AUSTIN, TX--The conference room at the headquarters of C3 Presents is notable for three fixtures that symbolize the aesthetic of the ambitious promoters who bring Lollapalooza to Grant Park.
There's an oft-used beer keg like you'd find in the basement of a frat house. There's a giant photo mural of Lollapalooza with the Chicago skyline in the background. And there's a huge fish tank.
"Piranhas," C3 co-founder Charlie Jones said as I eyed the murky waters. "I raise them."
Last March, during the South by Southwest Music Festival in their home town of Austin, I conducted a long interview with the "three Charlies" who lead C3: Jones, the mover and shaker behind the revitalized Lollapalooza; Charles Attal, who oversees booking for Lollapalooza, the Austin City Limits Festival and the company's other venues, and Charlie Walker, formerly a top executive with giant national concert promoters Live Nation, now spearheading C3's growth into new venues and other markets such as Soldier Field and the Congress Theatre in Chicago.
(I last profiled Attal and Jones in 2006, before Walker joined the company and Capital Sports and Entertainment became C3 Presents. For more on the company's origins, click here.)
Our conversation started off the record as the three Charlies expressed their opinion that this reporter has been unduly critical of many of their policies at Lollapalooza, notably the numerous corporate sponsorships (there's a long list of them on the festival Web site, but you can't link directly to that page) and the radius clauses that prohibit acts performing at the festival from playing anywhere near Chicago for months before and after. (Industry sources say the clauses range from a 90-mile radius 60 days before and 30 days after for smaller bands to a 300-mile radius five months before and three months after for top acts.)
Last year, Lollapalooza's primary sponsor, telecom giant AT&T, caused considerable controversy when its Blue Room Webcast of Pearl Jam's performance silenced the audio of singer Eddie Vedder as he made comments critical of President Bush, angering the band and its fans and providing a concrete example of how corporate sponsorships sometimes conflict with artists' right to express themselves. (The Daily Swarm reports that the Blue Room is once again streaming many acts this year.)
Meanwhile, many Chicago club owners, talent bookers, artist managers and fans have expressed increasing dismay about the radius clauses, saying that they have a devastating impact on the local music scene for a significant part of the year. (The comments of bookers for Metro, House of Blues, the Empty Bottle, the Abbey Pub, and Reggie's and the Bottom Lounge can be found on my blog here; Time Out Chicago is also reporting on this issue here, as is the Chicago Tribune, which adds the further nugget that C3 is very, very eager to play a role in Chicago's hosting of the 2016 Olympics, should the city succeed in its bid.)
In the on-the-record interview that follows, the three Charlies have their say about these issues, and their comments have been edited only for order and syntax.
Q. With the corporate sponsorships, if a headlining band said, "We don't play under corporate logos; we have a problem with that," what would you say?
Jones: No one's ever had a problem with it.
Attal: I don't think any band shows up and goes, "S---! They didn't tell us about the PlayStation Stage!"
Jones: The main reason why we do it is to keep our ticket prices down.
Q. How does that work?
Attal: It offsets the tickets. That's how we created the Austin City Limits Festival. Charlie and I basically put the dream festival together: the number of stages, the bands, the town and all of that. We packaged it up and said, "This is how much it's going to cost. If we need to sell this many tickets to get out there, that's what the ticket price is." Then we started selling sponsorships, and every dollar of sponsorship that we sold lowered the ticket price.
Q. How much would Lollapalooza tickets cost if you had no sponsorships?
Attal: Oh, God!
Jones: It's not possible to play in downtown Chicago at Grant Park. If we had a barn outside the city.... It would still be hundreds of dollars. We could do it, but it would be a disservice to the city and the fans.
Q. The two most comparable festivals in the U.S.--Bonnaroo and Coachella--charge $250 and $269 each for a three-day pass. Lollapalooza charges $205. That's less than the competition, but it isn't cheap.
Attal: The long and short of corporate sponsorship for us is that when the customer tells us that we've gone too far, we'll pull back. You know, Chicago is not a cheap place to do business. Manchester, Tenn. [site of Bonnaroo] and Indio, Calif. [site of Coachella], I don't think they face some of the expenses we face when dealing with a large municipality. We pushed the limit as far as we can to try and keep the ticket price down, and when we go too far, they'll let us know.
