Hanging Tough


Five years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill threatened the future of Alabama’s coastal communities as gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, killing wildlife, dirtying the turquoise waters, staining the white-sand beaches and tainting seafood harvests. Today, the area has bounced back from the disaster: the beaches are clean, the seafood is safe and tourists have come back. But the immediate aftermath damaged the environment and the local economy, and at the time, predictions for the long-lasting effects were dire. Yet, just a few weeks after the spill, the first Hangout Music Fest took place in Gulf Shores, and what could have been a blip on the area’s event scene turned into a saving grace. 

Now, in its sixth year, the Hangout Fest is bigger and better than ever and on May 15-17, will pack the beaches in Gulf Shores with crowds of up to 40,000 music fans of all ages. We talked with festival director Sean O’Connell about the uncertainties of that first event and how the Hangout Fest played an important part in keeping spirits up and promoting the area’s positives amid all the bad news.

LEAN: Why did you choose Gulf Shores in the first place?
The beautiful beaches and the friendly atmosphere. Music festivals are about more than the music; they’re about the experience, and the Alabama’s beaches and its people create a really special one.

LEAN: When you heard about the oil spill, what was your reaction?
It really didn’t impact us that much since the event was so soon after the spill, but the festival being there became a narrative that national media covering the spill latched onto. We all kept hearing this doom and gloom, but the Fest was a bright spot. And the bands that came that year, they really formed a connection with the community, and we all made an effort to push out the message, “You guys gotta come here, and/or you gotta come back here!” I hope it helped get the word out that while the spill was an awful tragedy, it wasn’t the end for the area.

LEAN: How has the festival grown?
It has gotten bigger; we’ve sold out every year since 2011. But we want it to stay smaller than some events out there. We like, and the folks that come like, the more intimate atmosphere.

LEAN: Why have you kept the event in Gulf Shores?
It’s just such a special area. There’s no place like it. And the way everyone has rebounded from the spill has been amazing to watch. I hope that the Hangout Fest has been a part of that. I think we really introduced a lot of people to the area, so I hope we’ve helped it bounce back and thrive.

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