[caption id="attachment_75550" align="alignnone" width="640"] The sign for the inaugural Hangout Music Festival in 2010, just weeks after the BP oil spill. Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images[/caption]
The truth about the music community in the Alabama beach town of Gulf Shores is that, until the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2009 happened, it didn't really exist. That's something that the people of the town –- whose main industry has always been tourism –- are keenly, perhaps bittersweetly, aware of.
“I don’t know what our music world would look like if we didn’t have the spill,” says Brad Cohen, director of operations at The Hangout, the Gulf Shores music venue that, during tourist season, features music on two stages, seven nights a week. That calendar features talent from across the Gulf Coast –- from Pensacola to New Orleans, according to Cohen –- but the real standout is the three-day Hangout Music Festival, which, now in its fourth year, competes with national fests like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. (This year’s lineup includes performances by Stevie Wonder, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, the Shins, and more.)
The inaugural Hangout Festival occurred less than a month after the explosion at Deepwater Horizon. Booked months in advance, the show went on as planned with headliners including the Zac Brown Band and John Legend. And, according to Cohen, the people of Gulf Shores quickly realized that music was a great way to let people know that their vacation getaway wasn’t coated in oil. The Southern community partnered with CMT to bring a free concert to the beach – anchored by Jimmy Buffett, Brad Paisley and Bon Jovi – to draw attention to how clean their beaches remained.
“The timing of the oil spill was that it was right before tourist season, and it definitely impacted things,” Cohen says. The impact of the spill on Gulf Shores was as much economic as environmental –- people had heard that the Gulf Coast had been destroyed, but weren’t as aware of the effectiveness of the cleanup. “The first thing we did after the oil spill was have a concert on the coast to let people know that what they saw on the news didn't necessarily reflect what was going on -- specifically on the beaches,” he says. “From our standpoint, the recovery was a recovery in the eyes of the nation.”
That recovery has been successful as well. The numbers on who’s coming to Gulf Shores and its neighboring town, Orange Beach, are up dramatically since the spill. In 2012, the visitors in the area in May were up over 50% from the pre-spill high. And Kim Chapman, public relations manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, attributes much of that to music.
“We've used music as one of the avenues to encourage guests to return since the oil spill,” Chapman says. “Once the guests came and were able to see the true state of our beaches, they shared that with their families and friends.”
These days, music remains an important part of the culture of these gulf towns. A quick glance at the calendar of events for the area will show four different options for live music even on a random Wednesday night in late May. The slate of concerts this summer at the 10,000 seat Wharf Amphitheatre in Orange Beach features mainstream country acts like Lady Antebellum, Alabama, Brad Paisley. There’s music in the off-season, too – every November features the long-running Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival, and The Hangout books acoustic acts year-round.
“I think we’re a very music-rich area,” Chapman says. “Partly because it’s a way to express ourselves. Our constant love of music is continually developed here, and a way for people to connect with the visitors.”
It’s also brought those visitors to the area earlier and earlier than ever -- a significant thing for a beach community that just three years ago had product from the Deepwater Horizon spill washing up on its shores. That’s something that Chapman attributes directly to the Hangout Festival and its growth.
“I’ve watched both the footprint and musical lineup grow each year,” she says. “It has been wonderful to watch what it has done for the area. Our summer season was traditionally thought to begin with Memorial Day weekend. Now, it’s two weeks earlier. That’s just terrific.”