Monday, June 17, 2024

Charlie Company: The Roots of C3

December 2014

Since the news of the sale was taken out with the trash last Friday, a lot of people have asked me about the purchase of Austin-based C3 Presents by the world’s largest concert promoter Live Nation. A tweet I posted during the first weekend of ACL Fest started a flurry of news reports, including one from the New York Times which had a source confirming that Live Nation paid about $125 million for 51% of C3, which has produced the Austin City Limits Music Festival- and about 800 other shows per year- since 2002.

C3 Presents, which began its charmed run as Capital Sports & Entertainment, sold more than $136 million in tickets in 2014, according to Billboard magazine, with $38.4 million coming from the double-weekend ACL Fest. Lollapalooza in Chicago took in $28.8 million during its three days in August, while the three Lollapalooza festivals in South America (Chile, Brazil, Argentina) grossed about $37 million combined. Pretty impressive for a company based in a medium-sized market, but those are not huge numbers to Live Nation, which grossed over $2.1 billion in 2014. What Nation, Live gets in its acquisition of C3 is a stronghold in the growing festival market. The three Charlies- Jones, Attal and Walker, who are all in their forties- landed on paydirt with the ACL Fest urban park model, but really gold-plated their rep as savvy, aggressive, high-stakes concert promoters when they revived the carcass of Lollapalooza in 2005. That was just a year after the youth culture caravan was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, but C3’s research showed the brand still had great recognition, so they licensed the name and turned it into a destination festival at Chicago’s Zilker Park, which goes by Grant Park. That was genius, but in the beginning everybody thought these Texas hayseeds were crazy. In record-breaking heat, the maiden Lolla in Chicago lost upwards of a million dollars. But by the third year, they were selling out in advance. Which was great for Chicago’s Parkways Foundation, which gets 10% of ticket sales and recently extended the contract to 2021. There’s a lot of griping up there, too, about a for-profit company (from Texas, no less), blocking off a huge section of the city’s signature park. But Parkways will show you what all the money does, funding parks all over the city.

A city is supposed to pulse with excitement and nothing does that like a major music festival downtown. My feeling is that ACL Fest is the best use of Zilker’s Great Lawn all year. Yeah, it’s a hassle for a month, but what a way to show off the city! And make money for the parks in the process. That area of the fest used to be called the Zilker Soccer Fields. The ground was hard and full of stickers, but after horrid dust storms the fifth year, C3 started irrigating and re-sodding the grass and named it the Great Lawn. Now you see it full of picnickers on nice days- because of the improvements ACL Fest paid for. I don’t think it should move to Circuit of the Americas or any other site outside of town. Being where it is makes it special, and after Chicago, a bunch of other cities around the world (including Berlin in 2015) have copied the concept that started right here.

Charlie Jones, Charlie Walker, Charles Attal

CSE becomes C3

I knew Jones and Attal fairly well when they were starting out, but Walker, who left his job as president of Live Nation’s North America division in 2007 to become the 3rd C, was a bit of a mystery. Before Walker, ACL Fest and Lollapalooza were owned by Capital Sports & Entertainment, co-owned by Jones and Lance Armstrong’s agents Bill Stapleton and Bart Knaggs, and Charles Attal Presents, the booking arm. But when things were starting to get crazy, they brought in Walker, the fixer, to play the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction and complete the team, which was strange because you don’t see guys leave a top job in L.A. for a medium market. “I’m just an Austin kind of guy,” Walker said, but you had to wonder if the former Live Nation honcho was breaking ground for what’s just become. Stapleton and Knaggs retained some ownership points with the new company, but were no longer active in the day-to-day.

The main grumble I’ve been hearing is that a California company now owns the biggest Austin-based promoter, which just happens to have a lock on our downtown jewel Zilker Park. But, Live Nation and an earlier incarnation, Pace Concerts out of Houston, have been actively promoting shows in Austin for over 30 years. LN’s head of the North America concert division, Bob Roux, is based in Houston, where he started with Pace. He was the guy that promoted so many great shows at Southpark Meadows, including the lone Lollapalooza stop in Austin in 1995. Nothing is going to change. C3 is still going to run things, but now they’re part of a giant conglomerate.

Clown Meat time is over

Rather than dwell on the further Californication of dear old Austin, why don’t we celebrate a huge windfall victory for an Austin business that started out in a two-room office on West Fifth Street? In one room was fledgling talent booker Charles Attal, a 4th generation Lebanese-Austinite who filled the schedule at Stubb’s and managed Sire Recording Artists the Damnations. In the other room was Middleman Productions, AKA Charlie Jones, who grew up in College Station and came to Austin after high school.

Jones fell in love with a local band called Little Sister and never missed a show at Steamboat or the Black Cat. Eventually, he talked his way into working with the band: booking shows, lugging equipment, driving the van. He started out as a fan, but Jones told me that he was always known, even way back in high school, for throwing the best parties. So he started organizing shows in Austin, usually headlined by Little Sister. Then he got a real education by working with Tim O’Connor, the local concert guru, at Direct Events. O’Connor told him that if he wasn’t prepared to put all his money in a suitcase and throw it off the top of the city’s tallest building, he didn’t have what it takes to become a concert promoter. Attal, who would start booking Stubb’s at around the same time, likened the concert business to playing blackjack for 18 hours a day. But it turned out these guys were pretty good card players.