Ironically, the AT&T thing, the onsite presence they had was one of the most popular things we had. Granted, it's air-conditioned, but there were all the laptops in there and all that. The kids like it, they use it, and they tell us that they're O.K. with it. So as long as they are O.K. with it and the sponsors bring some benefit to the customer, we're O.K. with it.
Q. But AT&T is a good example of how corporate sponsorships of rock concerts can backfire: When AT&T's Blue Room Webcast silenced Pearl Jam's comments about President Bush, the band certainly felt aggrieved.
Jones: As they should have! I don't think anybody here or anywhere would disagree that they should have been aggrieved that that happened. It shouldn't have happened.
Q. But that's an example of how the goal of a corporate sponsor or promoter can differ from the goal of an artist.
Attal: That was a mistake.
Walker: Stuff happens in every business, and it's unfortunate that it happened. But I think in general Blue Room was a pretty good benefit to the customer that can't come to festival. It's pretty cool to see it [online].
Q. What do you say to Chicago club owners and fans who complain that Lollapalooza is hurting their business and the local music scene because acts are shut out of performing elsewhere for six months?
Walker: Look, the music business in North America changed. The festival model up here has worked. Whether it was C3, Live Nation, Jam or [Metro owner] Joe Shanahan on that site in this city, someone was going to do a festival. In this case it happened to be us. Yeah, it sucks up 130 bands in the summer. But they can still play the market in the fall.
Q. C3 owns several clubs in Austin. Would you be happy if all those bartenders, security guards, sound technicians and staffers suddenly lost a big part of their livelihoods? Half a dozen Chicago club owners have shared their schedules with me from before and after Lollapalooza, and in some cases, they now have half the number of shows they had in the summers before Lollapalooza.
Jones: I don't know what the facts are or what the show count is, but we're there and they are there. There is nothing I can really do about it.
Q. You could wave the radius clauses for all but, say, the top five or eight headlining bands each day.
Attal: So who is going to decide, "This band gets a radius clause and this band doesn't?" You can't do it that way. We have a radius clause because we don't want all of these bands playing all over the city. Not that they necessarily would, but it's to protect us.
Walker: Everybody does it. It's the way the business works, and it's good, sound business for us and the acts. That's the way we operate.
Q. You often say, "Lollapalooza is not in competition with Chicago clubs or promoters," but that certainly sounds like a competitive policy.
Attal: I've never had a band call me and say, "Hey, I want to play the Double Door" where I didn't say, "Great, let's call the promoter to play the Double Door."
Q. I know of a band that was scheduled to play a free lunchtime show at the Chicago Cultural Center a few years ago, and Lollapalooza made the group cancel.
Jones: That is not true.
Q. I'm telling you what the group's manager told me.
Attal: Well, we.... They probably read their contract and didn't call me and talk to me about it. Ninety percent of the bands aren't going to call me, they're just going to look at the contract. If someone calls me and says, "I want to play the Double Door, I want to play here, etc.," I'll work it out with them. I've done it in the past. But we can't let 130 bands go do side gigs, because then why do Lolla?
It might loosen up a little bit once this thing gets to the point where it's sold out. We struggled to get where we are today with it. You've got to weigh the pros and cons. Last year, we didn't crush it; we had a good crowd, but we didn't sell out. So we have to get to the point where ACL is... But we're not taking it out of our contracts. We can't. All the bands have to read it and if there is an issue, they can take it up with me and we will talk about it. No one has an issue with it.
Q. The Chicago music community has an issue with it. All of the club owners I've talked to have an issue with it.
Jones: But they're doing after-shows every night!
Attal: There's no question, if I was a club owner and a big festival dropped on my city, I would feel the same way. But I can't help the way the business changed in North America. That does not mean that we're not going to protect the integrity of our line up and say, "Go play where you want." It's not the way we are going to do business.
