Jump-Starting Live’s Return & Hitting A New Gear
It is wildly fitting that C3 Presents’ Charles Attal, Amy Corbin and Charlie Walker are Pollstar’s 2022 Impact 50 cover honorees. It’s especially apt considering the banner year they’ve had, which includes the expansion of their festival portfolio, which grew from 17 events to 31 as well as launching new events like the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which they’re co-producing, and a new art-minded boutique music festival in the Arkansas Ozarks. Just in the last few weeks, C3 produced the NFL Draft Fan Festival, opened Austin’s new Moody Center Arena (with Pollstar parent company Oak View Group) and purchased the land adjacent to Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, their iconic anchor venue in Austin.
“Walker, Attal, and Amy are entrepreneurs at their core, and the whole C3 team has that energy,” said Michal Rapino, CEO and President of Live Nation, which acquired C3 Presents in 2014. “They’re never afraid to take a swing on a creative idea, and once they believe in something I wouldn’t bet against them.”
This entrepreneurial spirit C3 embodies is both at the foundation of their success and crucial to one festival in particular they produced last year, which did more to help bring back the live industry from the pandemic than any other event. It was a bellwether, lighting a path forward for how events could safely return. Looking back at the dire headlines surrounding this event now, with so much fear, gloom, dogma and second-guessing, makes its success all the more heroic.
Lollapalooza a ‘Recipe for Disaster,’ Experts Warn
USA Today, Aug 4, 2021
Lollapalooza Feels Like COVID Mistake Waiting To Happen
Chicago Tribune, July 22, 2021
Lollapalooza A Sure Superspreader
Chicago Sun Times, Letter To The Editor, July 26, 2021
With Strict Rules In Place, Chicago Hopes Lollapalooza Will Be Remembered for the Great Music and Not Covid-19 Cases
CNN, July 30, 2021
‘Terrible Idea’: Some Concerned Lollapalooza Could Be COVID Super-Spreader Event
Fox 32 Chicago, July 26, 2021
“It was a huge risk,” says C3’s Amy Corbin of putting up Lollapalooza 2021, which ran July 29-Aug. 1 and attracted some 400,000 attendees who were required to either show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test upon entry. “You didn’t know how it was going to be perceived publicly. We knew it was time to try something. We’re just thankful we got the first one off and there was nothing but positive news coming out of it.”
The sea change that followed in Lollapalooza’s wake included new safety protocols fully embraced by Live Nation, AEG Presents and other live industry entities requiring proof of vaccination and/or negative COVID tests for entry to live events, where it could be legally applied.
Not only wasn’t Lollapalooza the “superspreader event” many predicted, but it also served an important social-health function in encouraging vaccinations. Data obtained after the festival showed some 12% of attendees got vaccinated just so they could attend the festival.
“Timing is everything,” Charlie Walker says when asked about the impetus behind forging ahead with Lollapalooza despite the dire predictions. “Like Charles said, if you sit around and wait, nothing will happen. We were determined not to sit around and wait, so long as we were told it would be safe. We were very fortunate to have (Chicago) Mayor Lightfoot and Dr. (Allison) Arwady, who runs the Health Department and who were very supportive. We slipped in between the variants when cases were really low. So when that show rolled around we were coming out of it.”
Not sitting around and waiting is C3’s modus operandi. It’s an ethos that has permeated C3’s culture since its inception in 2007 transforming three relatively small independent music industry operators into a global juggernaut.
The roots of C3 Presents date back much earlier, to the mid-’90s, when the team members were still in their twenties. “We were all in Austin, way before we had any idea of C3,” says Walker. “It was probably 1995-ish, Charles had just started Stubb’s, I was working for Louis Messina at Pace (Concerts) at this alleged amphitheater called Southpark Meadows that was more like a pasture, and Charlie Jones (co-founder of C3, who left the company in Feb. 2020) was working for Tim O’Connor at the Backyard (and later Capital Sports & Entertainment). We were all basically the same age, running around Austin. We had no money, so wherever there was free food and drink is where we went – so we saw each other a lot.”
“We were just humping gear at that point,” Attal adds. “We were running buddies and friends for years. Me and Charlie Jones did some shows together with the Austin City Limits Music Festival (which launched at Zilker Park in 2002 and was inspired by the KLRU/PBS live performance TV series), but we all had a dream to one day be at the same company working together. We were all like-minded, the same age and had the same name…”
In 2005, Jones and Attal revived Lollapalooza, the traveling festival founded in 1991 by Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction and Marc Geiger. Attal credits Jones with having the idea to resuscitate the brand and relaunch it as a destination festival.
“We knew the urban, green space worked from doing ACL in Austin,” Attal says. “And Grant Park is incredible. It’s one of the nicest parks in the country. We were lucky enough to get a deal there and then we were off to the races after year one.”
Walker, before making his way to C3, took a more circuitous route to the upper echelons of what eventually became the world’s largest promoter.
“I started at Pace with Louis (Messina) and Bob Roux,” Walker says from his home in Virginia Beach, Va. “And when (Robert) Sillerman and SFX came along and rolled up everybody, I ended up moving to New York and then San Francisco. It was still Clear Channel Entertainment back then. When Michael (Rapino) came from Europe to run what became Live Nation, he brought me to L.A. I was kind of running North America. I left on good terms with Michael and started C3 with Charlie and Charles in 2007.”
