A2K Meets 'ACL'
The point man behind 'Austin City Limits' music festival, promoter Charlie Jones
For a concert promoter, no two events are ever quite the same. Which is perhaps why Charlie Jones has instilled a slice of predictability into his work: a stage-side shot of tequila shared with his production team the moment the headliner strikes the first chord. It's a traditional celebration set to a widely varying soundtrack, from Ray Charles and Weezer to B.B. King and the Insane Clown Posse.
For his millennial moment, Jones substituted champagne, toasting his organizational rescue of what's arguably the largest mass gathering in Austin history, downtown's A2K celebration.
"I was looking out at 250,000 screaming people," recalls Jones. "It was the greatest moment of my life."
If all goes as planned, Jones is poised for another big moment. At 8:30pm Sunday, Sept. 29, a reunited Arc Angels will take the stage as Jones and the crew behind the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival line up their shot glasses. By then, they'll be toasting 70 acts spread across two days, 15 acres, and six stages. Across the weekend, Jones will sit at the helm of 450 paid staff and 350 volunteers.
"For what I do, an event like this is the Super Bowl," says the 33-year-old local promoter.
To extend the sports metaphor more accurately, it's not unlike the Tour de France, particularly because Jones heads the concert division of Capital Sports and Entertainment (CSE), the local management, marketing, and event planning firm behind Lance Armstrong.
Like the Tour, the success of the inaugural ACL Festival hinges on preparation, teamwork, and endurance. Jones and the city of Austin have been developing the idea for another local music festival for three years. Jones' model has been the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, an annual festival with a distinct, but diverse, musical aesthetic that attracts as many tourists as locals. It was only in July that all parties involved finalized plans and set Stubb's Charles Attal loose to chase talent. (For a complete ACL Fest schedule see four-page advertising insert in this issue.)
The subsequent three months have cemented a complex collaboration between CSE, ACL/KLRU, and Austin's Parks & Recreation Department and the mayor's office. At stake is not just an operating budget of over $1 million, but also reputations: that of Jones, Austin City Limits, and the city itself.
Not only does the festival mark the first major push into "brand extension" for television's longest running music program, but the Austin Convention & Visitor's Bureau has seized the event as a prime opportunity to pitch the Live Music Capital of the World to the world itself -- via an expensive marketing campaign touting overall awareness and tour packages.
In addition, the festival will host over 200 working press from around the country, and is expected to result in a photo-heavy Esquire feature and television reports from Access Hollywood and E! News Daily.
In fact, even before Attal turned in the finalized lineup, Jones and his crew had been operating with a "build-it-and-they-will-come" confidence. With the instant credibility of the Austin City Limits name and a void left by the city's previous late-fall music festival, AquaFest, the idea was simple: what South by Southwest is to music industry professionals, this would be to Joe Music Fan. So far, support from ticket buyers seems to bear that out: 1,350 people bought discounted two-day passes without seeing the lineup.
Another 12,000 bought two-days passes after the July announcement that the festival would feature acts like Emmylou Harris, Pat Green, Wilco, and the String Cheese Incident. All told, Jones is expecting attendance in the neighborhood of 35,000-a-day, and thanks to an ambitious sponsorship system, most fans will pay just $40 for the weekend. Obviously, many of the headliners would typically command nearly that price on their own. Better yet, nearly 40% of all tickets sold have been bought by out-of-towners.
While Jones is clearly buoyed by those initial figures, he's understandably reluctant to allow confidence to turn into swagger.
"I'm already getting more recognition than I deserve," he says, crediting Attal for booking the talent and CSE brass for lining up the sponsorship dollars.
Even so, Jones is clearly the Festival's point man: No decision, big or small, goes unchecked by him. As big as A2K turned out, Jones knows full well that all eyes are on him and that building an annual festival from scratch represents a significantly more intricate series of challenges.
"He's bitten off a lot, but his strength is managing chaos," offers Bill Stapleton, CSE's founder and Lance Armstrong's agent since 1995. "The key to management and growth is to be willing to find really talented people, delegate authority, and let them shine. Charlie is excellent at all three of those."
In 1993, Charlie Jones spent his summer as a college intern at the Backyard. It was the first season for the Bee Caves concert venue opened by legendary local concert promoter Tim O'Connor. Jones was mostly answering phones, but when the boss' wife asked Jones what he wanted to be when he grew up, he had a quick answer.
The Next Generation
"I pointed down the hall to Tim's office and said, 'I want to do what he does,'" smiles Jones. "She just laughed, but I think I always knew this is what I wanted to do."
