Executive Profile: Freddy Fletcher

The journey to creating the $40 million Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theatre, the newest venue in the city known as a live music mecca, was a long one that has yielded a facility that has firmly established itself in a very short time.

The 2,765-capacity venue, co-founded by Freddy Fletcher, managing partner and head of production, opened in February 2011 and hosted about 90 concerts featuring top-name acts. It was named Best New Major Concert Venue at this year’s Pollstar Concert Industry Awards.

By year end, ACL Live was listed at No. 52 on Pollstar’s Top 100 Theatre Venues chart with 108,189 tickets sold.
The state-of-the-art venue, now home to PBS’s long-running “Austin City Limits” TV show, features various seating options on three floors and attention to detail among all its amenities.

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Another asset is that the venue’s in-house production company and facility, Stageside Productions, can handle audio and visual recording, live streaming and other related services in one place.

Fletcher’s industry interest began early on, with his mother being Sister Bobbie Nelson, who performs solo and on the road with his uncle Willie Nelson.

“It was a natural thing for us. Music was something my great-grandmother actually taught the whole family. She was a music teacher and she lived with us on and off for a while,” Fletcher told Pollstar. “All of our lives, [Mom] was either teaching music or she’d play at night”

The Texas native took those early memories and work ethic with him to Nashville in the mid-70s, where he first gained experience working for publishing companies. It was during that time that he discovered the production side and found his niche.

His interest in preserving the environment, including at one time opening a bottled water business, played a part in the story when it merged with ACL Live. The facility is one of two dedicated live music venues in the nation to attain LEED certification.

It was a suggestion from Willie Nelson to design and build a studio in Austin that planted the seed for what has become ACL Live, co-founded by Fletcher and Beau Armstrong of Stratus Properties with partner Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds.

Fletcher was busy preparing for shows with acts including Alejandro Escovedo & The Sensitive Boys, Juanes, Nas, Jay-Z and taping Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s concert during SXSW, where The Boss was keynote speaker, when he talked to Pollstar about how the dream became a reality.

When did you first get into the industry?

I started playing drums in the fifth grade. My mom, at the time, was a solo act. She had us three boys, so she wasn’t out on the road. The stuff that she played was a lot of old, classic songs, a lot of Glenn Miller.

She’d play the organ with her left hand, the bass with her feet on the pedals, the piano with her right hand and I’d play brushes. I learned a lot of different styles of playing and I was a kid making money.

She had three or four places that she’d play in Austin. When we moved to Nashville, she had a regular place that she’d play and I’d perform with her three nights a week.

You saw first-hand your mom and uncle’s process in the business. How did that impact your own career?

When I was younger, especially in my 20s when I was trying to establish myself, I kept [the family affiliation] private. I wanted to prove to myself that I could survive in a big world like that without the family propping me up. That was important to me and I think it was the best thing I ever did.

How did you get interested in production?

I had moved to Nashville in 1975 or 1976. I worked at some publishing companies and started doing demos. I worked with songwriter Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shavers, then started doing session work. At the time, publishing companies always needed people to do sessions, so that’s kind of how I got into production. It was something you needed to learn and I liked it.

There wasn’t a lot of live work in Nashville [at the time]. You had to go on the road or you had to play sessions. My thinking was, and still is, that to survive in the music business you’d better learn as much as you can. It was great training.

What grabbed you about the job?

There’s satisfaction in making records and being a part of the process. It’s very creative. On the road, you do a show and when you’re done, it’s over. [But] when you’re putting out a product, it’s like a tattoo. You’re not getting rid of it. It’s still out there once you’ve finished.

How did your interest in a bottled water business play a part in this story?

I’ve always been kind of an environmentalist. I’d done a lot of investigation into it and I was fascinated by it. I was reading EPA studies about DDT seeping into the ground water from agriculture. I’d lived in L.A. for a year and I knew the drinking water there wasn’t very good.

A friend of mine in Georgia had this beautiful property with artesian wells on it that had been in his family for a long time. I went down there with him and it was amazing. The fish and everything there was so healthy and vital … and these geysers would come up and just run off into the river. We were going to build a bottled water plant in Savannah and [he] could sell it in bulk. It was a good thing for people, so I really got into it.

What changed your mind?

I’d been living in Nashville and Willie and Mom had moved back to Texas, so I spent Christmas with them. [While I was there] I was in the middle of a production so I needed a studio in Austin. I was also trying to raise money from investors for the bottled water thing.

I was doing production work at a local studio and [I learned] the guy at the studio was going out of business. Willie at the time owned this great venue called the Austin Opera House – it’s a very famous, old place – so I told him about [the studio closing]. He said, “Why don’t you just go build a studio at the Opera House?” So there went my water business.

What happened next?

I built Arlyn Studios, which is still there today. That’s kind of where I got the idea for what we’re doing at ACL Live. The studio was separate but was hardwired to all the stages. I thought it was really cool. We could record live performances, we could shoot video out of there, we could do radio broadcasts.

Were concerts always a part of the plan?

It just evolved. I came from being either a musician or the production part of it but putting on a concert, you’ve got ticketing, marketing, promotion. That was never my thing. I understand it, but that was something I never dove into because I’d rather be on the creative side. That was my first time getting into the production of live stuff in a studio setting.