Jones: I don't know if it's about the radius clause or more about the fact that it's a huge vessel--it has changed the dynamic of the city. It's not like it was before Lollapalooza was there, but neither is Manchester, Tenn. or Nashville or wherever else.
Walker: It's not like we're sitting here trying to figure out how to negatively impact other businesses. We try to do the best we can.
Q. But you worked for Live Nation, Charlie. Jam Productions won a significant lawsuit against that company because an executive specifically said it wanted to "crush, kill, destroy" its competition in Chicago. It's not like this doesn't happen.
Walker: Sure, in any business it can happen. There are companies and individuals that work that way, but we're not one of them. We try to work and play well with everyone while keeping the integrity of the lineup.
Q. Let's talk about C3's plans for expansion. The company has talked about bringing Lollapalooza to Europe. You tried to book a festival on the model of Lollapalooza and ACL in Philadelphia this summer, but the city blocked it. Next, you announced plans to do the festival in Vineland, N.J., but that was postponed until next year after Coachella's promoters announced a competing festival with Radiohead on the same dates at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, 120 miles away. What happened?
Walker: Simple: We looked up and there was so much traffic on top of that date that we just started to move dates, and it was too much. The customer would have been unhappy with two major concerts competing.
Jones: Our ambition is not to go up there and have a bad festival ourselves and negatively impact [Coachella's promoters]. We think that the rising tide will float all boats if things get spread out, with all that population base and everybody being able to live up there and do well. So we don't want to go and crash their festival and ours. That's not how we play.
Q. Charlie, two years ago, you said the festival concept eventually will reach a saturation point across the country.
Jones: Oh yeah, there will be a saturation point.
Q. Will there be one festival left standing? Or is there room for two or twenty?
Walker: I think there will be some saturation point, but really I think how the live music business changes will kind of determine what that is, and I don't think any of us could say whether it's 15, 40 or 100.
Jones: I don't know how many.
Attal: Look at Europe! [The European concert scene has more than a dozen major summer festivals.]
Walker: They keep saying that they won't keep building condos here, either, but look out the window.
Q. Do you really think there is room for 20 of these festivals in the summer?
Walker: We'll see. There are already that many festivals, they're just not that huge yet.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jones reveals in a new interview with the Chicago Tribune here that all of C3's plans to expand to the New York/New Jersey area are now dead in the water. "That particular part of the country got too popular too fast; there are too many festivals in close proximity," he said.
Q. Let's talk about the Congress Theatre. Early this year, you announced an exclusive agreement to start booking that venue. How did you guys get involved there?
Jones: [Venue owner] Eddie[Carranza] came up to Charlie Walker at a panel at the Pollstar [concert promoters] convention and talked with him: "I know you guys are in Chicago, can we talk?" We were like, "Yeah, we'd love to talk!" We flew up, got back, cut a deal and it was pretty simple.
Q. Live Nation has been booking shows at the venue for some time, but the company has said it's not ideal; instead, it's hoping to renovate the Uptown Theatre to compete at that level. Everyone agrees that the Congress needs a lot of work, but no other company has been able to make a deal there that has made it worthwhile to make the necessary repairs and improvements.
Walker: Yeah, but I couldn't speak for... There are a few companies that couldn't get a deal, but I don't know why they couldn't. We could. Why? I couldn't say. It wasn't waving a magic wand. Probably our good looks.
Q. So Eddie still owns the venue, but C3 now has the exclusive deal to book it?
Q. Is C3 going to put up the money for repairs and improvements?
Walker: The way we did the deal was to get the booking deal done and let us get in there to see what's going on and evaluate what we need to do and how to work out the finances on the repairs. We kind of left that open because we didn't want to slow the whole thing down. We wanted to get in there and figure what the deal is, what works and what doesn't and what needs to be improved versus what is really just cosmetic, and we'll figure out how to pay for it.
Q. What do you want to do with the venue as far as the bookings?
Attal: The same stuff we're doing at Stubbs [C3's 1,800-capacity venue in Austin]. The Congress is a bigger room...
Walker: It's about 4,500.
Attal: No, it's not that big: about 4,000.
Jones: I think it's 4,200. It depends on cost. But we'll book everything we can that makes sense.
