I first spoke to Chris Stacey just over five years ago at a hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach. The longtime country music man was charming and friendly as he engaged reporters in the warmth of a sunny South Florida day.
A couple of months later, his fledgling Tortuga Music Festival began its inaugural year under much different circumstances, as clouds and rain bogged down day one. Since then, however, it has been nothing but sunshine for Stacey, Tortuga, and the work his foundation Rock the Ocean have put into saving the world’s oceans.
“We’ve come a long way,” Stacey chuckles over the phone.
This weekend, the sixth-annual Tortuga Fest will take over the sands of Fort Lauderdale Beach. The event has grown exponentially every year; now it's one of the largest country music festivals in the nation. Perhaps more important, from the outset Stacey had some very specific aims concerning ocean conservation.
“The big goals were to create awareness for ocean conservation, put on a world-class music festival for the people of South Florida and create an event that the community can be proud of, and raise some money for the cause. All three of these things have happened, and I feel good about that.”
Even better, Stacey says, putting on such a massive festival on a beach hasn’t been as tough as one might imagine.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve had gigantic challenges in that area. We work diligently every year with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. We work hand-in-hand with them each year to make sure that we’re in compliance with permitting.”
As if on cue, our conversation is put on pause so Stacey can take a phone call from a parks and recreation official.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he says, returning to the line. “We’ve got a little bit going on this week.”
“On the ocean conservation front, in five years,” he continues, “we’ve raised a million dollars for [Rock the Ocean] and given tons of money back to our Conservation Village partners. It’s the little things that make me superproud. One of our organizations that we do a lot of work with is the Bimini Biological Field Station. I remember we went over there one day and gave them a check, and the guy that ran it goes, ‘You know what? This is enough money for us to buy all of our fuel for all of our boats, to do all of our research all year. Thank you.’
“Another one, and maybe this is ego-driven, but I’m really proud the event won the Academy of Country Music’s Music Festival of the Year Award last year. Those two things are really nice benchmarks.”
Looking to the future, Stacey and Tortuga have partnered with music entertainment behemoth Live Nation for this year’s incarnation and beyond.
“Those guys have more talent-buying power than anyone in the world, and I think it will help from both a production and talent standpoint. We’re about six months into the partnership, and I can tell you it’s such a fresh breath of air. These guys are so professional. Contrary to what you might think, the conservation and sustainability part of it is a big business goal for those guys, and they take it very seriously.”
Last year’s edition of Tortuga drew roughly 30,000 attendees per day to the sands of Fort Lauderdale Beach. For all of the fest’s success, there’s an argument to be made that it could be growing too large. It was a sweaty, crowded, elbow-to-elbow affair, but Stacey promises the organizers have improved upon it.
“I constantly think about the customer experience. We don’t want anyone standing in line too long for beer or the bathrooms. What you’ll see going into 2018 is that we’ve made significant improvements to try to address all of those issues. I think it’ll feel a little more intimate this year and not quite as sandwiched in."
Tortuga's Conservation Village attempts to address and inform visitors of five conservation issues, but one in particular is very dear to Stacey.
“Shark conservation. I don’t think people know how important a role sharks play in the food chain in the ecosystem of the oceans. And most people have no idea that 100 million sharks are killed every year by humans for stupid things like makeup and soup. People don’t understand that if you take out the apex predator of the food chain, it throws the food chain out of balance.”
A record-business veteran of 25 years, Stacey admits he’s “no scientist.” He has made it his mission to recruit experts for Tortuga’s Conservation Village and to educate himself and others on the various crises plaguing the planet. Every so often, he converts some of country music’s biggest stars into believers.
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“Zac Brown and I were talking about it a couple of years ago when he played Tortuga. Fast-forward six months, and Zac and I are on a boat in the Bahamas doing a shark dive together. A lot of these guys get really passionate about it.
“We took Brett Eldredge out and did a shark dive. We really blew his mind with all of it,” Stacey says, laughing. “Chase Rice, Maddie & Tae, Drake White — I can just go down the list of artists of who have come to play the show, checked out Conservation Village, and now every time I see them in Nashville or at an awards show, they go, ‘Are you still saving the ocean? When are we going diving?’" Stacey says.
“The idea was that these artists have such a big platform, that if we could leverage the power that these artists have to spread the message across their channels, that’s really the biggest win we could ever hope for at Rock the Ocean or Tortuga.”
Tortuga Music Festival. Friday, April 6, through Sunday, April 8, at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-828-7275. Tickets cost $125 to $1,150 via tortugamusicfestival.com.