Charlies in charge at Lollapalooza

July 30, 2006


  • With 130 bands on eight stages over three days next weekend -- a sprawling site covering all 319 acres of Grant Park -- and a total attendance that could top 180,000, the second installment of the reinvented Lollapalooza Music Festival will make history as the biggest concert Chicago has ever hosted.

    But the promoter, Capital Sports & Entertainment, is an Austin, Texas, company that remains an enigma to many local residents. Who exactly is throwing this enormous and unprecedented lakefront party?

    The driving force is an energetic and wildly ambitious tag team that some in the music industry simply call "the two Charlies" -- 37-year-old Charlie Jones, one of Capital Sports' three principal partners, and his friend, 38-year-old talent booker Charles Attal.

    Outside the music business, their names are barely known. But the man who launched them on the path toward success is a different story: bicyclist Lance Armstrong, winner of seven consecutive Tours de France in 1999-2005.

    They had us at hello

    The Capital Sports story starts in 1995, when Bill Stapleton, a native of downstate Edwardsville and a former Olympic swimmer, was working at a law firm in Austin and heard about an up-and-coming cyclist from nearby Plano who needed an agent. A year later, Stapleton left the law firm to start a sports agency. It was a scene right out of "Jerry Maguire," but things got off to a rocky start when his only client, Armstrong, was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer.

    At the time, Jones had risen from working in the concert business as a runner or gofer to booking an Austin club called the Backyard under the aegis of the city's then-dominant concert promoters, Direct Events. "Lance had just literally gotten his hair back after the cancer when just coincidentally we met," Jones said. "He wanted to come to shows at the Backyard, so I would hook him up, and we more or less became beer-drinking and golf buddies."

    Though he knew Armstrong was "a famous cyclist," Jones wasn't fully aware of his friend's status in the sport. "I remember in the summer of 1999, me and him would e-mail back and forth, and he was in Europe, training. He sends me an e-mail saying, 'My coach tells me that I have to turn my computer off because I have to go ride this race now.' I said, 'Well, have a good time, and I'll talk to you tomorrow.' That weekend, I'm flipping to ESPN, and there's 'Lance Armstrong wins the first stage of the Tour de France.' And I was like, 'Holy s---!' "

    When it began to look like Armstrong would win the entire race, Jones started to plan a proper homecoming. "We don't have a Chicago White Sox or a Dallas Cowboys in Austin; we have Lance Armstrong," he said. "I said, 'If he brings something big home, we need to do a citywide celebration.' Long story short, he wins, I put this citywide celebration together, and that's how I met Bill [Stapleton]."

    A short time later, Jones left Direct Events and started his own promotions company, Middleman Management, specializing in booking events such as Austin radio station KROX's annual Christmas and summer concerts. He shared office space in a 900-square-foot house with another young promoter, Charles Attal, the former guitarist for what one Texas critic called "the dreadful punk rock band Clown Meat."

    In the mid-'90s, Attal had been dabbling as an auctioneer for rare books -- his Lebanese father is a noted antiques appraiser -- when he stumbled into the role of talent buyer for a 2,200-capacity nightclub and barbecue restaurant called Stubb's.

    "A buddy of mine was starting up Stubb's and said, 'Hey, we're doing this thing, do you want to get involved and help with the bands?' " Attal said. "I went from there to being an investor, investing my sweat equity and the little bit of cash that I did have." Like many inexperienced promoters, Attal made some memorable mistakes -- he lost nearly $15,000 booking a George Clinton show -- and by his own admission, "Stubb's almost went under a couple of times. The first couple of years were really rough."

    "When Stubb's hosted the platinum-selling Fugees in 1996, Attal thought the name was pronounced 'Fudgies,' " Austin American-Statesman music critic and feature writer Michael Corcoran wrote recently.

    But Attal learned quickly -- he soon earned the nickname "Wolfie," as much for his voracious appetite in business as the fact that his given first name is Wolfred -- and soon he was booking other venues in Austin, as well as branching out to Houston and Dallas.

    The two Charlies -- as one

    Although many Chicagoans think of Austin as a Mecca for live music, thanks to the annual South by Southwest Music Conference, for much of the rest of the year, the city is a backwater that attracts a mere fraction of the touring acts that play Chicago. There's no comparison to the cut-throat competition in this city. In fact, things were so cozy in the small offices Jones and Attal shared that even though they had different phone numbers, some people in the music business wondered if the two Charlies were actually the same person.

