Q’s With Moody Center’s Michael Owens: On Programming Austin’s ‘Newest Headliner’ In The Live Music Capital Of The World

This week, Austin, Texas’ Moody Center, a state-of-the-art $375 million arena, built for music and the University of Texas’ basketball teams, opens. The 15,000-plus-cap venue, built in partnership with UT, Oak View Group (Pollstar’s parent company), Live Nation and C3 Presents, replaces the 45-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Events Center and promises to have a major impact on Austin, aka “The Live Music Capital Of The World,” and its thriving music scene. Pollstar spoke with Michael Owens, the building’s vice president of programming, to find out more about the new building and its booking strategies, working with the University Of Texas’s Minister of Culture (aka Matthew McConaughey) and “keeping Austin weird.”


Pollstar: What brought you to Moody Center after stints as Director of Booking at Tulsa’s BOK Center, Director of Live Entertainment at CS&E in Vancouver and Assistant GM at Oklahoma’s Chesapeake Energy Arena?

Michael Owens: To join a company like Oak View Group, especially in what you could still call its infancy, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The leadership, both at the corporate level and here locally is unmatched. You don’t find a better CEO of a company than Tim Leiweke. And then the opportunity to come back and rejoin Jeff (Nickler, GM) and Casey (Sparks Asst. GM – formerly of the BOK Center) to open a new building, in the live music capital of the world and one of the most sought-after destinations in the country – I can’t think of any more boxes you need to check before you say, “Yeah, this is an easy decision.”

What’s your first steps when opening a new building in a new market and it’s a tabula rasa?
The first step is to understand the market, the history and the arena market. Moody Center is replacing the 45-year-old Frank Erwin Center. What we learned is that a lot of arena tours were skipping Austin because there wasn’t a truly world-class, built-for-music arena here. So we seek to be a solution to that problem. Here, it’s the Live Music Capital of the World and people assume every show comes here, but it’s honestly not the case. We’ve got to go out and almost re-educate the industry that there’s a brand-new, world-class, built-for-music arena here, you can no longer skip, on arena tours.

Austin’s one of the greatest places in the country for live music, you can go to a taqueria and see the coolest band. Music is in its DNA – how does that help you as a programmer?
Literally, you can’t step outside your house and not fall into a show. So when there’s that culture here you don’t think necessarily 15,000-plus-seat arena, Justin Bieber or Jimmy Buffett. But Austin’s changed a lot in the past decade when 200 people move here every day, there’s a whole new audience that come from all over the world that maybe isn’t used to seeing small club shows and are more accustomed to going to the big arena headlining shows. We certainly fill that niche, but also maintain that authenticity. We still maintain the culture here as a live music destination.

How have your partners here helped with that mission?
C3 Presents has super deep roots here in Austin; they’ve done a really good job positioning themselves to be able to cultivate a lot of that small talent, so that there’s literally a venue now at every step of an artist’s career. From a 100-capacity club, to a 1,200-seat theater, to a 2,500-seat club, to a 5,000-seat amphitheater and now a 15,000-seat arena, literally all in the same cultural district and same street in Austin. So it’s really special to say, “I saw that band play at Emo’s five years ago and now I’m going to see them at Moody Center.” That’s a really special thing that is unique to Austin.

How closely are you working with C3?
They are integral. They played an integral role in this project from literally its inception to helping to build it and finance it with Oak View Group and to help program it. Charles Attal and Amy Corbin play very pivotal roles here. Obviously, Charles is a legend in Austin, but Amy’s role here helping to program the building and their knowledge, history and deep roots here are such an asset, not only to the Austin music community in general, but specifically to this arena.

Does Moody Center have an outdoor space?
We have a very large outdoor plaza that will be home to a stage with a title partner, Hulu. It’s the Hulu Stage and we’ll program that space for pre-show or stand-alone events to complement UT home football games. It could become a tailgating space or a completely separate event space that we’ll utilize on dark days at the arena. So we do have this massive outdoor green space that we’ll have people on and program with music and food and beverage and make a whole event.

The partnership with the University of Texas is unique. How’s that been?
It’s been great. UT has been a partner in this endeavor since day one and their men’s and women’s basketball programs will call Moody Center home. Part of my responsibility is to help schedule those games. So working with our counterparts at the university, the athletic directors, similar to an NBA or an NHL building, to program their schedules and maximize days is in the best interest of our partnership. We’re off to the races with them and they’ve been amazing partners.

Have you been in touch with Matthew McConaughey, the University of Texas’ Minister of Culture?
I don’t think there’s a name more synonymous with Austin culture than Matthew McConaughey. From day one, he’s been involved in this project and, organizationally, we truly lean on his guidance and his experience here on how we can best maintain the authenticity that is Austin. That’s what he seeks to do in everything he’s doing. Everything from some of the premium spaces to the physical design to the core of the building has his fingerprints with the goal of truly being authentic to Austin.

