Festival's Charlies respond to gripes

July 27, 2008


AUSTIN, TEXAS -- 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 hometown 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 growth into new venues and other markets such as Soldier Field and the Congress Theatre in Chicago.

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 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.

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 at http://blogs.suntimes.com/derogatis/2008/03/the-lollapalooza-that-ate-chic.html.)

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, syntax and space. For the full interview-including discussion of C3's plans to expand nationally, its goals for other venues in Chicago and its relationship to attorney Mark Vanecko, Mayor Daley's nephew, see http://blogs.suntimes.com/derogatis/.

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 United States -- 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 on-site 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 OK with it. So as long as they are OK with it and the sponsors bring some benefit to the customer, we're OK 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.

Attal: Bull----!

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 lineup 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.