Q. Venues in the range of 1,200 to 4,500 capacity are the most competitive level of the concert business, certainly in Chicago. Live Nation has said it's working hard to take over the Uptown in order to compete with Jam, which controls the Riviera, the Aragon and the Vic. How will C3 affect Chicago by stepping into this fray?
Attal: We're niche builders. You've got to find a niche in the market to make a living.
Jones: We're opportunistic and it was a nice opportunity. Jam is going to get the shows they get and the Congress is going to get the show it gets, and I think that's why Jam isn't really threatened by this. They've been there a long time and they are going to get what they get. If there is some other stuff that is loose, we'll pick some of it up.
Q. You still haven't answered the question about fixing up the Congress.
Walker: We don't get into a deal to not be serious about it. We're not going to go half-assed with anything we're involved in. We pride ourselves on working hard and we'll do the best we can. We'll look at it in six months and evaluate what the room needs and go to Eddie and whatever Eddie wants to do with us we'll figure out. We have never gotten into that. All we've done is booking contracts and to get organized, and then we'll go from there.
Q. If you do a search of reviews or comments about shows at the Congress, across the board, writers and fans complain about the sound. It's a serious problem.
Walker: Yeah, we know. We've read about challenges there. Can you fix all of them? Probably not. Is any room perfect? There are some rooms that don't sound good. I read some reviews of shows that were great at Congress.
Jones: It's not like we're Live Nation. We can't close a place and put $10 million in and reopen. We have to chip away at it. You go to any city and there are a lot of shows that don't sound that good. I'd love to build a new 4,000-seater in Chicago that sounded flawless, but.....
Q. How does Lollapalooza play into the new relationship with the Congress?
Attal: We'll have after-shows there.
Q. But if you have a band that wants to play Lollapalooza, will you then say, "Sure, but you also have to play the Congress on your next stop in town"?
Atall: We don't play that way. It seems that we might, but if you start saying that to a [band's] agent, they'll say, "You know what? F--- off!"
Jones: I'll tell you what: We're going to enforce our own radius clause on our own gig!
Walker: That's how maniacal we are!
Attal: You know what I'm trying to do? Every time a band plays Lolla, yeah, I'll try to get them to play the Congress. I would love that. Will I do it? If we can fill the Congress for two or three days? I don't know if we can, it's a game. But I'll see if we can try.
Q. Why this expansion into Chicago? Is it to build on the presence of Lollapalooza?
Walker: It's an opportunity. We went in, we met Eddie, we liked the room, we think there is a lot of potential there and we cut a deal. If that happens in another city where there is an opportunity where we don't have to put $30 million dollars in, we're there!
Q. Live Nation currently books the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island, but its contract expires next year. I've heard that you hope to take over that venue.
Walker: Of course! There's a long list of people who will be on that one, and we're one of them. Live Nation should know that everybody and their brother are going to be on that.
Jones: We will chase that down as hard as we can.
Q. Are you planning anything else in Chicago?
Attal: We'd love to go smaller than the Congress, but you know what the real estate costs in Chicago! It's not like we can plant a seed and grow out there. We have to find another partner or another opportunity. We'd absolutely love to get into the smaller venues. We started off developing [small clubs]... We want to look downstream at the smaller markets.
Q. What can you say about your deal at Soldier Field? You partnered with SMG, the venue managers, for a new long-term contract to bring more music and other unnamed sports and entertainment events to the home of the Bears. And you beat out Live Nation, which was bidding for the same contract from the Park District.
Walker: Well, we were brought in by SMG. I think if you look around the country, the number of sheer stadium shows is so miniscule that to really generate new incremental revenue, you have to create events. I think over the next 12 months, what we're charged with is trying to create events that are basically from scratch at Soldier Field to help them create incremental revenue.
Q. That means other things besides music?
Walker: Yeah, but whatever works, works. It doesn't have to be music.
Q. Is there a personal satisfaction for you in beating Live Nation at Soldier Field, Charlie?
Walker: No, not beating them specifically. We know we'll do well.
