Jimmy Earl Talks 40 Years Of Frank Erwin Center

Austin is a major city in the North American music industry, and the 16,800-capacity Frank Erwin Center has been at the center of hub for more than 40 years. Pollstar managed to get the venue director, Jimmy Earl, to speak about the anniversary, the benefits of being in Austin and value of having a long-tenured staff.

The $55 million Frank Erwin Center first opened for business in 1977 and has since been a fixture in a music scene that also features SXSW, Austin City Limits, and a ton of small and medium-sized venues. The venue, located on the campus of the University of Texas, also hosts university men’s and women’s basketball annually, as well numerous private events.

There are several events lined up to celebrate the anniversary, perhaps the most notable of which is a “Strait Texas” show from the venue’s most frequent performer over the years: George Strait. The country icon technically retired from touring in 2014, but he’s still heading back to Longhorn Central for a 14th time. Tickets to the June 3, 2018 concert went on sale today.

This year the venue hosted the iHeartRadio Country Festival and acts like Stevie Nicks, J. Cole, and New Kids On The Block. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers stopped by in May on its 40th anniversary tour, five months before the death of the group’s legendary frontman.

Jimmy Earl has been with the Frank Erwin Center for more than 35 combined years and was gracious enough to speak to Pollstar about the venue’s upcoming anniversary. Frank Erwin Center marketing manager Laura Bennett, an alumni of the University, also joined us on the call and chimed in a few times.

Frank Erwin Center
– Jimmy Earl
Jimmy Earl, Director of the Frank Erwin Center

Frank Erwin Center is pretty stacked in terms of upcoming shows with Little Big Town, Lady Gaga, Dead & Company and Lana Del Rey all coming in the next six months. Can you talk about the philosophy of booking over the past 40 years?

We’re always trying to keep all of the top acts coming through here in Austin. We aggressively do that.

How do you stay competitive and aggressive?

Well, we have a great staff here and we’re in a good location, a good spot. Austin is a great music city and there’s a lot of interesting music in the region. We’re strategically located between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. We’re right in the heart of central Texas. That makes it a plus for us. We have a great staff here. We’re able to deliver the needs of our professional touring acts and I think that’s our advantage.

Can you speak on how Austin has become a hub for music?

First of all, I think Austin has always been a center and a hub for music. It has a very vibrant live music scene here. You can see some really, really fantastic acts almost any night of the week here in Austin. So we really have a history of being a live music capital.

You had the “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas” benefit last month. Can you talk about how that came together with so many artists?

Yeah, that was really a fast-moving event. We were really glad to have been a part of it. We worked with C3 Presents, which handled the production and booked most of the acts. So between our staff and C3, we put that together in probably less than two weeks. We put it out there on sale and got a great, great response. We had some really fantastic artists like Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon. Leon Bridges was there. A lot of really great acts came out and made that a great success.

Everyone associated with it, our food and beverage people, all of our vendors, they really stepped up and helped make that a success. … It was a great community effort.

From what I understand Austin wasn’t really affected by Harvey the same as east-Texas cities. What was the experience out there and how is the atmosphere over there now?

Of course we didn’t get the weather that coastal cities – Houston, Corpus Christie and some of those cities on Gulf Coast – got. We got some wind and rain but not anything like the people on the Gulf Coast.

I think initially people wanted to reach out and help in some way. That’s the way Texas people are. We get busy trying to help. Whenever we have any of our folks that need help we try to figure out a way to do that. That’s essentially what happened. Somebody had the idea to do it and it was a great cause and we had people like Willie Nelson and all these other great entertainers to get behind it. It’s really gratifying to be able to put that together so quickly and help those folks that are affected.

George Strait has a long history with your venue, and he’ll be back in 2018, despite being retired. Can you talk a bit about that relationship?

We have had a long relationship with George Strait. I believe that we have done 13 different George Strait performances here over the years. I think he holds the record for most single-artist performances with us. Coming up, our next show, I believe, will be number 14.

It’s always good for him to come out and do this. Especially as a part of our 40th anniversary, that is something we’re really excited about. Even though the show won’t be until a time much after our actual 40th anniversary, it’s a part of the series that we are doing for that 40th-year celebration. We’re really excited that he’s coming.

Can you talk about having your venue on a college campus? Is it a challenge having a transient audience that eventually graduates and leaves town?

You would think that would be the case, however, it’s not. Austin has a couple million people in the SMSA. While the University has more than 50,000 students here and we are on the campus, we do get an incredible amount of support from the region.

One of the things about Austin is a lot of the students that go to the University don’t leave. They settle here. Not all of them, but a fair amount of students choose to live here in Austin.

So we have that association and we are a part of the University of Texas here at Austin. But that dynamic that you describe is not so much the case with us. We do have students that do attend events but I think probably the larger Austin region also supports us, so that’s kind of minimized that factor.

Laura: And we bring in acts like Tom Petty and George Strait, that don’t necessarily target university audiences.

And we bring in quite a number of acts that do appeal to that demographic as well. I wouldn’t characterize it as being transient. I know that students do come and go and matriculate, but many of them do stay here and we get a tremendous amount of support from the region.

We do have a number of students that work here and do various jobs, interns and so forth. And some of those interns go on to become full-time employees.

Do you have anything you’d like to highlight about the 40 Anniversary?

I think primarily we want to thank our fans and the people that come to events here and are a part of that, who have allowed us to be successful for 40 years. In addition to all those events we have many other community events. We host men and women’s basketball games here. We have some private events. So we’re really grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this community and we’re really grateful for the support they have given us over this time.

I heard one U.S. arena recently had someone drive their car onto the floor after hours. Do you have any crazy stories from your time with the Center?

For the most part I think we’ve got some pretty well-behaved people. …

I think some of the things that seem crazy to other people we maybe take for granted. Like tight turnarounds. We probably put close to a million people through here a year. Sometimes people wonder how we do that. It’s not magic. We have a great staff, a dedicated staff that works hard. I certainly don’t have anything crazy like people driving cars onto the floor. I’m sorry to say that, but I’m glad too [laughs].

Laura: You know what is crazy is if add up all the years that our managers have been working here, that’s a lot of years. A lot of our department heads have been here for a long time.

Jimmy: Yeah, I think our shortest tenured department head has probably been here about 20 years or 15 years.

Frank Erwin Center
Roy Mata
– Frank Erwin Center

So people tend to stick around once they’re hired at the Frank Erwin Center?

Yeah, pretty much.

I would think that makes a really big difference.

It does. I think it shows how dedicated some of these folks really are. You know, we’ll have people that come here and work as students and after they graduate, many of them, not all, but occasionally, there’s an opening that they may be able to fit into and they stay for a while.

We try to keep up with the trends in the industry. Whatever’s going on with that. Sometimes that’s a little difficult to do. I wouldn’t consider that crazy [though], I think that’s just being diligent.

How long have you been with Frank Erwin Center?

Well, I was here from 1977-87 as the events manager. I left for four years, and I managed the Fort Worth convention center. And I have been back in Austin since 1990, with the Erwin Center. I was the senior associate director and I’ve been the director now for about a month.

Who’d you take over for?

John Graham. I’m only the third director in 40 years.

So you’ve seen everything change to live. You’ve seen the business go through so many changes.

That’s all true but live entertainment has always had a niche because it’s just not something you can get from a record. I think being a part of a group, being a part of experiencing your favorite artist live with 12-15,000 other people is something you can’t get from your iPod.

Congrats on all the continued success.

Yeah, we’re really fortunate to be in a great area, with a great institution in U of T, in Austin, having some really great support. So it’s really good all around.