    In August 2001, Jones abandoned Middleman and partnered with Stapleton in Capital Sports. Stapleton and the company's third principal, Bart Knaggs, oversee the sports agency, while Jones spearheads concert promotions.

    "We thought, 'You know, maybe if we work together, 1 + 1 will equal 4,' " he said. The company's subsequent success brought offers to sell out to larger firms, but Stapleton and Jones vowed to remain independent. "We were both like, 'I don't think I can go work for the Man.' "

    Jones remained close with Attal as Capital Sports grew. In 2002, hoping to create an event similar to New Orleans' Jazz and Heritage Festival, Jones approached the long-running PBS concert showcase "Austin City Limits" to lend its name to a massive concert in Austin's Zilker Park. He tapped Attal to book the talent, which was a tall order, since the first ACL Fest was thrown together in two months. But it proved to be a success: In its fifth year, this Sept. 15-17, it is expected to draw 70,000 fans a day.

    Today, Capital Sports and Charles Attal Presents officially remain separate companies, and they still pursue projects on their own: Attal is on course to independently promote 1,000 concerts in 20 cities by the end of 2006. But with ACL and Lollapalooza, the two Charlies are one entity, with Jones handling the political approvals and marketing, and Attal booking the artists. They share the same offices in Austin's San Jacinto Center, where the hallways are adorned with signed cycling jerseys, concert posters and guitars, and their combined total of 60 employees usually can be seen wearing the familiar yellow "Live Strong" wrist bands of Armstrong's cancer charity.

    Lollapalooza in their laps

    In a marked contrast to many concert promoters, Jones and Attal do not come across as enthusiastic or even particularly knowledgeable music fans: In a dozen conversations with this reporter over the last two years, neither has ever been the first to bring up a band or album he's excited about.

    From the beginning of the ACL Fest, they weren't unduly concerned with booking the kind of rootsy artists regularly seen on "Austin City Limits"; they just thought it would help to add the TV show's name to their festival, and they simply booked as many popular big-name acts as they could. They now are bringing that same approach to the TV show itself.

    In 2003, the show's home base of KLRU-TV struck a five-year deal with Capital Sports to co-produce and fund the broadcast. Reports in the Texas press say that Terry Lickona, who had produced the show since 1977, was shocked when he learned about the deal, and he remains wary of his new partners; in the Austin-American Statesman, Lickona described the relationship as "a work in progress." Jones is now a regular presence in the control room during tapings of "Austin City Limits," and any bookings on the show must be approved by him and Attal.

    Capital Sports has floated nebulous plans to further expand into broadcast with a reality TV show, as well as issuing CDs and making movies. (Stapleton is producing an Armstrong biopic.) It is involved in artist management -- clients include Ben Kweller, Jack Ingram and Blues Traveler -- and it's building the sports agency beyond Armstrong: It now represents 10 NFL stars, including Delanie Walker, Brian Carter and Willie Andrews.

    Then there's Lollapalooza.

    "These guys are real go-getters, really ambitious, and they want to be the biggest concert promoters in the world," Austin journalist Corcoran said in an interview. "Lollapalooza was a huge brand that had failed. They saw that, and they wanted to do something national -- something really big to break out of Texas and prove what they could do -- and they just followed the model of what they did with the ACL Fest."

    Launched by former Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell in 1991, Lollapalooza started as a traveling day-long festival epitomizing the alternative-rock era. It grew as Farrell partnered with the Hollywood-based William Morris Agency, but petered out when the alternative scene waned in 1998. Revived in similar form in 2003, it fell apart again in 2004. Music-business insiders thought it was dead for good -- until Capital Sports bought a controlling interest from William Morris, which maintains a stake, and Farrell, who was convinced to stay on as a spokesman and consultant after the two Charlies wined, dined and flew him to Europe to watch the Tour de France.

    Given that they had no interest in following the original Lollapalooza's edgy musical aesthetic, one of two key questions is why the two Charlies wanted the name: Like "Austin City Limits," they think it's a moniker people know and trust. At a press conference last year, Jones boasted that he'd conducted three years of "brand analysis and marketing surveys" to determine that "not only does this brand still have merit, but Lollapalooza is the most recognized name in music today."

    Getting to know you

    In mid-July, the two Charlies and their families temporarily relocated to Chicago, and they're living here through Lollapalooza. Asked what he's learned about the Windy City, Jones paused.