Even so, Jones' path wasn't always so clear. The College Station native spent most of his adolescence convinced he wanted to be a professional baseball player or Hollywood actor. The former looked semi-plausible until Howard Payne University in Brownwood stripped him of his athletic eligibility.
"Me and a couple of other baseball players got caught running through the girl's dorm in our jockstraps," admits Jones. "Apparently that's frowned upon behavior by a Baptist university."
Without a sports scholarship, Jones packed his bags for Austin in 1990. He wound up waiting tables at Pappadeaux, managing the bar at Cain & Abel's, and taking classes at Austin Community College. While flipping through the course catalog to find the three final credits he needed, Jones found local jazz guru Mike Mordecai's Concert Promotion class. It was Mordecai who called O'Connor and set his star pupil up with an internship, where Jones did office work Tuesdays and Thursdays and worked as a band-runner on show days.
"My car didn't work very well at the time," explains Jones. "I broke down on the Southwest Parkway with Chet Atkins one night, and he wasn't happy at all. I also overheated with Cyril Neville on board. He was cool. He just chilled listening to music until it cooled back down."
Even with the initial slip-ups, O'Connor took Jones under his wing. Jones joined O'Connor's Direct Events staff full-time during the Backyard's second season, before eventually managing the facility. Though O'Connor is regarded as an occasionally disagreeable guy, both men describe their relationship as "almost father-son."
"A lot of people saw him as a crazy ranting tyrant," acknowledges Jones. "I didn't see that. Yeah, I remember him standing on his desk and throwing his hat at me, but a day later it was back to normal. I guess my temperament is the opposite -- I'm fairly low-key. I think he brought me a little more one way and I helped calm him down some."
In 1996, O'Connor and Jones became partners in La Zona Rosa. Jones earned a quarter of the operation by putting the deal in motion; he introduced O'Connor to former Toronto Blue Jay, All-Star Kelly Gruber, who owned the club at the time. Despite some early mistakes -- like a month that lost $40,000 -- Jones served as general manager and talent buyer for the venue for over two years. In 1998, he left to road manage Sister 7, who had a radio hit with "Know What You Mean" and had landed an opening slot on John Fogerty's comeback tour.
"It was a way to quit and still make money," explains Jones. "I was going to get a chance to see how other venues and promoters did business. I think I was at a point where I needed the opportunity to make bigger mistakes."
Jones got just that opportunity on Halloween 1998. From the back seat of Sister 7's van, he organized a show featuring Sister 7, the Nixons, and Charlie Sexton in a parking lot between Fifth and Seventh streets. He hoped to draw a small percentage of Sixth Street's 100,000-plus Halloween revelers, but he drew too small a percentage; only 300 hundred folks came to a parking lot designed for thousands, costing Jones nearly $50,000 in losses.
"I lost money," shrugs Jones, "but it was just money. One of the things Tim always talked about was that if you were gonna do this, you needed to be able to take all the money you have, put it in a briefcase, walk to the top of the building, throw half of it off, and walk back down okay with it while figuring out a way to get it back. I saw the mistakes we made and how we could do better."
Almost immediately, Jones and his MiddleMan Music Company did do better -- with the Antone's Blues Festival, a Waterloo Park show featuring John Lee Hooker. More importantly, he organized the city's giant Viva Lance! event, an Auditorium Shores concert and Congress Avenue parade celebrating Armstrong's first Tour victory. "It put me on the city's radar," says Jones, who worked closely with the mayor's office and Parks & Recreation officials.
By mid-October 1999, then-mayor Kirk Watson illustrated just how visible Jones was on the radar by asking him to take the helm of Austin's A2K event. He replaced a previous coordinator and turned what looked like an untenable, and potentially disastrous, event into a flawless program in less than two months.
Nobody knows for sure, but it's been estimated that as many 300,000 people were downtown during the A2K festivities. While it clearly established Jones as the city's most formidable event planner, he's still characteristically humble about it.
"I can't take any credit for that many people being there," offers Jones. "It was a unique day. There were events all over the world. I was just fortunate enough to be in a position to help pull it off for Austin."
Each Wednesday morning, Jones oversees a three-hour planning session for nearly 20 festival staffers in the boardroom of CSE's downtown offices. Each member of the team briefs the others on their week's progress, and with aerial photographs of Zilker Park and a heavily bulleted point-by-point agenda, there's a distinct war-room vibe.
A typical meeting updates sponsorship information, advertising, transportation, staffing, stage plots, and the art and food pavilions.
"It's my job to make sure everyone has the information they need," points out Jones. "If our production manager meets with the stage managers, they need the correct road closure information to communicate to the bands so they can park. It's all one domino game."
