The Man Behind the Lineup: Suwannee Hulaween

Photos by Don Idio

It’s just about that time of year again. In just four short weeks, many of us will be on our way to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for yet another Suwannee Hulaween. To say I’m excited is an understatement. Hulaween is by far my all time favorite music festival, and it has held that title for four years strong. With a tough start to the year for the HulaFam, I know many of us are extremely grateful for the Hulaween team pulling this year off. To find out a little bit more about all of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to create that Suwannee magic, I had the honor of talking with Michael Berg, co-founder and co-talent buyer of Hulaween.

Festival Squad: It’s no secret that there was a ton of concern at the beginning of the year as to whether Suwannee Hulaween was happening or not. I, personally, was checking the Hulaween Facebook group like a crazy person at least twice a day in hopes for an update. I remember the day the Silver Wrapper news came out, and I caught a comment from you under the statement on Facebook saying, “Hula is happening. Mark it.” I’m sure that comment was not only a relief for all of us fans, but for you as well. With everything that happened since last October, can you tell me what was the hardest challenge of it all? As the talent buyer, did you have to approach your job a little differently this time around? If so, how?

Michael Berg: It’s no secret we had a tumultuous past eleven months coming out of last year’s event and heading into this next one. We are thrilled to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and while some things are still being cleaned up and fine tuned from the past, things feel on track for the future as best as they could. At times, with change comes frustration and anxiety/anticipation for what the future holds. At others times, lots of good comes from change, and doing a deep scrub of what can be different or better is never a bad thing. The hardest challenge has been losing some of our team and the learning curve that came with doing things with the new ones. It’s interesting because a lot of the team is still there but some key players are now off doing new things. There is a familiarity but a newness that is exciting and at times, has yes, been challenging. As talent buyers this year (along w/ Paul Levine & Marshall Lowe), we took the same approach the event historically has. We booked a line up with in our budgetary means, that we felt best appealed to the core Hula fanbase, and importantly was a concert event/festival that we as music fans (which we truly are) would want to attend ourselves.

FS: Putting all of that behind, I know I speak for thousands when I say, I am over the moon that Suwannee Hulaween is still happening. Any changes to the festival we should expect or new additions we can look forward to?

MB: The festival really should not feel different to the patrons this year. Fans can expect the same camping set up and 5 stages: The Meadow, The Amphitheater, The Patch, Spirit Lake, & Campground. The immersive art experience we refer to as Spirit Lake will be back in full swing as well, and open all night with the silent disco for dance vibes & a bluegrass picking party for the jammier fans. One change we did make was pushing gates and starting music a bit later this time around so people could spend more time, hanging with their #HulaCrew at their campsites, or exploring the breathtaking nature at our beautiful home, The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park. 

FS: So when it comes to booking talent, what are the beginning steps in the process? Do you start by browsing the artists that are currently touring, or? And how far in advance do you start the talent buying process?

MB: The talent line up comes together based on the best balance of who is available and what works with our budget. We obsess over this as event producers & talent buyer/curators and talk about it daily. There are already some acts holding or targeting to perform at the fest in 2020. We like to appeal to the core fanbase of a jam band & electronic music event with some hip-hop & indie options (hopefully gracefully) mixed in.

FS: What is the most challenging part of your job? What is the best/most rewarding part of your job?

MB: One of the most challenging parts of the job is trying to keep everyone happy, which we all know is impossible. Hula fans are honestly savages online, but we don’t take offense to it, rather feel grateful that the work we do has a group of people that care so deeply about the experience and culture surrounding it that they have strong opinions. It beats the alternative of no one caring, I promise. While people don’t always understand the intricacies happening behind closed doors, we at times find it funny reading what the rumor mill has spun up that week. The most rewarding part by far is looking out over the Meadow for a headliner’s set, and seeing 20,000+ smiling, dancing fans all having the time of their life. The same is walking around Spirit Lake and listening to people talk about how their minds are being blown watching 3D holograms floating on a lake in front of them; or taking in any of the experiential elements of the art or environment. Our desire is that people’s time spent at Hulaween leaves them inspired, after making the effort to be there with us. If we do/did one thing successful it’s create an escape from the daily bullshit happening in the world right now, even if it’s only for 3-4 short days. If the community can take that experience, energy, or the lessons & growth away with them back into their personal lives after, then we are at least contributing toward culturally making this world a better place. When we hear or read stories that reflect examples like that, which happens fairly often, it is incredibly rewarding.

