Big Dogs, Young Rebels, and Aging Giants
The Austin promoters who bring the music come in all shapes and sizes
No music fan ever bought a T-shirt for the promoter's name on the front.
Barring a few quasi-mythical figures such as legendary Live Aid promoter Bill Graham or infamous British promoter Don Arden – dubbed "The Al Capone of Pop" – they're generally written off as the boring business end of the music industry. In Austin, the self-proclaimed "live music capital of the world," audiences are more aware than in most cities about who's putting which bands into what rooms. The firestorm of criticism that flared when the University of Texas removed longtime Cactus Cafe manager Griff Luneburg reflected that level of public engagement. But for the most part, bookers and promoters are either ignored or blamed. If the sound is bad, or there aren't enough toilets, or the supporting band sucks, or the show is empty or too crowded or too expensive, or the line at the bar is too long, blame the promoter. It's even the promoter's fault when – as with the Austin City Limits Music Festival last year – the rain comes and everything gets covered in mud (or worse).
Nevertheless, music industry attorney and Austin Music Commission Chair Brad Stein describes bookers and promoters as "absolutely essential" to the live music industry. He compares the business to a "three-legged stool." In a music town like Nashville, he explained, "the recording industry is the strongest leg, the artist is another, and your venues are your third leg." In Austin, where live music dwarfs the recording component, "It's your artists, it's your venues, and then it's your bookers or artists' representation – the individuals who create the link between the artists and the venues and the populace."
That Austin mix, Stein said, "is very unique. In the last decade or so, the cities that had independently owned booking agencies have seen them gobbled up and consolidated." He attributes their local survival to two factors: "One, because there's a spirit of wanting to be independent, but then, two, they're able to be profitable. You can have that spirit of independence as long as you want, but if you're not going to stay in business, that's just lip service."
Yet if the bookers and promoters are so vital to the local music scene and the music economy, why does no one really talk about them? According to Charles Attal of C3 Presents, it's "because we're not very interesting."
While it might seem that C3 has been around forever, in fact it only formed in 2007, when Attal merged his firm, Charles Attal Presents, with the live events division of Capital Sports & Entertainment, owned by longtime business partner Charlie Jones. The company was completed with the addition of Charlie Walker (the third "C" of C3), the former president of live music for media conglomerate Clear Channel's concert promotion arm Live Nation. For all that big name talent, Attal said: "I still consider our firm as a very boutique concert company. I don't know when people started calling us 'the big dog.'"
Despite Attal's modesty, C3 is undoubtedly a rather significant player in the Austin music scene. As the local promoter of choice for a lot of midsized national bands, the company has long-running contracts with the management at most of the premier Austin venues, ranging from regular dates in small rooms like the Parish to big one-off events like Elton John at the Frank Erwin Center. Then there's the festival side; as the firm behind the Austin City Limits Music Festival, C3 is responsible not only for the three-day event itself but for a multitude of official, hot-ticket aftershows.
The firm is also a national player. Although dwarfed by such promoting giants as AEG and Live Nation, C3 has a footprint beyond Austin. In 2005, Charles Attal Presents and Capital Sports & Entertainment were brought in to help resurrect Lollapalooza. After impressing the city of Chicago by organizing President Barack Obama's 2008 election night celebration in Grant Park, C3 is now two years into a renewed 10-year exclusive production contract for the landmark festival of the alternative nation. In 2009, it added California's Wanderlust music and yoga festival to its calendar. C3 has also broken into the increasingly lucrative world of casino booking, with 27 rooms across 18 cities for the Harrah's chain and a recently signed contract for the new Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
C3's own home is a perhaps surprisingly corporate-looking office on San Jacinto; a little less than two weeks before ACL, it all seemed remarkably calm. "We've built a company around festivals," Attal said. "We're not out every night partying and whooping it up. We're in at 9 in the morning; we leave at 6 or 7."
The roughly 70 staff members, most in their 20s, double, triple, or even quadruple up on office space, including Attal himself. At 43, he half-jokingly calls himself "the old man on the floor. I could act like I'm out every night and listening to shows, but I just can't physically do it." Instead, he said, "I have nine talent buyers who are all going out every night and telling me what they've seen." He compares his firm's work to that of air traffic controllers – fitting the right act into the right venue on the right date. "It's really what bands want," he said. "Sometimes they don't know what they want to do and you have to guide them. Sometimes they want to make a wrong decision and play too big or too small, and you have to help them. That's the promoter's job."
