The Lollapalooza Whisperer: How C3 And Huston Powell Took A Moribund Festival To Dizzying Global Heights

Huston Powell 1
Huston Powell

“A lot of fortuitous things had to happen at once,” C3 Presents promoter Huston Powell says when asked how Lollapalooza became one of — if not the— most successful global festival brands on the planet. This he says from São Paulo, naturally, where he is currently amidst one of the busiest weeks of his year.

“Lolla Brazil is this weekend. We had Lolla in Argentina this past weekend, so we kind of have simultaneous festivals. One in Santiago and one in Buenos Aires, kind of like a Reading and Leeds,” he says. “So bands are crisscrossing back and forth between the two markets over the weekend for those two shows. And then we had a boutique show last night and tonight, 25,000-cap, in Paraguay, which is something the bands do in the middle of the week. And then this weekend is Lolla Brazil in São Paulo and Estéreo Picnic in Bogotá, which are sister festivals where we share bands.”

If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Though Powell credits local promoters and daily communication with the C3 leadership team, including Charles Attal, Charlie Walker and Amy Corbin, what Powell and C3 accomplished with Lollapalooza, including its foundational anchor in Chicago and other international iterations in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and, more recently, Mumbai, is something of an unlikely miracle.

None of it happens without Perry Farrell who in 1991 launched Lollapalooza as a traveling farewell tour for Jane’s Addiction with Ted Gardner, Don Muller and Marc Geiger. The first year’s lineup with Siouxsie & the Banshees, Butthole Surfers, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T, Living Colour and Rollins Band was brilliant and made an enormous cultural impact. It made many realize how desultory the U.S. festival market was, especially in comparison with European fests like Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds.

“The original Lollapalooza had an amazing run and was this super unbelievable brand with kinetic energy and this outside of the box alternative music and lifestyle – all things people think about when they think of the original Lollapalooza,” Powell explains. “As it grew, they started popping up in sheds but at the same time there was a new festival model just hitting the U.S. which is, ‘I don’t really wanna go to a shed for a festival, I want to go to a greenfield space.’ The original Lolla petered out by 1998.”

That greenfield model, which C3 pivoted to in 2005, after resuscitating Lollapalooza in partnership with Farrell and WME, is at the crux of the fest’s longevity and success. “Getting into Grant Park in Chicago is the number one reason for the festival’s success,” Powell says. “It’s a landmark venue and a unique site for a festival—a world class park in the heart of the urban area.

Like many new businesses, the first year didn’t go well “The decision was, ‘Let’s see if we can regenerate this brand as a one stop destination festival because we think the brand still has value.’ We lost a ton of money the first year and our backs were up against the wall to be honest.”

It took a little, say “blood, sugar, sex and magik” to kick the fest into the black. “The second year we got the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Powell says, “which was a huge moment because we got a tier one rock band to play and that changed the whole dynamic of the festival.”
If it sounds like Powell knows or thing or two about risk management, it’s because he does.
“I used to work on Wall Street in finance for Morgan Stanley,” he explains. “I did investment banking for four years and hated every second of it. I enjoyed being in New York and was like a kid in a candy store, but I hated working 80 hours a week. So I moved to Austin because I had a friend there.”

That one friend led Powell to Charles Attal, who co-owned Stubb’s and whom he went to work for without much of a plan. “I offered to work for free when there was five people at the company because I was glad to be doing anything that wasn’t finance.”

Timing, of course, is everything. “I got lucky, very serendipitous, right place at the right time,” Powell says. “The production manager’s father got sick and Charles said, ‘Can you do the production at Stubb’s?’ I basically said, ‘I have no fucking idea what to do, but I’ll do my best.’ I learned on the fly doing that for eight months and learned enough to speak intelligently about how a show works.”

