Founded in June 2020, Thunder Beats will be the biggest EDM festival to be held on the Gulf Coast — and it’s coming up April 22-24 in Pensacola, Florida (USA). After making the official announcement earlier this year, the buzz has been moving and their team has been working around the clock to make the inaugural event a success and continue annually. We had the chance to chat with VP of Operations Cameron Hardison about his background and team, talent booking, production, fan experience, and the challenges of launching a new festival.
Thunder Beats was founded in 2020, so is this year the first time it’s being executed?
■ Yes, this is inaugural. The people putting it on all have a background in events, but this is the first time we’ve done an event together.
What’s your background?
■ I’ve been working in clubs since I was about 16. I began DJ’ing my freshman year of college and I started doing events behind other promoters. About four years ago, I started my own business doing events like this and it kind of took off from there for me. I’ve worked along the way with a lot of bigger people and sat back and watched everything, and when the time arose I realized it was time for me to do my own things now.
Was this all in Florida?
■ Yes the Panhandle, Pensacola. I actually worked on the beach for 10+ years at one of the largest nightclubs that recently closed — it was the largest nightclub in Pensacola and probably on the Panhandle — it was massive and had everything from EDM to country. EDM is my niche and what my passion is for.
Can you tell me how you and the others decided to start a festival?
■ There are two other investors and they’ve done various businesses. Both are actually more into country and I’m more into EDM. I’ve done events here that are very successful and noticed there’s nothing in this area for what we’re doing, and I brought that to the attention of the people I’m working with and said, “look what’s here in front of you that nobody’s doing that we can do.” We have other festivals around us but we don’t have an all EDM festival in the Panhandle, in this caliber at least. I showed them different events and scales I’ve done and showed them possibilities of what can happen if we do an all EDM festival. Once they looked over everything and we talked, they were all for it.
When did you realize events are something you could be successful with?
■ In 2017 or 2018 I took an event space that holds like 5,000 people — I didn’t think I was going to get that many people but I ended up selling out my first event within 45 minutes. It’s my company called Electrik Lights. I got to the point where I moved into a venue downtown where I do monthly events. I kept showing [the investors] different infrastructures of events I’ve done and possibilities of events that have been here and how successful big events have been. There’s a concert hall here and every EDM-style event has pretty much sold out.
Were events happening in Florida at the time the idea for Thunder Beats came together in 2020?
■ The only things here were drive-in shows because of Covid. Covid killed festivals and after the first successful festival happened, [the team] was all for it. People were itching for this.
What does the team look like? What do you do?
■ I’m the VP of Operations for the company. Obviously, we have a CEO and co-CFO which are the two other investors, but I’m the one basically overseeing a lot of things. We brought on a team, ADPTV, to run the entire festival which is a really good company. They have a background in music festivals stronger than anybody I’ve ever looked at. They brought on a festival director who has helped Ultra for years. Their entire team is flawless — they’ve worked on Insomniac events for 10+ years. One of the owners of the company is actually the Chainsmokers’ production manager. We saw what the team brought to the table; the festival director himself, his reputation is insane. If you’re one of the festival directors that helped with Ultra, that speaks for itself — Ultra is one of the most worldwide known festivals.
Who handles the artist bookings?
■ The two others are not familiar with EDM and when we sat down, they asked what my dream festival would be. I gave them a list and started showing them who they were and they said, “wow this is no joke,” so we brought on a guy named Jace Cohen to do the talent buying for us; he has worked with some of the biggest in the game. When we talked to him, he saw our vision and was all for helping us and he got Marshmello and everybody. We also brought on more of a local/regional guy named Eddie Gold — who DJs and does a lot of events — to handle regional/local artists. Obviously, festivals are all about the big names but it’s a lot of the smaller names too that really give you a good show.
Is there anyone on the lineup you’re particularly excited about?
■ I’m stoked for RL Grime and Zomboy — they’re my two favorites. I saw Zomboy this past year at Forbidden Kingdom and have seen him live quite a few times. I wanted to get something like that on the festival and we got him.
What were you looking for when selecting artists for the local/regional stage?
■ We want to see their presence on social media and their music, but we asked every single artist a big question: why do you want to play Thunder Beats? And how they answered that question was a big thing for us. I don’t want someone who just wants to play another festival, I want someone who has the same exact passion I do for an event or for the music because that’s the type of person who is going to go above and beyond to make the experience that much more amazing for their guests who are here to see them play. We want people from different regions and we booked artists from Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, South Tampa — we booked all around the region and every single person we booked really wanted to give their fans a great experience and show how passionate they are about music and that’s big for us.
Are you playing?
■ I will be playing with my best friend as the duo SilentKnight. We actually do a lot of local/regional stuff. It was a new project I wanted to start — with me understanding how events work, and a friend who is a music producer/DJ and really good at what he does, I really wanted to make him excel to the next level so we started a duo together and it took off really quickly. We’re constantly making music and it’s a lot of fun. It’s that one little thing when I’m doing all this festival stuff that I can take a step back and enjoy.
It’s great to be able to have something on the side that’s still relevant to the big thing.
