ACL Fest


(With the tenth annual ACL Fest just six weeks away, here’s a look back at where it started.)

Originally published in 2003

It was midnight in Bordeaux during last year’s Tour de France, but Bill Stapleton’s thoughts were not on the performance of his client Lance Armstrong, who was halfway to winning his fourth consecutive Tour. Stapleton’s Capital Sports & Entertainment agency had recently expanded into the music business, promoting the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park, and Stapleton’s mind was a tangle of doubt.

His sports agency had hit a grand slam at its first at-bat, signing a little-known cyclist who

Bill Stapleton swam in the 1988 Olympics before managing Lance Armstrong and co-founding ACL Fest.

went on to beat cancer and win sports’ most grueling contest. His first music client was Shawn Colvin, a new mother who had just come off a double Grammy win and was therefore perfect for a Johnson & Johnson advertising campaign. But concert promotion was a risky venture for a new company. The festival would cost CSE $1.25 million to produce, and Stapleton was thinking of hedging his bet. “It was just three days before tickets went on sale, and I was on the speaker phone with (partners) Charlie Jones and Bart Knaggs, wondering if we should only release a partial lineup when tickets went on sale,” Stapleton said. “I figured that way if it was a total bomb, we’d have only half the bands.” And half the talent expense.

To gauge excitement, organizers put 3,000 two-day tickets on sale before the acts were confirmed, for a reduced rate of $20. They expected to sell out in a day. Instead they sold only 700, which had Stapleton worried. CSE had to sell 30,000 tickets for each day of the two-day festival to break even. But, he says, Jones and Knaggs were able to talk some sense into him. “It was gut-check time,” Stapleton said. “We all knew it was a great idea whose time had come and it came down to this: Do we want to be the company that plays it safe, or do we want to follow our convictions full speed ahead?”

L-R: Stapleton, Charlie Jones and Charles Attal: before the "Three Charlies" there was a Bill

As it turned out, the maiden Austin City Limits Music Festival was an unqualified financial success, drawing 42,000 people the first day and about 35,000 the next. This year’s event, which features R.E.M., Al Green, Steve Earle, String Cheese Incident, Lucinda Williams and about 125 more acts over three days at Zilker Park starting today, is expected to draw upward of 60,000 fans a day. Stapleton’s company, once based out of an office in his house and now occupying half a floor in a swanky office tower next door to the Four Seasons Hotel, appears poised to hit another one out of the park. “I’ve always been a music fan, and I’ve always loved huge events,” said the 38-year-old son of a dentist and a nurse from rural Illinois. He credits his staff, especially cool-headed CSE director of events Jones, and well-connected booker and co-promoter Charles Attal with making the Austin City Limits Fest among the top live music events in the country in less than two years.

“Last year it was a lot harder convincing agents that this was a happening event,” said Attal. “This year they’re all calling us.” An extra day, Friday, was added this year, in part to fit in all the national acts that wanted to play. “If our company has an overriding philosophy, it’s this: Find the best, most passionate people in their field, trust them and give them a platform to win,” Stapleton said from his boardroom, which features a plastic Yoda, the CSE lucky charm, as a centerpiece.

Stapleton’s company acquired Jones’ Middleman Productions, which produced the first Lance Armstrong celebration at Auditorium Shores, in August 2001. Last year CSE tapped George Couri to head the artist management division, whose clients include Abra Moore, Jack Ingram, New York duo the Pierces and others. “Bill said that the company would be additive, not intrusive, to the way I’ve worked in the past,” said Couri, “and that’s how it’s been.” Couri will direct CSE’s first foray into CDs, a live recording of this year’s festival that is expected to be released by the New West label, though negotiations are ongoing. Next year, CSE will branch out to television, co-producing the 30th season of “Austin City Limits.”

The overwhelming success of the inaugural Austin City Limits Fest enhanced the relationship between CSE and public television station KLRU, which owns the long-running TV show. “When you win together, you bond, just like teams in sports,” Stapleton said. KLRU received a check for more than $100,000 last year on an unspecified percentage of ticket sales for use of the name.

While on a committee assessing the future of “Austin City Limits,”Stapleton came to the idea for the festival. “The Austin City Limits brand was getting kind of stale, in my candid view. The demographic was older,” he said. “So I was thinking about a big concert that would attract the younger demographic, yet still hold true to what the show is about.” Jones, whose organizational skill shined at the A2K event in downtown Austin, had talked about producing such a festival, an Austin version of New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, for years. Attaching the Austin City Limits name gave the venture a wallop of credibility with city officials who have been reluctant in recent years to have Zilker Park used for a large music festival.