Aerial by Charles Reagan for Lollapalooza 2022 4407
Paris Of The Prairie: Aerial night shot of Lollapalooza 2022 at Chicago’s Grant Park, the “star of the show.” The four-day fest featured Green Day, Dua Lipa, j-hope, Don Toliver and Metallica among others with an estimated 400K in attendance. Photo by Charles Reagan Lollapalooza

“There’s nobody in the business like Huston Powell,” says C3’s Charles Attal. “He can work faster and is more organized than anybody I’ve seen and he really helped me grow my business.”

Powell began booking casinos for C3 starting with 400-cap room in Maryland Heights, Missouri owned by Harrah’s. Working there, he learned something that casinos, sports venues, municipalities and property developers across the country have all awoken to: music is a powerful economic driver like nothing else.

For proof of concept, he well remembers the first big show he booked at a 2,400-cap outdoor venue in Iowa. “We booked the Flaming Lips,” he says, “which was super weird at a casino in 2004. They were doing Larry the Cable Guy, but the Flaming Lips were awesome. So we booked The Black Keys on their way up, Kings of Leon, The Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, all these bands in this casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Powell also began building relationships with agents, including Kirk Sommer, Carole Kinzel, Don Muller, Tom Windish and Marty Diamond. “I realized there’s a filter system in the music business that very much benefits the promoter or talent buyer. Bands were ending up with these agents because they were good. So if they chose to take on a band, it meant the band had been vetted. I put a lot of trust in those people early on and still do.”

From Liz Phair to the Drive By Truckers to the Pixies to Derrick Carter to Diggable Planets, Lolla’s debut year had something for everyone, even if it wasn’t profitable. By year two, though, led by the Chili Peppers, the line-up’s other acclaimed acts including Kanye West, Queens of the Stone Age, Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, Wilco and My Morning Jacket among others, the fest went into the black and was off to the races.

The promoter says he thinks about bookings and artists “24/7 365, because I’m booking shows all the time all around the world. I categorize everybody in my own head into a very unscientific genres and where that act is and whether or not it’s reasonable to even have a shot at them. The competition is enormous. I’ve got a new competitor out there that I didn’t really have before and that’s the stadium business.”

Indeed, with last year’s “year of the stadium” trend, which Pollstar chronicled, festivals have a new massive competitor in their markets. “When you go to The Weeknd’s show at a stadium or Taylor Swift or Bad Bunny or whoever, the production, the scope, the size, the grosses, it’s a mega event. The stadium business is very robust now. I deal in Chicago with the stadium business at Soldier Field and Wrigley, three arenas in the market, Tinley Park, which is 20,000+ amphitheater, Northerly Island which is 9,000 cap.”

Judging by the recently announced 2023 Lollapalooza line-up, Powell’s got nothing to worry about. His headliners, Kendrick Lamar, Billie Eilish, RHCP, Lana Del Rey, Karol G, ODESZA, Tomorrow X Together and The 1975, are bona fide superstars. And the undercard, including the Linda Lindas, Sudan Archives, A Boogie Wit a Hoodie, Gabriels, Sylvan Esso, Jessie Reyez, Alex G and others, ensure 2023 will be a banner year.

The Lollapalooza promoter says he keeps an eye on other fests and is in touch with other fest buyers, including Bryan Benson at Bonnaroo, C3’s Bobby Clay, Jordan Wolowitz at Governors Ball, Allen Scott and Bryan Duquette at Outside Lands and Paul Tollett at Coachella. “We’re all talking about what we’re seeing,” Powell says, “We’re talking to the same agents, the same bands.”

Powell’s passion for what he does is palpable. He goes from talking about Zach Bryan’s recent success to the incredible fandom j-hope of BTS inspires to an up-and-comer named Noah Kahan.” This is all said from a trailer onsite in São Paulo. “I love being down here,” he says. “It’s stressful dealing with all these bands for two weeks in South America and the travel, cargo and getting the shows built and everything, but they’re amazing shows, so I enjoy it. It’s awesome.”