Attal has spent plenty of time in those trenches. In 1995, the onetime guitarist with punk band Clown Meat invested some cash and sweat equity with some friends in a new venue on Red River called Stubb's. There he experienced the perfect storm of audiences, venues, and bands that he said validates Austin's claim to be the music capital of the world. While there are bigger markets, there are few that can claim the kind of per capita interest in music that Austin sustains. Attal said: "I can't imagine this many clubs being in another city this size. Half of them would be out of business within six months." That mixture of a lot of rooms and reliable, receptive audiences makes his job easier. "Everybody plays here," he said. "A lot of bands will end their tour here and stay an extra day, or they'll play two nights and they'll play a smaller club."
By mid-2002, Attal's company was booking a few hundred shows a year around Texas when Jones and Capital Sports & Entertainment started talking with the city about potentially putting on a music festival in Zilker Park. Inviting Attal to a City Hall press conference, Jones' sole request was "just put on some nice pants." What Attal didn't know was that Jones, who was more interested in handling the logistics than the talent, had invited another promoter and hadn't made his mind up about who he would be using. However, Attal said, "I was the only one that showed up." It was a wise decision; in eight years, ACL has gone from a two-day event selling 30,000 tickets for a lineup heavy with local talent to a three-day extravaganza drawing 75,000 music fans and the accompanying nationwide cachet. While still a major opportunity for Austin bands, the festival now has the cash to lure the Eagles out of semi-retirement, as well as the aura to attract Attal's current personal favorites, English pomp-rockers Muse. "If I had 50 Muse dates, I'd be the happiest man in the world," he said. "They're going to blow the roof off the place."
The idea of a destination festival that sells out on the strength of its name rather than its headliners is a conventional one in Europe for established events, like Glastonbury in Britain or Pinkpop in the Netherlands, but it's still relatively new in the U.S. It means that every year, Attal has to re-create the branded ACL model of an eclectic, family-friendly mix of local, regional, and national acts. When the lineups are announced, he said: "Everybody's going to be pissed that I booked something, but you know what? There's something for everybody there." His next measure of success will come on Oct. 20, when early bird tickets go on sale for ACL 2011. Attal said: "If we don't deliver, guess what? They're not going to come back. We have to overdeliver."
Attal certainly didn't invent the idea of booking multiple venues, and he freely acknowledges long-established localized firms like full-service promoters Jam Promotions in Chicago or New York-based the Bowery Presents, which recently expanded to start booking in Boston. But when it comes to Austin promotions, it was Direct Events that set the stage and defined the game.
Big as C3 is now, it is where Direct Events was three decades ago. Since he moved to Austin in the Seventies, Direct Events owner Tim O'Connor has reached near-legendary status. Like C3, he used an iconic Austin venue – the now-defunct Austin Opry House – to build a national business that eventually promoted massive concerts like Farm Aid. His influence and connections run deep (for just one example, Charlie Jones of C3 got his start answering the phones for O'Connor before becoming manager of La Zona Rosa), and it seems that everyone in the local music industry has a story to tell about him – mostly after a few drinks and entirely off the record. For every wild story about O'Connor – e.g., that he's the alleged inspiration for Rip Torn's gun-wielding, double-dealing promoter Dino McLeish in Willie Nelson's movie Songwriter – there's another about how he worked behind the scenes to keep Antone's open.
Even in 2003, when Direct Events had pulled back from the national stage and O'Connor had entered quasi-retirement, it was to him that the Williamson County commissioners turned for advice on building a midsize arena. Austin Music Commission Chair Stein praised O'Connor's role in building the Austin music scene, adding that his firm "has been doing what they do in a brilliant way for a long time." (O'Connor originally agreed to be interviewed for this story but eventually declined, initially citing a schedule clash and then illness.)
But those glory days, alas, have gone. After a slow summer, La Zona Rosa's dance card is full through to the end of November – all of it booked through C3. The lineup is more spartan at the Austin Music Hall, while the Backyard has been dark for most of the year. Some decisions – like the abrupt cancellation of the Sept. 4 Red Dirt Festival – came straight from O'Connor's office. Others have been out of the company's control, like Stone Temple Pilots pushing back a month the current leg of their tour – which had included the only booking for the Backyard in September.
The headliner postponement couldn't have come at a worse time. O'Connor is being pursued through the courts by multiple debtors for unpaid construction bills for the controversial 2007 renovation of the Music Hall and also for the construction of the new Backyard at Bee Cave. A month ago, when he settled the first of four outstanding lawsuits, it looked like he was beginning to put those issues behind him. But while the attorneys for contractors Kiva Inc., which installed the Backyard's drains, confirmed that O'Connor had settled with them in full, others are still waiting for their day in court. Lawyers for Sixthriver Architects, which designed both the Backyard and the Music Hall, said they're in discovery and still waiting for an offer.