There’s a mural in the building with the town’s mantra, “Keep Austin Weird”. What does that mean to you?
When I say maintaining authenticity, I think it’s integrating the culture that made Austin what Austin is. When people think of Austin, they think, obviously, live music; they think the arts community and, again, we talk about bands playing small venues and just the culture and the support from this community. And so we want to embody that in everything we do at this building; not just programming, but with murals and arts and décor. We want the community, when they come into this building, to feel like they’re in Austin. I think we achieve that by the way this building is designed and the way it’s come together.

Austin’s New Headliner: The brand, spanking new Moody Center, a state-of-the-art music and basketball arena on the campus of the University of Texas opening with two shows from John Mayer April 20-21, followed by the Grand Opening Celebration featuring George Strait, Willie Nelson and the Randy Rogers Band April 29-30. Photo by Dalton Johnston / Courtesy Moody Center

Why did you book George Strait to open Moody?
Opening a building, your goal is to pay homage to the state or to the region. And I don’t know if there’s a name that is more synonymous with the State of Texas than George Strait. Then it became, “How do we make it a truly special occasion?” And then we thought, “Well, who’s more iconic in Austin than Willie Nelson?” And then, “Well, we gotta make it bigger. Who else represents Texas country music?” Well, Randy Rogers Band – truly Texas, country road warriors. Let’s make it a big, special event and truly represent with this iconic trio of Texas country artists, who truly represent the State of Texas and celebrate the people and the culture and the music that makes Texas so great. That’s how it all came together.

How fast did it sell out?
We rolled into the second show during the presale on the first show and they both flew off the metaphorical shelves in minutes. The demand was just unbelievable.

How closely did you work with Messina Touring Group?
We’re in lockstep with Messina Touring Group on the show. They have a pretty iconic presence in Austin with their headquarters here. Louis [Messina] and George [Strait] have worked together for so many years that we approached them with the idea. They were excited, obviously, with their presence in Austin and they want to see something really, truly special here, too, for this community. They’ve been on board and great partners throughout it all.

You go from John Mayer, Bon Jovi and Justin Bieber to George Strait, The Who, into the iHeart Country Festival, Dave Matthews Band, Eagles, Jack White, so it’s big rock, pop, country, straight out of the gate?

And then have Machine Gun Kelly, Jimmy Buffett and “Cheer Live”? Tell me about “Cheer Live.”
There’s a Netflix show called “Cheer,” it’s a reality show that follows cheerleading teams as they practice and compete and the struggles of cheer life. They put together a touring live show with these athletes and we get the privilege of hosting them in June.

You also have Bocelli, classical; James Taylor and then what’s “Dude Perfect?”
It’s a Texas group of guys who became big YouTube stars doing really cool tricks, throwing footballs down a football field and making a shot into a tiny bucket and doing it on a pair of skates. It’s a really fun kind of extreme sports event.

Then Leon Bridges; you have comedy with Kevin Hart, Lumineers, and then you’re hosting EDM with Swedish House Mafia?
Yep, you bet.

And then the PBR team series – is that a new rodeo event?
It’s their team series, which is brand new. Austin is now home to the Austin Gamblers PBR team and the date at our arena will be their home field or home turf event.

That takes place on the floor?
Yeah, they’ll literally clear the floor and truck in however many times the dirt and cover the floor in dirt. And this building becomes a rodeo. And people wear their cowboy boots and pearl snaps and it’s a lot of fun.

That’s already a lot.
As you rattle off all the list of events there, it’s important to touch on all the different various promoters and producers involved. Maybe there’s a perception that because of Live Nation’s position in this project that we don’t work with other promoters, but that’s absolutely not the case at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We are aggressively trying to work with AEG and Louis Messina, PBR, Gelb Production and regional promoters. We’ve got a lot of dates to fill; there’s so much demand for content here, we’re reaching out to everyone.

Your last announced show is Oct. 17 with The Black Keys. How far out are you working?
There’s no standard timeframe, especially these days, post-pandemic. We may get a hold for a show two months away and announce and put it on sale and the show plays in 90 days. But the old rules are out the window. Nowadays we may confirm a show that’s 12, 16, 18 months out, but some of the more traditional timeline still exists.

In general, the concert market seems overheated – do you think that’s accurate?
I think it’s different geographically. Austin, because of its growth, we’re now the 11th largest city in the country. Coupled with all the pent-up demand for entertainment, tickets for our shows have been flying off the shelves and we have some of the highest-selling shows on these tours for all those reasons. You can call it the excitement of a new building, but Austin has explosive growth and there’s many people here with discretionary income higher than anywhere else in Texas. People are ready and eager to see entertainment and to spend their dollars on it.

How on fire is your hair right now?
It’s on fire. Fortunately I’ve been doing a lot of my job for the past year booking shows. As we get closer to them, most of the other departments are having to execute, but it’s all hands on deck at this point. There’s a lot going on for a lot of people, so everybody’s hair’s on fire, not just mine.