Q. But you came from Live Nation.
Walker: I did. A lot of times in the music business, it's not good enough for us to do well--everyone else has to do terribly. So far, we haven't jaded ourselves that far. We're happy with doing well ourselves. We do stuff with Live Nation [since taking control of the Congress, C3 has co-promoted several shows there with Live Nation]; we work with them. We'll work with Jam. We're very open to working with other promoters who are credible.
Jones: We're not as territorial as some of the other promoters. We've been able to work with almost everybody. We've done shows with almost everybody.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In June, as part of his series on "Chicago's New Power Generation," Sun-Times investigative reporter Tim Novak wrote about the role that attorney Mark Vanecko, a nephew of Mayor Daley, played as a lawyer and lobbyist for Lollapalooza's promoters: "In 2006, he got them a five-year deal with the Chicago Park District--the Daley-controlled agency that had long been persnickety about rock concerts in Grant Park... that will pay the Park District $5 million." Some of the following comments were included in that article, which can be found here.
Q. Charlie, your signature is on the page of at least one contract listing Mark Vanecko as C3's attorney and lobbyist, information the company legally was required to disclose. When did you turn to Vanecko and hire him as an attorney for Lollapalooza?
Jones: I don't know what to say other than he is our attorney.
Q. On all matters, or just Lollapalooza?
Walker: I'll say this: Currently we don't have any other matters.
Q. There was the Soldier Field proposal that went to the Park District.
Walker: He did not work on that.
Q. There was the deal for the Congress Theatre.
Attal: He did not work on that.
Q. So the mayor's nephew has only worked for you on Lollapalooza?
Jones: You're an investigative reporter; you can find that out. You can look at dates and do research and you should be able to answer your own question about when he got involved. But Lollapalooza was booked and done long before.
Q. I understand Vanecko represented C3 on the five-year contract, which just started last year, but that came after the first two concerts that you did in Grant Park. Was Vanecko your attorney from day one with Lollapalooza in Chicago?
Jones: No. He'll tell you that. The Park District will tell you that.
Q. So then why did C3 hire him out of all the other attorneys in Chicago to work on the five-year deal with the city?
Attal: We met him through a friend of a friend and we became friends with him. He's a friend of ours. That's basically it. There isn't anything mind-blowing about how we met him.
Q. Can you see why having a politically connected attorney might be a question in Chicago when your company is trying to expand in this city?
Jones: It makes no sense to me, but...
Attal: But, no he didn't work on the Soldier Field deal...
Jones: He wanted nothing to do with it.
Attal: And no, he didn't work on the Congress deal.
Walker: He is our lawyer. If we had reason for him to do paper on the Congress deal, maybe...
Jones: We have a lawyer in-house as well.
Walker: But if there was need for him to add an amendment to the Congress deal, maybe. We have a lawyer in-house, Mark's up there, so if the lawyer in-house has too much work, Mark may do it, or not. I mean, it's like anybody else with an attorney... big, small, whatever.
Q. Does Vanecko have a personal financial stake in Lollapalooza or C3?
Q. Does he do work for you in other cities?
Jones: He does do work for us in other cities, but I don't really want to tell you what because we're working on other things...
Greg [Kot of the Chicago Tribune] asked us this the other day, he wanted to know how we got to Chicago, and I said, "Well, we were just naive enough not to know that we needed to know anybody." We had a great product, we sent somebody up to the Park District who spoke publicly and the deal got done before anybody realized it was actually happening.
Q. You were "naive enough not to know that you needed to know anybody"?
Jones: Does that make sense?
Q. But you wound up with the mayor's nephew as your attorney.
Jones: It had nothing to do with him being the mayor's nephew. Our deal was already done. It had nothing to do with that. So what?
Q. People who are skeptical of Chicago politics might say that a connection to the mayor's nephew carries a lot of good will in the city that no else in the music community benefits from.
Jones: So what? So what? Would it be different if I hired your nephew? Would that give me good will in the paper?
Attal: Not with Jim!
Q. Probably not. Thank you for your time, gentlemen. You've answered all the questions I had to ask.
Jones: Now we'll see how we answered them as vaguely as we possibly could.