Long before the Charlies joined forces to form their veritable supergroup, there was an all-star player in their midst whose career evolved along with theirs. “I was fresh out of college and came on to help Charles Attal answer phones,” says Amy Corbin. “He needed help. I came on for like two days a week and that led to three days, and then five days. I started in 2000 with maybe 20 shows outdoors and a lot of shows indoors, probably 50, 60 shows indoors, but mainly local, smaller bands. It took two years for us to really gain traction in Texas and in other rooms.”
C3’s formation began, appropriately enough, on a joint vacation with a reported drunken pact written on a cocktail napkin. “It started on a trip to Costa Rica and some fun nights together,” Corbin says. “When it came together in the beginning, it was a surprise that it was really happening. It was the first time all of us had joined forces as one team. We had been operating as a team, but it wasn’t formalized. To see the team really come together with one mission and one goal was the best. It was really exciting”
When asked what superpowers each C3 exec possesses, Corbin answers without hesitation. “Walker has a business mind and deal-structure mind and knows how to have those difficult conversations, but where everybody walks away feeling really good about themselves,” she says. “Charles, to this day, if he gets behind something he will call you 20 times a day to talk about how great it is. You have somebody with energy and passion, which he brings to his relationships. He’s also Mr. Social Butterfly and loves going out and everybody loves being around him, and that’s unique.”
As for herself, Corbin says she’s “very organized, a good communicator and takes care of the team that supports C3, that’s my number one mission. I want to be the reason why they wake up every day and want to go to their job and love coming into the office and working, and provide opportunities for people. I was given opportunities and I want to turn around and give those people the same opportunities I had, and make sure we’re opening doors where we can.”
In addition to being C3’s lead promoter, Corbin for the last two years is also Regional President of Live Nation Concerts Southern Region – as if she needed more to do.
C3 would grow steadily in its first seven years with casino, concerts and management divisions, a record label and a number of festivals, including Lollapalooza’s international editions in Chile, Argentina and Brazil; as well as Orion in Atlantic City, N.J.; Counterpoint in Rome, Ga.; LouFest in St. Louis; Wanderlust in Squaw Valley, Calif.; Music City Food & Wine Festival, and the Big Day Out tour in Australia.
Like any successful business, however, C3 Presents isn’t without its share of misfires. Corbin mentions the first show she booked lost $10,000, which she now calls a “motivational moment.”
“We did a country show in Texas here that we lost a lot on,” Attal adds. “We had a bunch of cars that caught fire in a field. That was not very good. And we lost a bunch of money in Australia at Big Day Out, so we’ve had some big learning experiences”
“We place a lot of bets and that’s how you win,” Walker says. “You got to keep taking risks and getting out there. What’s learned through failure is to persevere and keep trying and not let it get you down to the point where you can’t continue. You’ve got to learn from whatever went wrong and stay the course, keep a steady hand on the wheel and not swerve all over the place because the wind changes direction.”
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” Attal adds, “so you got to take a lot of shots.”
By 2014, however, with a lack of capital and growing consolidation as well as initiatives that didn’t pan out, C3 found itself at a competitive disadvantage if they were to keep operating.
“We wanted to continue to expand the business,” Walker says. “We had other things we wanted to do, but playing with your own money is a nerve-racking thing. We saw the rest of the business consolidating and being one of the only indies left and trying to expand with our limited capital, we didn’t think it was the best way for us to grow. So we were able to go with Michael and get the backing we needed.”
While neither party revealed the financial terms, sources at the time put the deal at $125 million for Live Nation acquiring a 51% stake in C3 Presents.
Initial reservations about signing on the dotted line with a corporate entity were soon dispelled. All the C3ers now have nothing but positive things to say about the opportunities the acquisition affords them.
“It all starts and ends with Michael,” Attal says. “When he came to us and we sold our company back in ‘14, he said, ‘Listen, we’re going to help you grow. Call us when you need us. Don’t let us ruin your business. I’m here for you 24/7.’ And he has done everything he said he would and stuck by his word. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
Walker cites the importance of the Live Nation brain trust which includes Russell Wallach in sponsorships, Pasquale Rotella at Insomniac, international offices in Paris, Sweden, Germany and beyond and “great creative entrepreneurs like Don Law, Roberto de Luca, Denis Desmond and others.”
Post-acquisition, C3 has run point on a number of Live Nation festivals, including Bonnaroo, one of the world’s top-grossing and most successful festivals, as well as Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in New Orleans.
When asked if C3 is essentially Live Nation’s festival arm, Walker demurs. “It’s at least a three-headed trident with what Pasquale and Insomniac does and what Brian O’Connell does with Country Nation. There are more, obviously, but domestically those are the three big branches. We all get along, work in conjunction with each other and learn from what each other is doing.”
The C3 honorees take enormous pride in the team they’ve assembled and retained, too, and their names are constantly repeatedly in the course of every interview. This includes: Huston Powell, C3’s lead promoter in charge of Lollapalooza global bookings; Andrew Blank, casino division director; COO Emmett Beliveau; Courtney Trucksess who runs sponsorships (who Corbin calls “one of the best salespeople on the planet”); Stacey Rodrigues who runs all premium merchandise; Patrick Dentler who overseees marketing; CFO Erika Fitzgerald; and Ryan Garrett, Stubb’s general manager.
With live’s return, there’s still many challenges facing the industry, including inflation, labor shortages and supply-chain hold-ups. The C3ers, as expected, are bullish on live. “There’s a lot working right now,” Attal says. “There’s more stadiums, arenas, festival shows going on around the United States and more people are going to shows. Right now, everything’s steady, there’s a lot working and it’s a healthy market.”