In the ’90s, Direct Events partnered with Pace, which kept an office for young go-getter Walker at O’Connor’s complex at the Backyard. The two proteges- Jones and Walker- butted heads early on and after working together at a crazy Offspring show in March 1995, Jones told O’Connor he couldn’t work with “that asshole” Walker anymore. This wasn’t good, so O’Connor made the two young men go out for drinks and Charlie and Charlie at the Yellow Rose eventually hit it off like Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. Even after Walker went on to rule North America for Live Nation, which one pundit nicknamed “Engulf & Devour,” the pair and Attal went on vacations together.

Attal’s entree in the music business was as the guitar player for a fun band called Clown Meat. They were pretty rough, but they were a band, which made Attal more qualified to book acts than the other four owners at Stubb’s. Music was just going to be an occasional sideline to the barbecue of legendary Lubbock pitmaster C.B. Stubblefield (who sadly passed away just before the opening). But the Fugees, or “the Fudgies” as Attal initially mispronounced the name,  changed all that. They were the hottest group in hip-hop when they played a SXSW showcase at Stubb’s in 1996- months before the joint was officially open- and they had to leave the uncovered stage when rain came pouring down midway through the second song. As word circulated that the show was over, singer Lauryn Hill came face-to-face with Attal. “But we want to play!” The greenhorn promoter did everything he could to see that it happened, and after about an hour delay, the Fugees came back onstage and just obliterated the crowd, which had stuck out the downpour. Charles Attal was bit hard by the biz bug.

Jones and Attal started out as nobodies on the Austin music scene, but were willing to do whatever it took to find their place. And now they’re shopping for jets.

ACL: the fest that almost wasn’t

This whole $250 million venture named C3 started when Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999 and his agent/manager Stapleton asked Charlie Jones if his Middleman Productions could put together a huge victory concert/celebration at Auditorium Shores. And could they do it in three days? Well, it was just one of those magical nights where everything went right. Then, Middleman confidently handled the city’s massive Y2K celebration and the world didn’t end, so Stapleton brought in Jones to head his new live events division.

Jones didn’t have to walk but about four feet to ask Attal if he would book talent for Capital Sports & Entertainment (CSE). The first show they worked on together was the first ACL Fest, which they modeled after the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Again, it was a rush job, with Attal having two months to assemble the roster for a brand new festival organized by a new company. But Attal had been building ties with agents by overpaying for acts at Stubb’s, so favors were returned and such proven draws as String Cheese Incident, Pat Green, Wilco, Los Lobos and Emmylou Harris made for a respectable bill, though there were no superstars. Lance’s favorite band at the time, Arc Angels, reunited for the headline slot.

CSE figured they needed 30,000 people a day to break even, but when they put an initial allotment on sale for $20 each, two months before the Sept. 29-30 event, they sold only 700. There was a mild panic and Stapleton wondered if CSE should hedge its bets by announcing only half the lineup, then cutting back on the other half if the tickets tanked. They stood to lose more than a million dollars. It was a midnight call from a worried Stapleton in Bordeaux, where Armstrong was in the midst of his fourth consecutive Tour win, when the CSE principals decided that they would be a company that takes chances. “It was gut-check time,” Stapleton told me in 2003. “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?”

As it turned out, the maiden ACL Fest was an unqualified financial success, drawing 42,000 people on Saturday and about 35,000 on Sunday. Walkups for the $25 wristbands snaked in lines 500 yards long, but as soon as everyone got in, all that frustration disappeared, like arriving in Bora Bora after a horrible flight.

That was almost 13 years ago, but on the second night of the first year, came an ACL memory that has yet to be surpassed in my mind (though the Jones Family Singers came close in 2005). Onstage that Saturday night was sacred steel wizard Robert Randolph and the Family Band and in front of them were people as far as you could see, practically levitating from the Pentecostal-fueled jam. I was just drunk, but it felt like LSD, the way the power of the music hit me in waves. Standing on the side of the stage with Attal were his parents, who must’ve been worried when Charles, who’d been working as an auctioneer at his father’s estate sales, threw in with the stressful concert promotion business just a few years earlier. Lucky and Catherine Attal looked out at what must’ve seemed like a million people in their parental math and there was no mistaking the pride in their faces.

The skyline of the city sparkled in the background like possibility. It looked quite different than the one we see today, but the view has always been glorious from Zilker Park. Do we want to be the city that doesn’t take chances?

The joke around C3 has been that, since three-day wristbands usually sell out even before the lineup is announced, one year it would be revealed that the headliner is Clown Meat, while the three Charlies are sipping margaritas on a beach in Costa Rica. But after the deal with Live Nation, they’ve done even better.



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