At the meetings, Jones is flanked by Attal and CSE's Stapleton. Attal is one of Jones' closest confidants, professionally and personally; the pair shared offices before Jones merged MiddleMan with CSE last October.
"We hit it off right away," agrees Attal, who met Jones just before opening Stubb's. "He's good with people and organization. What he says, he does. There's no bullshit."
Stapleton's confidants describe him the same way, but Jones' decision to join Stapleton's firm wasn't an easy one. After A2K, Jones' star continued to rise: He staged a second Antone's Blues Festival (this one headlined by Ray Charles), another Armstrong celebration, and began handling LBJ-S events, from KGSR's Blues on the Green series to 101X's X-Fests.
Out of a small office with just one employee, Production Assistant/Marketing Director Lisa Schickel, Jones entertained buyout discussions from Clear Channel's colossal concert division not long after Stapleton had come to a similar crossroads. Both men had built companies other corporations wanted to purchase or merge with.
"We both love this town and what we do," says Jones, whose first real conversation with Stapleton came last summer over beers with Armstrong at the Lucky Lounge. "Neither of us wanted to move somewhere else or work in a big corporate office for the man."
For Stapleton, a move toward concert promotion presented an intriguing new challenge.
"We needed something different," says Stapleton, who initially recognized CSE could leverage the corporate relationships built for Armstrong when they took over the marketing interests for Shawn Colvin and landed her a Johnson & Johnson ad campaign in under six months. "We knew that as sports agents we'd never have anything again with the same magnitude or meaning Lance has."
For Jones, the upside was obvious; he could still wear T-shirts to work while having access to CSE's marketing connections and the deeper pockets he needed for larger events.
"Neither of us could do an event like this festival without each other," says Stapleton, who broadened CSE's music interests in March by opening a management division with George Couri (Abra Moore, Dynamite Hack). "This is the defining moment for our company. We went in knowing we'd have to hedge a million dollar bet and build a new business model that makes sense."
Neither Stapleton nor Jones deny that the key to their business model is the festival's name. Austin City Limits' three-decade run has yielded a reputation needed to attract the trust of artists, sponsors, and concertgoers.
"We knew it had to be the right name, the right music, and the right organization behind it for it to work," posts Jones. "We narrowed it down to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Austin City Limits, the best music names in the city."
Although Jones initially tested the waters with Jimmie Vaughan manager Corey Moore, KLRU and Austin City Limits came to the table in February. Two months later, CSE and KLRU signed a multi-year deal that gives the station a unique off-the-top percentage of the gross, with the city sharing in the revenue from a $1-per-ticket park revitalization fee.
Even with the title in place, the deck seemed stacked against the event initially; CSE had to solicit sponsors in the midst of a floundering economy, while Attal had just three weeks to book 70 acts. After Attal leveraged longstanding relationships to bring the String Cheese Incident, Ryan Adams, and Emmylou Harris aboard, the rest fell in place, even if scheduling and budget issues stood in the way of a dozen or so acts on their initial dream list: among them Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, Willie Nelson, and Norah Jones.
In turn, Stapleton and his CSE team attracted nearly a dozen corporate sponsors, including a title sponsor you don't often see associated with regional events: Chevrolet.
"It was essential we find partners," stresses Stapleton. "Corporate sponsorship is the only way you can have a $20 ticket."
Even so, it's no secret inaugural events this size rarely turn much of a profit. And that seems to be fine by all the principals, each of whom say they're gladly resigned to looking long-term. From an "artist compound" modeled after European music festivals to a page they borrowed from the recent Bonaroo Festival that sends concertgoers into the fields with trash bags redeemable for free T-shirts when full, each detail seems designed to bring both artists and festivalgoers back for year two.
On paper, this makes sense. If this lineup brings in 35,000 people a day, the draw after presumably positive word-of-mouth, another year of marketing, and a full-year of booking is unlimited. In addition to South by Southwest every March, Austin music events could draw national media attention and tourism dollars twice a year.
Then again, it's exactly that promise -- one that ACL producer Terry Lickona has already suggested could be as significant to Austin as the television program itself -- that you'd think would put fear and quiet apprehension into Jones' nights as he and his team head into the home stretch.
"There's some very thorough checklists, because we can't drop the ball anywhere," says Jones. "Is it realistic to be fearful? Probably, but I'm not. I truly believe Austin needs an event like this. It fills a void. And the people working on the show are the best in the city. I'm not fearful at all. It's not hype. When people come, they're going to walk away recognizing it's truly a different event."