What started as The String Cheese Incident’s freaky Halloween party has not so quietly turned into the Suwannee Hulaween festival in Northern Florida, a picturesque destination event attracting 20,000-strong daily crowds and top artists.
Chris Monaghan – Suwannee Hulaween
“Right when I walked into that place the first time, I was awestruck by its beauty,” Berg told Pollstar, describing a lush biome with 800 acres of Spanish moss-draped oak and cypress along the black water Suwannee River. “It’s one of those crazy full-circle things, this many years later, and so meaningful to be part of.”
Suwannee Hulaween, now in its fifth year, is on pace to sell out its 20,000 tickets per day in advance, which would be a record.
“This is crazy, but it’s all three-dayf passes right now. We’ve had single-day passes in the past, but we only sold them on-site at the gate,” Berg said, quickly adding that he didn’t want to jinx it.
Colorado-based jam band The String Cheese Incident put on “Hulaween” parties every year in various venues and states, but it was almost always a club or theatre show.
Suwannee Hulaween partner Paul Levine, owner of Purple Hat Productions, booked String Cheese going way back and wanted to do a show at Suwannee Park. He knew Berg from his days in Van Ghost and had booked them to play there before.
“So Paul brought us in to partner, and we turned it into a three-year deal with [String Cheese] where on the third year, Halloween would fall on the Saturday,” Berg said. “We all kind of figured if it wasn’t working out, we could move on by then.”
That wasn’t necessary.
“We really got put on the map and made a massive jump in year three,” Berg said. “We had 8,000 tickets sold in year two and 18,000 in the third.
“The goal was always to grow it into something bigger and better,” Berg added. “We are completely independent at Silver Wrapper. Part of the charm of what we do is it’s our own ass on the line and our money.
“There’s a different level of integrity and urgency to doing things right. We didn’t want to get too big or get in over our heads, we wanted to grow it organically, and that’s exactly what it’s done. It’s turned into sort of the crown jewel of our events at Silver Wrapper.”
Based in Chicago, Silver Wrapper also does the city’s North Coast Music Festival. While plenty of events have sprung up in the Southeast U.S. in recent years, like the Shaky brand of festivals in Atlanta and Okeechobee a bit farther south in Florida, it’s nothing like the market saturation as seen in Chicago.
“Chicago is literally congested with festivals,” Berg said. “There’s all the dance music, plus Lolla, Pitchfork, Riot Fest. In Chicago for North Coast, we go for who we want. But if Lolla sends an offer for an artist, well, they’re going to play Lolla,” Berg said. “That’s the premier event to play in that region. With Hulaween we have a little more leniency to creatively control the lineup,” Berg said.
Also making things easier is having good relationships with the other festivals in the market.
“Michael and I have been great friends for years and have always helped each other in any way we could,” Okeechobee talent buyer Ben Baruch at 11E1even Group told Pollstar. “I think I speak for both of us when I say we see these as very different events that are unique in their own ways. On top of that, they are far enough apart that we don’t really see conflicts on a major level.”
Patrick Hughes – Suwannee Hulaween
But being in the Southeast still helps.
“Chicago has turned into a single-day market,” Berg said. “When there’s so many festivals, fans want to go to everything. They can’t afford three-day passes or have the time to spend at all three days of literally every event. So they pick one day they like the most and go home after.”
Meanwhile, Hulaween is a camping event, about 90 minutes from Tallahassee and Jacksonville, with the park offering comforts including a general store, full-service restaurant, showers, indoor bathrooms and water stations.
Hulaween’s lineup hasn’t strayed from its jam-band roots, but as it grows it has aimed for a more diverse roster, with additions this year such as hip-hop artists Run The Jewels and Vince Staples to go along with EDM and electronic-leaning acts like Bassnectar and RL Grime.
While not curating or booking the lineup, String Cheese Incident is referred to as the “host band” for the weekend and will request artists for the bill, which Berg and his team, including partner Leif Moravy from Silver Wrapper, are happy to try to fit in.
As the lineup and crowd has grown, Hulaween has likewise grown logistically and beefed up already major attractions.
“There’s going to be an expansion of the art presence this year for sure,” Berg said of the “Spirit Lake” attraction, which is already known for Burning Man-esque art installations, light shows and performance art that make the site resemble a dream sequence.
“We definitely put aside some extra reserves as far as budget this year to really go over the top with that element. There’s a large argument to be made that one of our headliners is the park itself and that art installation at Spirit Lake.
“We also moved one of the stages for better foot traffic. We added a new stage called ‘The Patch,’ the one that is getting moved this year, to alleviate pressure on the amphitheatre.”
Now, when the main stage lets out, there will be two equivalent-size stages so fans can choose to see an artist of their genre of choice – “Something where clearly you’re going one way or the other depending on what type of music you’re a fan of,” Berg said. “So that really helps the ingress and the egress for a show with that many people, and kind of splits the crowd in half.”
“There’s just been a lot of thought put into the logistics of the fan experience,” Berg said, adding that personally checking social media and email complaints can keep you up at night but also helps address legitimate issues.
“We also have the Thursday pre-party, which is on site, and there’s going to be 10,000-plus people at the party,” Berg said. “The pre-party is basically just four of the five stages. In layman’s it’s a fourth day of the festival that people don’t have to pay for if they don’t want.
“But it really helps on Friday when half of the festival attendees have already arrived at the site early,” allowing a more leisurely, laid-back environment for fans to set up camp and prepare for the rest of the weekend.
But while the things the fans notice may grow and evolve, some things behind the scenes never change.
Dave Vann – Suwannee Hulaween
“Lineup billing is literally the absolute nightmare of festival booking,” Berg acknowledged. “Not even scheduling. Just the billing.” Berg says it can be a delicate balancing act, but he refuses to list acts alphabetically on posters or marketing materials as it “feels lazy and doesn’t present the information in the best light possible.”
But, as with any part of business, “You have to pick and choose your battles wisely. Don’t fight unless there’s a reason to fight, but if you need to fight, hold the fucking line.”