In just under four years, Tortuga has gone from obscure upstart music festival to one of the most-talked-about gatherings in South Florida. The reason? Suffice to say pitching its tent on the sands of Fort Lauderdale Beach hasn't hurt. Likewise, neither have the all-star lineups perking ears since the inaugural event. But according to A.J. Niland, chairman and chief experience officer at Huka Entertainment and Tortuga's executive producer, perhaps the festival's biggest success since it first launched in 2013 is in the environmental awareness it's helped foster. Tortuga's not only a cool place to party — it's placed a priority on giving back as well.
"Tortuga was born out of an opportunity brought to us by our partner, Chris Stacey, who was looking to do a conservation-based fundraiser in South Florida with his organization Rock the Ocean," Niland explains. "Rather than a concert or telethon, I came up with the idea to sustain the conservation mission with a music festival. Our expertise was in producing beach festivals, and it seemed like a natural fit for a cause that was specific to South Florida. Following the decision to do a music festival on the beach, I developed the name and the brand, along with designing the site and booking the artists."
If Niland comes across as the brains behind this bash, it's largely because the company he works for, Huka Entertainment, brings considerable know-how when it comes to staging large events. Its big-name connections have also contributed to Tortuga's rapid growth. "Given our experience and our year-round concert business, the trust and relationships were in place," Niland says. "We started with Kenny Chesney, who our team has known for some time. That laid the foundation for the rest of the lineup."
But it's taken more than experience to make Tortuga the signature event it's become. "The draw of the beach doesn't hurt," Niland agrees. "The festival's setting and its vibe are what keep the artists coming back. It's quite a venue to play."
Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, and Tim McGraw will headline what's shaped up to be yet another impressive bill of country stars and up-and-coming musicians from a variety of genres. Although it's not exactly the Grand Ole Opry, Tortuga still bears an unmistakable Americana imprint.
"Country music was at the core from the beginning, but we try to bring diversity to every lineup we put out," Niland says. "Focusing on diversity allows us to program bands that work well on the beach. That identification often falls within the country genre, even if the bands don't identify as country musicians themselves."
Though South Florida may not be considered by most a real hub for country music, the festival still manages to capture significant growth year to year. According to Niland, attendance doubled between the first and second years, then nearly doubled again by year three, prompting the festival's first sellout.
Not surprisingly, the Rock the Ocean Foundation continues to share the marquee. Niland credits Stacey and his organization for advancing the conservation quotient that's so integral to Tortuga's overall identity. The festival in turn has given those efforts a voice. "The festival is the platform and the revenue generator that allows the conservation efforts to really thrive," Niland says. "Through its social-media platform, the festival has become the spokesperson for ocean conservation. That's why you see our social media and marketing campaigns peppered with ocean conservation messaging."
That message isn't lost on those who attend. In fact, it's hard to avoid. A prime piece of real estate is given over to the festival's "Conservation Village," the focal point of the event's onsite activism. "It gives our fans the opportunity to talk directly with the groups that are on the front line of the conservation efforts specific to this area," Niland maintains. Given the festival's success (Niland says it will be operating in the black as of this year), those causes will continue to share in its success.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been distributed by this event through its partnership with the Rock the Ocean Foundation," Niland says. "The conservation initiative is really important to this festival. The beachfront location and the community it has fostered is the key to what sets us apart."
Tortuga Music Festival 2016
Featuring Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, and more. Friday, April 15, through Sunday, April 17, along Fort Lauderdale Beach, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Single-day tickets start at $100; three-day general-admission tickets start at $199. Visit tortugamusicfestival.com.