Amid this all, O'Connor has become an elusive figure, no-showing court dates and dropping appointments. For all the wild stories about him that pepper local history, people remain coy about direct criticism. Yet even if his financial issues are eventually resolved, there are other, more persistent issues surrounding his firm and his signature venue. In 2006, when the Music Hall renovation was announced, the plans described a deluxe, state-of-the-art facility with some permanent seating and statues of iconic local performers. There were discussions of a two-floor eatery, with food supplied by local restaurateurs ("We're not talking about hot dogs here," O'Connor told the Chronicle at the time). None of those elements was in place when the venue reopened in 2007, and there are still no signs of them three years later. What has remained are the perennial customer complaints about Downtown parking – an issue that afflicts most Austin venues and that is out of O'Connor's control – but more troubling, sound quality that can vary from lush and raucous to swampy echo. Even the revamped $800,000 air-conditioning system has drawn complaints – the still-exposed ceiling ducts and the bare concrete flooring on both levels are far from the experience that would evoke "the base line of a legitimate theatre" O'Connor promised when the rebuild started.
Whatever else they might reflect about the company, Direct Events' current troubles suggest the potential pitfalls of the industry – often a boom-and-bust roller coaster even in a still-growing economy like Austin's.
'Gnarly' and 'Underground'
The perennial local quest for a high-quality venue doesn't mean there's no space for the old-school stages on back lots or grimy sweatboxes where the passion takes priority over comfort. In any industry, even as the old guard wanes, there's always going to be new blood. In Austin, that describes the proudly punk Transmission Entertainment.
Booker Graham Williams looks like the traditional punk rock promoter: T-shirt, shorts, and a full-sleeve tattoo. Helmed by Williams, Mohawk owner James Moody, and Club de Ville neighbor Michael Terrazas, Transmission has become the face of Red River's burgeoning music scene. In a lot of ways, those three stand where the three Charlies were in 2003 and O'Connor was in the mid-Eighties. They founded Transmission in 2007, and now they're booking multiple stages and running their own festival, November's three-day indie-punk-metal-rap mix Fun Fun Fun Fest. But while over the years Attal has come to depend heavily on his staff, Transmission's management remains personally hands-on.
On the face of it, Moody and Williams make an odd pair. Williams, a straight-edge kid who started on the door at Emo's before becoming its booker, has been a fixture of the local music scene for all of his adult life. Moody, by contrast, is a self-confessed Air Force brat who studied business in college before moving into pharmaceutical marketing. However, the corporate exec had spent the early and mid-Nineties in Southern California at the height of the SoCal punk scene. Moody recalled, "It was all Offspring, Green Day, Bad Religion, Fugazi, Fear, and those were all 5-, 10-dollar shows." His plan was to create a sustainable business model echoing the DIY ethos of the small promoters that bolted these underground shows together, and he dubbed the result "DIO – do it ourselves. We kick it up a notch so we can do a little more production than the DIY-style but way less than the formal, polished stuff we see in other places." The purpose was to become an incubator for raw, up-and-coming talent. That's something most firms don't do so much "because discovery is riskier," he said.
According to Williams, the business model was a tried and tested one – just not one that had been seen so much in Austin. He said: "I'd go to other cities, and there was 'blah blah blah presents.' There were multiple companies putting on bands in all these different rooms." The closest thing locally, he said, was Direct Events, "and even then, when they booked an ad, it was like two shows a month. I wanted to see places that had bands playing every single night." How that differs from C3, Williams said, is that "they work from the top down, while I work from the bottom up."
In that vein, the Transmission model is less about finding established bands with a ready-made audience and more about helping underground acts find an audience of their own. Transmission's reputation has been made by booking a mix of indie, metal, and hardcore into smaller clubs. If there's a musical tag to bind it all together, it's "punk," but it's less about genre and more about what they consider to be punk – in all its forms. In those terms, rapper Kool Keith is punk – and so is local pro-wrestling promotion Anarchy Championship Wrestling. That's because of the DIY, no-rules attitude they share.
For Moody, part of Transmission's success has been finding an audience hungry for that offbeat culture. While the music may differ from the old Austin country sound, Moody balks at the suggestion that they're breaking with the old psychedelic cowboy scene. "This town is supposed to be a little punk," he said, "and it forgets that." When bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and performers like Roky Erickson and Willie Nelson first came out, he said, "they were all gnarly, underground shit. Willie is a complete and total rebel."