[With Arlyn Studios], I think the theatre held about 2,000, maybe 2,500. We had a lot of major acts in there.

When did the planning for ACL Live begin?

My partner, Beau Armstrong of Stratus Properties, and I started discussing it probably 10 years ago. He’s a real estate guy here and one of my best friends. He loves music and would come over to the studio now and then. We looked at a couple of properties and started kicking the idea around.

For years, the TV show had outgrown its space and they needed to move. They’d looked at a lot of different spaces and at one time had even come over to the Opera House, but it wasn’t set up. This was going on before we started dreaming up the facility here.

There were two properties owned by the City of Austin up for bid – one was an old power plant called Seaholm and the other was Block 21 – the property we’re on now.

Beau won the bid on this property, and part of what you had to do with the city was involve a nonprofit. The perfect partner for that was PBS station KLRU’s “Austin City Limits” because we already wanted to build a TV studio, production studio and a theatre.

This property was the best of all worlds because it was a vacant city block. We didn’t have to tear anything down and you could build your dream place from scratch, which was huge. Most places you’d have to go in and retrofit, which involves a lot more.

As we got into this project, Magic Johnson and Bobby Turner at Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds came in as partners.

How did Canyon-Johnson hear about the project?

Beau was introduced to the Canyon-Johnson team through a mutual friend. They must have liked the project because they became partners with Stratus Properties in the whole block, which includes the theatre, retail space, condos and a W Hotel. They have been a great group of guys to work with.

How long did it take to complete construction?

We started the planning process about six years ago. We had a lot of really good people involved in that – architects, acoustic guys, theatre consultants – and we took a lot of time with it.

Beau and I would fly to all the major venues around the country and talk to the owners and operators. We asked, “If you could build something from the ground up, how would you do it and what would be your most important [features]?

I’m sure you two had your own ideas going in.

Absolutely. You want the artists to be as comfortable as you want your patrons to be. Those are the things we really tried to spend some time on – sightlines, dressing rooms and load-in for the artists, plenty of bathrooms – things that some places don’t have.

The photo galleries here are wonderful, too. There’s one with all the history by Scott Newton, who’s been the photographer for “Austin City Limits” for years, on the mezzanine level. The other one is by Jim Marshall, who basically shot rock ’n’ roll history. His estate along with Jack Daniels has sponsored the exhibit in the gallery on the top floor.

All those things make people happy and it’s been so good for the city. The artists that come here love it. And we’re a LEED-certified building, which is huge.

Were there many roadblocks along the way?

When we had the big bank collapse a couple of years ago, our construction lender went under and we had to scramble to secure alternative financing. That was a tricky and scary period because it was a challenging time to get financing. No one was lending money.

I have to hand it to Beau and the Canyon-Johnson guys, they pulled it off. We were a good three years into this and we didn’t have to stop construction.

Would you say that was the biggest challenge?

I think it was the biggest hiccup. Other than that, the LEED certification is very stringent, so that was a challenge to make sure you’re building something that’s environmentally correct. It’s a serious accomplishment.

We were lucky that there’s a lady named Gail Vittori, former head of the U.S. Green Building Council, who lives here. She and her team helped us every inch of the way.

The different seating capacities on each floor seems like an advantage to bringing in good-sized crowds.

Yes, and it still remains intimate even when it’s at capacity. The furthest seat from the stage is about 75 feet. That’s the worst seat in the house.

How often does the ACL show tape there?

The “Austin City Limits” television season consists of 18-22 tapings a year. They also host their fund-raising galas and other KLRU shows there.

Do you handle outside production projects as well?

Oh, sure. We’re a work for hire. An artist that’s playing [in the area] can come in and say, “Hey, we want to hire you guys and take this stuff with us.” That’s what we’re doing for Springsteen. He’s playing a surprise show here at SXSW and we’re recording it. [We’re] also recording Nas for Vevo, and American Express just taped and live-streamed a Jay-Z show in the venue.

And it’s a no-fuss environment for clients.

It’s so easy. You don’t have to take trucks or anything – just plug it in and go. It’s really unique and part of the $40 million [investment]. It’s expensive to do, but I think this is the wave of the future. The fact that you can sit here and have a band seen all over the world from your theatre as they’re playing is intriguing to me.

That was the whole point for Beau and I. I felt this [setup] was going to be the future and now you’re seeing it more and more. To have that infrastructure built in is really remarkable and the theatre is basically a sound stage. You could shoot a commercial here if you wanted to.

Any new plans for the venue in the works?

We’re about to make this a full 3D production facility. I don’t know of another in the world so I’m really excited about it. Glassless 3D has already been developed and they’re coming out with 3D phones, tablets and laptops. You’ll be seeing a lot more 3D content.

What are you most satisfied with now that ACL Live is a reality?

For me, personally, it’s the production company – that’s kind of my driving force – and shooting the shows. There’s a tremendous amount of details and work that goes into it, but once you turn the cameras on and all the hard work pays off, it’s a good feeling.

To have great shows coming out of your building for people to watch for years to come is also very satisfying to me.

It appears you’ve met the right people at the right time throughout this process.

It’s been a great ride doing this. Now that we have a year under our belt and we’ve gotten that wonderful Pollstar award, I’m happy.