Music News: The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking
C3 Presents acquires Emo's
Late Monday afternoon, not long after banking hours had ceased, Emo's owner Frank Hendrix was headed to the East Riverside music venue for a drizzling, 6pm rendezvous with C3 Presents principal Charles Attal.
"I'm handing over the keys to the building," announced Hendrix over a dying cell phone. "And he's giving me a check."
With that, Emo's became the property of Austin's reigning concert promotions group (see "Emo's Sold," Earache! Music blog, Feb. 11). The news blindsided most in the local music community, because not until the convivial entrepreneur revealed to the Chronicle two weeks ago that he and C3 had been in negotiations since Dec. 5 did anyone suspect such a deal being in the works. In fact, the scene was still reeling from Hendrix's announcement a week earlier that he was uprooting Antone's from Fifth Street for a new home in Emo's sister venue, the Beauty Ballroom, which shares the block with the punk high-rise and was promptly shuttered to make way for the "Home of the Blues." All of a sudden, one of the Live Music Capital's captains of industry appeared ready for full divestment.
"We got real big, real fast," admitted Hendrix last week as the sale to C3 neared completion. "When you get real big, you spend all your time just writing checks."
Whether Charles Attal can relate to writer's cramp wasn't on the agenda late last week when he confirmed the imminent transaction, but one of the country's most successful live music providers knows all about growth and its potential pitfalls.
"Do I worry about growth?" he laughed nervously. "I'm worried about whether I sell out Stubb's junior tonight! I worry about everything. If you're a concert promoter, it's such an up-and-down business. You worry about every show.
"Yeah, [the Austin City Limits Music Festival] is a big endeavor. We worry. That's all we do sometimes, is worry."
Not necessarily what one expects to hear from Austin's preeminent concert strategist, but he's heard the grumbles about C3's size and success. In that sense, besides now sharing a landlord with Hendrix on the same strip of the Eastside – the latter didn't own the building, just the 10-year lease and brand – Attal can probably relate to the vilification Hendrix endured from vocal components of the Austin music map, who decried the ruin of the punk club when he purchased it from its namesake in 2000. Spin in this notoriously DIY burg will doubtlessly tilt toward corporate Pac-Manship in C3 acquiring Emo's, but the issues underlying the deal matrix into a far more complex set of realities driving the city's musical supply, demand, and consumption.
Ultimately, in Austin or anywhere else in the U.S., concert promotion remains about property, leases, brands, and most crucially of all, booking.
When Hendrix bought the Sixth Street punk pit, he paid in the mid-five figures for the lease and the name "Emo's Austin" because Emo's Houston didn't close until the following year. Having acquired the actual property, the locally raised car baron sold it in 2011 to would-be hoteliers for, by his own account at the time, "seven figures." By then, he'd bailed out a struggling Antone's, partnered with the property owners of Ruta Maya and the future Emo's East, and spun off the Beauty Ballroom with the partners of the Beauty Bar. Assembling music blocs meant leveraging booking muscle against the mighty C3, which Attal tallies at 14 bookers putting on 1,500 shows on three continents in 2012 alone. By contrast, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, whose meteoric rise on the local show front over its first two years rivals Stubb's in star power and sellouts, thrives largely on a single booker.
"I had drinks with Colleen Fischer the other day at the Moody," points out Attal.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, one collateral news nugget to emerge from the Emo's sale is the Moody's recent booking acquisition of the Belmont.
"We're not looking to take over the world," laughed the Moody's vice president of business development, Tim Neece, who arrived in Austin in 1971 as a drummer from Abilene, began booking three years later before leaving for California to manage Christopher Cross, then returned in 1996 to become director of operations of Direct Events. "To us, it makes sense to get involved with acts early in their career and eventually get them over to the Moody."
Bid out an agent's marquee act and take its baby band as well.
"They will sell us their band, and a month later when they have a baby band, we're going to place it," affirms Attal. "That's our business. That's how our business started, was developing artists out of the very smallest levels. When we booked our first ACL, that all came out of the clubs."
Unfortunately, Hendrix kept losing his bookers – to C3, Transmission Entertainment, and most recently the Moody – so he threw in with someone who can fill rooms, both large (Long Center, Cedar Park Center, Frank Erwin Center) and more intimate (Parish, Lamberts): Charles Attal. In the past couple of weeks alone, C3's announced giant shows (the Avett Brothers, Lumineers, Jimmy Buffett) at forthcoming Formula One tie-in the Tower Amphitheater. Meaning that if C3 was already coloring in Emo's gig calendar, what impact will the sale have, practically speaking? A huge one for C3, via an inside stage during winter months when tarps cover Stubb's (Sufjan Stevens' Christmas extravaganza, for example), and a big stage at that now that both La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall have fallen away from Direct Events.
"Timing's great," agrees Attal, who nonetheless bristles slightly at the perception that C3 employs outside rooms to accommodate some sort of booking overflow. "It's more of a collaboration with the band as to what's best for the band. I've been a part owner of Stubb's since day one, and sometimes a show doesn't fit there, and I'm not going to force-feed it into a room where the band doesn't belong.
"Emo's is a room people like to go to – the old one and the new one – but we're not territorial where we put shows. We do shows in gymnasiums. If we have a good partner to work with in the building, whatever building it is, we'll do a show there."
Better to own the property, though, right?
"Of course, we all love to own the building we're operating in, but we only had the option to take a lease with Emo's, and we're comfortable with that. It's a long-term lease, and for me, I can't look that far down the road other than the next couple of years."
He laughs, citing the plight of the promoter ("You're only as good as your last show"), the Austin native born at St. David's and schooled in part at the Continental Club in punk bands. Attal dismisses the notion that the booking wars in Austin might be termed cutthroat by some. "Competitive, sure," says Neece, while the C3 head cites Transmission, umbrella to the Mohawk, Red 7, Holy Mountain, Fun Fun Fun Fest, and more: "I talk to [Transmission's James] Moody every couple of months and we're cool." Which leaves only brands, really. What's in a brand?
"I don't really know the value of a brand except for musically," shrugs Susan Antone, minority partner in Antone's, which C3 will continue to help book. "There's integrity behind the music, and the name on it is Antone's. My brother [Clifford] had so much to do with that. I think Frank wants to do the best by it, too, so this is just another move. Another move.
"And you know, it could be really cool out there on Riverside."
Eric "Emo" Hartman, now general manager of the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, walks past his old Sixth Street haunt most days on his way to work, calling the dark, empty space "sad." Worse, sometimes, is driving past Emo's East, "a punk rock palace" far removed from the CBGBs-like dive he named after his "self-inflicted nickname," acquired in his early bar years when he attempted to scare off a persistent female by throwing the name Emo at her – as in hometown Chicago comedian Emo Philips.
"There's definitely value to the brand," asserts Hartman, who was approached by Emo's minority owner and Buzz Mill proprietor Jason Sabala in a last-minute bid to buy his namesake back. "People know the name. 'Remember that show at Emo's?' Especially in this town, where clubs have come and gone, Emo's is still strong. It's never closed.
"I don't wanna see the name go away. I'm proud of it. I'm proud of what we did. It could've closed and been a distant memory like Liberty Lunch. Or the Electric Lounge. Now with C3 taking it over, I'm sure it'll be around a lot longer."