It's staying in touch with what's gnarly and underground now that inspires them. Transmission's strength, Williams said, is in understanding the kind of bands his audience wants to see. It's the small acts touring in a beat-up van that have pressed one single in 500 copies, the kind whose reputation spreads through fan-run websites. That's the kind of expertise that only comes from knowing and loving the music. For any other promoter, he said: "How do you track that band on [online trade publication] Pollstar? How do you know who's a draw and who's not, when it's a scene that's real genre-specific, and it's supported by a bunch of people who are real involved and write zines?"
"That's probably one of our weaknesses," Moody said. "We book bands that we listen to, and we sometimes let our personal tastes get in the way." But he doesn't consider it a major problem, because his aim is for Transmission to be "a solid midsize company. No one wants a Lamborghini or a boat. They just want to be in music for as long as they can."
While Transmission's reputation has built a ferocious loyalty among both audiences and musicians, that self-imposed size cap means artists outgrow what services and venues Transmission can provide. "When a band gets really big enough, we're ready to let them go," Moody said, but it's in those times of transition where C3 and Transmission can clash. "I wouldn't lie," Moody said, "there's definitely competition, and sometimes it gets a little weird." But over time, the tension has declined, and now C3 even books the occasional night at Mohawk. "As time goes by," Moody said, "we're more and more fitting into the puzzle."
Maintaining the Ecosystem
Austin's music scene has thus far survived the current poor economic climate better than many cities, with Attal reporting that ticket sales have stayed pretty constant. "There are problems with the industry," he said, "but Austin's stayed pretty strong. People move here to go to shows." Fortunately for his business, so do musicians. A weak economy, combined with declining record sales, means many bands are touring smarter and shorter. They'll primarily stick to the big, clustered media markets on the coasts – but Attal finds they still want to come here because of the strong audiences. That can be a big boost for a touring band, he said, "because you can come here and say, 'Things are OK.'"
For Transmission, the big specter isn't necessarily the recession but paradoxically its opposite – the threat of economic development and the constant sound of condo construction. The loudest warning siren is the current city of Austin plan to remove the Waller Creek District from the flood plain by building a new floodwater tunnel to bypass Downtown. Even though the land Mohawk sits on wouldn't be directly affected, the anticipated spike in nearby property values could mean rising rents, pushing out clubs that run at a small profit or just break even. "What people forget is that Red River is an ecosystem," Moody said. "Stubb's needs Mohawk. Mohawk needs Club de Ville. Club de Ville needs Emo's. They all need each other to have cocktails and moments before shows, so the relocation of these places as islands by themselves doesn't work."
It's a persistent internal Austin contradiction: People move here and stay in part because of the music scene, but that added population eventually puts pressure on those very venues. But Williams remains upbeat, because he believes not only that the Red River scene is more durable than some fans fear but also that his firm will always be able to find new venues, like the new wave of clubs and bars east of I-35 that have opened in the last five years. "I remember parking there and getting knives pulled on me," he said. "Now there're limos." The biggest concern is making sure that policymakers move fast enough to track such changes. He said, "If the city zones a music district around Red River and then it becomes a bunch of condominiums, [they can't say], 'That's your music district; you have to put your bands there; we just spent years rezoning it.'"
For Music Commission Chair Stein, that's why having promoters involved in the political and planning discussion is vital. Currently, C3's digital and interactive director Michael Feferman sits with him on the Music Commission as Council Member Chris Riley's appointee, while both Attal and Moody sat on the 2008 Music Task Force.
Describing their voices as a counterbalance, Stein explained, City Council "hires these consultants and pays them several hundred thousand dollars to come in, come sit behind a computer and do some market research, and then talk to a very narrow cross-section of people and spit out a report with pictures and say: 'Oh this is what Waller Creek will look like. Oh, and lo and behold, the only sentence that we said about all of these clubs is, 'these clubs can be relocated.'" That, he added, "just shows a total misunderstanding." So far the commission has a verbal commitment from council to factor the existing music ecosystem into its calculations. Stein said, "That's how you utilize the political process, so that leaders understand that you can't just look at a real broad brushstroke that more condos and more businesses on Waller Creek is how we pay back our tax increment financing."
But for Attal, while the current lyrics may change, the song – and the problems for promoters protecting their businesses – remains the same. He said: "The city doesn't want to beat down the music, but on the other side, they have to make sure the neighborhoods aren't getting blasted with sound. ... It's always going to be adjusting as the city grows."