FS: Which headliner are you most excited for? What are some of the undercard acts that you’re really looking forward to seeing?

MB: We don’t like to play favorites, and this is of course is very subjective, but off the top of my head some of the acts I am excited for this year include Anderson .Paak, Tchami, Marc Rebillet, Tom Morello, CloZee, Flying Lotus, Manic Focus, Karina Rykman, Greensky Bluegrass, Thundercat, Tycho, CharlestheFirst & Holly Woods. The list could honestly go on and on as we love the whole line up, and hope it offers something for everyone. I’m certain I just forgot something I would have wanted to include.

FS: This year’s theme is the 90s. If you could picture the PERFECT costume(s) that went along with the theme. What would that look like?

MB: This is a tough one for me because I was a 90’s kid who graduated high school in 1996. So while it’s a killer trip down memory lane, I can’t really think of a perfect costume that encapsulates that time frame for myself. With a squad to dress up with, I guess being the Chicago Bulls Dynasty from that era would be pretty dope. (I call Jordan the Jersey!)

FS: I will never forget the first time I ever stepped into Spirit Lake. I was 18 years old. Since then, any time someone asks me what’s my favorite festival, it’s Hulaween. No hesitation and no question about it. It’s just about the most inspiring place. I always say it makes me want to become a better person to others, to the earth, and to myself. I dream about that place all year long, and it still feels like a dream when I’m there. Every Sunday night of the festival, as I walk out of Spirit Lake for the last time I always like to take one last glimpse of it all and take a deep breath in. It’s like my little way of taking that magic with me. I’ve truly never experienced something like this festival, and I’ve never felt so passionate about something before. It’s almost silly how much I love it. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Why? What would you say makes Hulaween so damn special?

MB: Well first of all, thank you for the kind words and for being such a huge part of the #HulaFam, it ain’t a party with out the people. There is a combo of three things that make Hula what it is. 1. The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is home. It’s gorgeous and since the first time I stepped foot on the grounds and saw the Spanish Moss draped Live Oak trees, when Paul Levine booked my old band Van Ghost to play a Bear Creek Fest, I knew that place was special, and time has only proven that to be true. 2. The music line up. While it might not be the most mainstream, or for “everyone”… for the people that it is for, it’s hopefully right on time and exactly what the doctor ordered each year. 3. The Art of Spirit Lake. Our art director Andy Carroll has spent 7 years now curating a unique experience, the same we we do as musical talent buyers, that will leave people wanting to be more creative and test the limits of their dreams & potential after spending a few days in those art drenched, glowing woods.

FS: If you could describe Suwannee Hulaween to someone who has never attended in just three words, what would they be?

MB: Music, Art & Nature. (if I could add a 4th word, it would be: community)

FS: This is more of a request than a question, but can we PLEASE consider Tame Impala, Glass Animals, STRFKR, or MGMT one year?

MB: We have tried to have some of those acts in the past, and unfortunately, it has just never panned out to happen. You never know what might pop up in a future year but your head is in the right place as we agree any of those acts would be killer additions to the musical part of the #HulaFam.

FS: Last, but not least. Is Hulaween even happening? *Facebook group jokes*

MB: LOL, can’t wait to see you in a month Alyssa! xo

If you haven’t yet, purchase your tickets here. I promise, you’re not going to want to miss out on this one. 

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