    "That's a loaded question," he finally said. "It's a very, very proud city. I think we had a reputation in Austin of being trustworthy, so we got a lot done for us by city officials, and the permitting processes was pretty easy. Since it happened once, I assumed it would happen again. It did not happen, and people were very skeptical, wondering about the kind of show we might bring. Plus, just being out-of-towners, no one here knew us: We had to prove ourselves. We learned the hard way, whether it was financially or with stress or with losing sleep. But we swallowed every punch that they threw at us, and we took it with a smile, knowing that if we did it the way we knew we could do it, it would work."

    Lollapalooza 2005 was indeed a well-run and fan-friendly show, but it was a financial failure in year one: Jones and Attal call it "an investment," though they decline to say exactly how much they lost. They're confident that this year will be a hit, however, and they claim advance ticket sales have already reached the break-even point -- which they also decline to specify.

    Meanwhile, the sheer size of Lollapalooza is having a big impact on Chicago's summer concert season, drawing dozens of acts away from other venues, and adding another twist to the intense competition between Jam and Live Nation.

    The two Charlies pay bands top-dollar fees, but they require "blackout dates" before and after Lollapalooza, prohibiting groups from performing here at other venues. Although Lolla's ticket prices are fairly reasonable at $65 a day or $150 for a three-day pass, this means that concertgoers who don't want to endure a hot and crowded festival miss out on seeing acts such as the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth at the Auditorium Theatre or the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. Jam and Live Nation also lose the profits from promoting those shows, though executives at those companies have refrained from bad-mouthing Capital Sports, at least on the record.

    "I don't think we really considered [the competition in Chicago] when we stepped into the ring," Jones said. "We have a certain business model that not many people have been able to figure out ... I think we just kind of operate fearlessly." Added Attal: "We're throwing one big festival. I know we're taking up a lot of the bands for the summer, but our world is so different, no one is doing what we're doing. I don't feel guilty [about competing with Chicago promoters] at all."

    Given such daring and ambition, many in the concert business believe that the two Charlies will never be content to keep Lollapalooza as a Chicago-only event, and that it's only a matter of time before they expand to other cities.

    It's a question they say they can't answer -- yet.

    Still growth potential?

    "I would be very happy if Lollapalooza was just a Chicago thing," Attal said. "I'm not going to say, 'No, we'll never expand.' ... Last year, we had big plans," Jones confessed. "We wanted to roll it up to a couple of cities in 2007, but it was a tough road last year: It stressed out the staff and stressed the company financially. Over the winter, when we regrouped, we knew that the most important thing that we could do this year was to pull off Lollapalooza in the eyes of the media, the fans, the bands and the industry. It's feeling good, but we're not there yet. When it's all over, I'm not going to say we're not going to talk about expanding. But right now, the number-one priority is pulling this thing off perfectly in Chicago."

    Right here, right now?

    The several-hundred-thousand-dollar question: Why did Charlie Jones and Charles Attal choose Chicago for Lollapalooza's rebirth?

    For one thing, they say they wanted a location in the center of the country that could draw music fans from either coast. For another, they saw that outside of their native Texas, more people came to their Austin City Limits Festival from Chicago than anywhere else in the country.

    Finally, the numbers showed Chicago was one of the nation's most vibrant markets for live music, and they were shocked that it didn't already have a major festival.

    But they didn't bother to investigate the reasons. Unaware of the city's contentious history of barring rock concerts from Grant Park, the two Charlies underestimated the amount of time, money and bureaucratic wrangling it would take to secure city approval. As a result -- and similar to the first ACL Fest -- they were left trying to pull their initial Lollapalooza together in about 10 weeks, instead of a preferred 10 months.

    Once again, Jones and Attal learned a lesson the hard way. But they still aren't completely in tune with Chicago politics, as evidenced by a gaffe earlier this year when they distributed promotional Lollapalooza rolling papers -- commonly used to roll marijuana cigarettes -- at a press conference with city officials. The controversy overshadowed the accomplishment they intended to trumpet: raising $400,000 for park improvements in 2005. (This year, Lollapalooza will contribute more than $800,000.)

    "Like a lot of Texans, those guys are pretty cocky, and they just thought they could go up there to Chicago, waltz in and do whatever they wanted to do," said a former Texas music promoter and rival who did not want to be identified. "A lot of us down here had a good laugh last year, watching them learn about dealing with Chicago politics, and we were laughing again this year with the whole marijuana thing. They don't seem to realize yet that they're in the big city now."