It also didn’t hurt that Stapleton represented hometown hero Lance Armstrong, whose victorious battle with cancer was a nationwide feelgood story. Stapleton was a lawyer with Brown McCarroll & Oaks Hartline in 1995 when he got a call from his former business school professor, Frank Cross, telling him that an up-and-coming cyclist named Lance Armstrong had put out some feelers looking for an agent. “I think he respected that I was a former competitive athlete,” said Stapleton, who swam at the 1988 Olympics. “Plus, he liked that he could come over and knock on my door if he needed to talk to me.”

In October 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer, and it wasn’t known if he’d live, let alone ride competitively again. The next year, Brown McCarroll decided to eliminate the agent sideline, and Stapleton left the firm to start his own sports management office. He took one client with him, the bald one in the hospital bed. “Lance and I are a lot alike. We’re very driven and have high expectations,” Stapleton said. But this ride has not always gone smoothly, he said. “Lance doesn’t hold things in. We deal with stuff right away, which, I think, is the key to our working relationship. We’re in constant communication.”

Stapleton said that, despite the emphasis in diversifying CSE to music, television and beyond, Lance is his No.1 priority. “When he calls it’s like an alarm going off. Drop everything!” Such loyalty is welded by unfathomable success together. “Our whole world changed after Lance won the Tour. It was like being in the middle of a tornado. I had to keep telling myself, ‘You can handle this. You can manage the greatest athlete — and the greatest sports story — of our time.’ ” Lance became “Mike On a Bike,” a Jordanesque winner with unlimited endorsement potential, and the folks from Nike, Coca-Cola, Bristol-Myers, Subaru and more came courting. With his fifth consecutive Tour de France victory this summer, Armstrong is expected to bring in $16.5 million in endorsements this year, according to Outside magazine. Though Stapleton declined to reveal the terms of his deal with Armstrong, at the standard agent/manager rate of 15 percent to 25 percent, he earns well over $2 million a year. Add wife Laura Stapleton’s salary as a partner at the prestigious Jackson Walker law firm, and you wonder why the couple and their growing family haven’t moved from the cozy, modest Clarksville house they bought soon after they married in ’95 into a mansion in the hills west of town.

“We don’t want our girls to grow up in a big house in the middle of nowhere. We want to take them for a walk over at the dog park a couple blocks away or take them to the Italian coffee shop,” he said. “We love the sense of neighborhood.” Stapleton grew up in a big house in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of pig farms outside Edwardsville, Ill. A competitive swimmer since grade school, he decided to get really serious about the sport in high school, driving an hour each way, before and after school, to train at a highly regarded swim club in St. Louis. “I’d wake up every morning at 3:30 and I usually wouldn’t get home from the second practice until 8 at night,” he said. “But I was determined to get an athletic scholarship for the swim team.” Stanford, Texas and Harvard recruited him and he chose to be a Longhorn because of his affinity for coach Eddie Reese, whom he calls “the greatest swim coach in the world.”

Stapleton’s specialty, which brought him gold at the 1987 Pan American Games, was the 200 individual medley, a combination of the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Stapleton’s medley these days includes a post as vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Then there’s the Lance Armstrong biopic that Stapleton has been developing with former Steven Spielberg producer Frank Marshall. “It’s gonna happen,” Stapleton said of what he hopes to be the first of several CSE movie projects. Butterfly, backstroke, freestyle. Sports, music, television, movies. “I’ve always been better when I’m doing a variety of things,” Stapleton said recently, as he followed his two rambunctious daughters, 4-year-old Alex and 2-year-old Ella, around his office just before he left town on a five-day business trip. “My swimming times were better when I took a full load at school.”

His childhood dream was to stand on a platform at the Olympics with a medal draped around his neck as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Instead, he finished a distant 16th at the Seoul Olympics. Though he had an excuse — he caught the flu during training camp and never regained his full strength — Stapleton still looks back on the experience as a big disappointment in a life that hasn’t had many.

With his first client, Stapleton became a big winner in the cutthroat field portrayed in the movie “Jerry Maguire.” And his first major music venture, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, promises to be a profitable Austin attraction for years to come. But Stapleton knows that his 5-year-old business will not always be so charmed. “There are going to be failures,” he said. “Last year’s Austin City Limits Fest looked like it was going to lose money until a few days before the event. I know we’re going to hit some bumps. But my feeling is that if you succeed all the time, you aren’t taking enough risks.”

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