in the water. We have a Camp Hangout which is bringing summer camp back to life with Slip ‘N Slides and dodgeball and squirt gun wars. It’s so much fun, and we end the night with a big bonfire where we’re cooking up s’mores. The Malibu Beach House has an amazing roster of DJs in this beautiful circus tent. So, there’s a lot happening there, and that stuff has gotten more popular. What makes Hangout unique is what’s happening near the water.