■ This is my passion. I get excited talking about it. I love EDM, it’s just nothing compared to anything else to me. Going to events — not just big festivals — where everybody is just loving everybody and it’s awesome to have a feeling like that. The feeling is out of this world when you’re the one behind the decks playing and everybody’s following what you’re doing.
What was the first festival you attended?
■ TomorrowWorld in Georgia in 2013. That was my first festival and that’s what kind of changed my entire perspective of everything. After that, I went to 26 other festivals.
Which has been your favorite and have you taken inspiration from any of them for what you’re doing now?
■ I have not missed one year of EDC Orlando. I’ve been there since they started and watching it grow is insane. It’s my favorite festival to go to. I see ideas there, but that’s a whole different ballgame. They’re top dogs in the business and there’s no competing with them, but our goal is to bring something of that style to the Gulf Coast.
What have been some of the challenges in organizing something of this scale?
■ Getting the artists booked and making sure everything is in line. I’m not just one person. We have a lot of people working for the team and making sure everybody’s doing everything is a bit of a challenge while still living daily life — I still work a regular job on top of doing this and it’s been a juggle for sure.
Has anything come up you didn’t expect, good or bad?
■ When we announced [Thunder Beats], we thought people would realize who we were in about a week or two. In less than 24 hours we had news companies already reaching out to us requesting interviews. We had reached LA in less than 12 hours of announcing our festival. I had friends from all over the industry reaching out asking where this came from. I knew it was going to be really good with our lineup, but it was absolutely bonkers when we officially dropped it how many people were reaching out, how many different avenues of social media caught this and were posting it for us.
When did you announce?
■ Jan 24, 2022. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a process when you book an artist — all the way from artwork/flyer approval, it takes a lot. We have 60+ DJs and you have to make sure every single one of them approves before releasing everything. It’s not just “I booked him today and I can announce tomorrow.” It takes some time.
Is there anything you want the attendees to remember about this event? Are you trying to offer a special experience?
■ We’re going to make the fan experience awesome and we just want everybody to forget about regular day-to-day life from the moment they walk through that gate. The experience is for you to relax and worry about the exact moment you’re in and enjoy it. We’re going to have a lot of fan experience things to interact with.
Can you talk about any of that yet?
■ We’re bringing a lot of production. Deadmau5 is bringing his cube. Marshmello debuted his first-ever stage setup at Lollapalooza and he’s doing it for the second time at our festival, which is massive. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. When I saw it for the first time, I was like, “oh wow that’s gonna shock some people.”
— marshmello (@marshmellomusic) July 31, 2021
So something like this where Marshmello brings his stage setup — is that going to stay up all weekend? How does that work logistically?
■ That is strictly for him to use only. It takes about three days to set his stage up and other DJs will play on his stage, but they won’t get the full production — maybe half the lights, half the lasers. Once he goes on it’s the full production, then we have to take his stage down after he plays and set up for the next day. Another thing we’re doing that a lot of festivals don’t do when they book Marshmello is making it all ages on Friday. We noticed there are a lot of younger kids who are dying to see Marshmello who only get to see him in the Fortnite world. He doesn’t really do shows for younger kids, so we sat down with the team and decided to make Friday all ages as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. He’s all over Fortnite — he’s one of the biggest out there for these kids so we really pushed to make it happen.
And the rest is 18+?
■ Yes, Saturday and Sunday are 18+ as well as afterparties and pre-parties.
Tell me more about the afterparties.
■ Obviously when you go to festivals, you see a lot of pre- and after parties and most of the time you have to Uber to go to afterparty. Personally when I go to festivals, it’s a nightmare trying to leave with Ubers and it takes like an hour just to get to the afterparty. Something we’re focusing on is having the afterparty on-site. It’s a separate ticket but you don’t have to leave the grounds and can go straight into a full-blown warehouse that goes into production for an afterparty. We’re going to have one of the headliners each day play. We’ll also kick off with a pre-party in that same venue. It’s on-site which is awesome so people don’t have to leave.
Will this space also be utilized during the day?
■ It will be the regional/local stage during the day. Our fest goes from 12pm to 11pm, as there’s sound ordinance in Pensacola. The afterparty starts at 11pm and goes to 3am so we’ll do local/regionals from noon until 10pm, and at 10 we’ll stop in there to clean up and do a bit of stage changing and then open the doors up for the afterparty.
Another logistical question. Aside from Marshmello’s stage taking three days to set up, how long will it take to set up the entire site?
■ It will take us about 14 days total from setup to breakdown. We’ll be out there the entire week before, setting up for about five days. Our team is going to be working around the clock that entire week.
That’s a lot, and April 22 is approaching. What are you thinking long-term?
■ For our first year, I think we’re going to do really well as far as production and the fan experience, and we’re looking to grow. We’re not trying to be just one and done. We want this to be every single year and give everyone an event annually on the Gulf Coast to keep coming back to.
I can tell by talking to you how excited you are about this.
■ When I first started, I had so many people tell me it’s a dying scene here and push me down. I just kept myself up and pushing for events and finally found the people who saw the passion I have and they basically took my dream and made it a reality.