Austin City Limits rides its brand downtown

For 2011, a theater seating 2,500+

Austin City Limits is a hot commodity based on a cool brand built over 33 years on PBS.

In two years it moves its entire production site downtown in the Texas capital city to a cornerstone 2,500-seat theater in a $300 million redevelopment. It’s exploring the option of a branded chain of live-music cafes, and will soon announce a partnership with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Nelson sang in Austin City Limits’ pilot in 1975 (above left) and fronted the country swing band Asleep at the Wheel more recently (above right). He’s also partner in the big Austin redevelopment that will house the program’s new theater. (Photo at right: Scott Newton, KLRU.)

The production of pubTV station KLRU also is continuing to expand its musical range, adding its first hip-hop artists in the 35th season, starting in October, and developing an online venue, ACL Stage Left, to showcase emerging artists.

Navigating ACL through this frenzy of activities are Terry Lickona, the show’s primary executive producer for 31 years; and Bill Stotesbery, chief executive of KLRU.

Stotesbery’s ACL passion began long before his five-year tenure. “I’ve been going to the show since I came to Austin in the ’70s,” he said, “any time I could manage to score a ticket. Getting in was always a big challenge.”

That’s still true, and one reason for ACL’s move. “We can’t accommodate all the fans that want to come,” Lickona said. The program’s production site, a studio in KLRU’s quarters on the University of Texas campus, originally accommodated an audience of 800, but the city fire marshal reduced that in a fire code review to 320. There’s little parking, and no signage on the UT communications building, where the studio is hidden away on the sixth floor. (This obscurity, however, adds to the mystique of attending an ACL taping, as Stotesbery noted.)

It was inevitable that the production would move; talks began before Stotesbery’s arrival at KLRU. But KLRU management didn’t want to leave the facilities at UT. Its affiliation with the school since the mid-1970s served it well. “It doesn’t make sense to want to leave one of the top universities in nation,” Stotesbery said. “We’re close to academic sources, we can train student interns. But it made sense to find a better venue for the show.”

He expects the first show in the new theater will kick off the 37th season in 2011.

Free bricks ’n’ mortar

As with public stations in Cleveland, St. Louis, Bethlehem, Pa., and elsewhere, help with relocation came from urban redevelopment.

In 2004, Austin requested proposals for development of an entire downtown block, some 25,000 square feet, across from city hall.  The city selected KLRU/ACL as one of three community agencies to be involved in the project, Block 21. The station struck a deal with the developer Straus Properties and equity partner Canyon Johnson Urban Fund (that’s “Johnson” as in former basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr.) to license the ACL name for the theater. In exchange, the program will receive a licensee fee, not yet finalized, and use of the theater for 45 production dates a year (and opportunities to rent out the station’s equipment when ACL isn’t using it).

The owner will rent out the theater for other concerts and productions. The big concert promoter LiveNation has expressed interest in booking performances, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The ACL name already was helping pay production costs. For six years the program has shared its brand with local promoter C3 Presents, which has built the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival into a massive three-day affair that draws up to 75,000 fans a day. Station spokesperson Maury Sullivan said ACL licensed the name to C3 in 2003 for a five-year commitment. A new 10-year contract was inked in 2008; the agreement prohibits either side from disclosing revenue figures.

“We didn’t have to pay a dime for bricks and mortar,” Stotesbery said. KLRU will buy equipment with a $6 million capital campaign — $4 million to equip the new theater and the remainder for updates in its facilities on campus.

When completed, the project will include the W Hotel with an ACL theme: Posters will fill the hallways. “Sister Bobbie,” Willie Nelson’s sister, will play a Steinway in the lobby and live in a condo, and he’ll be a regular fixture—as a statue on the site and an investor.  Nelson, who was the show’s first guest in its first program and remains a loyal supporter of the show, is a partner in the development, along with his nephew, Freddy Fletcher.

Designing the space has been a challenge. ACL’s current studio is “acoustically exceptional,” Stotesbery said, and reproducing that is a delicate endeavor. Heading that work is Steven Durr, a Nashville recording-studio acoustic designer.

The $30 million theater with two balconies will open fully to 2,750 seats for concerts by bands with as many fans as Coldplay or Pearl Jam. Various chunks can be closed off, reducing seating to around 400. Stotesbery said the design should balance “intimacy and accessibility.”

KLRU hopes to continue its long tradition of giving free tickets to the public. The number of free seats available changes with every show, however. Some bands request tickets for local fan clubs; underwriters and other backers want to come. Sometimes there are no spare seats, but generally the show can reserve 80 to 120 of 320 seats for the public.

Lickona wants to keep the look and feel of the old studio. Moving the beat-up old stage will be relatively easy. As Lickona said, “The DNA of Austin City Limits is in that stage.” It has weathered stomping, tapping, swaying and sweating from the likes of Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, REM and Death Cab for Cutie.

Alas, the old backdrop won’t go downtown. The skyline, built for season seven with plywood and Christmas lights, is too fragile to move. “That’s probably the most frequent thing we hear from people touring the studio — they want to see the backdrop,” Stotesbery said. “It’s like they’re doing a pilgrimage.”

But the Austin skyline has changed since then season seven, as underwriters with new buildings point out. And high-def demands more dimension and pizzazz. A new backdrop will be unveiled before the first show in the new theater.

That theater is an especially impressive achievement for a show that endured a frightening funding crisis in the 1990s. Until season 22 (1995-96), PBS carried a significant part of the costs as part of its National Program Service. ACL tried distribution as an a la carte PBS Select offer, but fewer stations aired it when fees were attached, which also damaged underwriting prospects.

For season 25, the show switched to the free-to-stations PBS Plus, but non-Select clients didn’t have rerun access. So the producers made 26 instead of 13 episodes that year.

Since then, carriage has returned to about 95 percent of stations, Sullivan said. ACL secured new underwriters — though two were dot-coms that went belly-up. So the show returned to 13 episodes and the station created the music festival. It also developed a CD/DVD collaboration with New West Records that offers 60 shows and brings in about $100,000 annually for the station.

How successful is that CD/DVD collection? “One of our interns found a copy in a shop in Katmandu,” Lickona said.

Mos Def in high-def

Lickona sees the new studio as “the next big chapter” in the show’s evolution. As far as biographies go, even bigger plot twists loom.

The producer said they’ve “just begun to have conversations” about developing a chain of ACL-branded music venues. “It’s too early to name names” of partners, Lickona said. “I wouldn’t say it would be like the House of Blues. Maybe the concept of live music combined with a café. But, again, we’re very early on in this.”

The Foo Fighters lit up ACL’s famous stage for its Jan. 17 show. (Photo: Scott Newton, KLRU.)

In mid-August Lickona expects to announce  details of a “multifaceted” collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

Meanwhile, KLRU is seeking a way to preserve the show’s valuable archives — more than three decades of deteriorating recordings, many on two-inch videotape. The station is identifying potential collaborations for the undertaking and hopes to announce those later this year, Stotesbery said. It has applied for a National Park Service grant under the  Save America’s Treasures banner.

The show turns from history to the future with its cutting-edge web-based effort, ACL Stage Left, featuring unsigned, emerging artists. (See four pilot segments here.) Besides performances, the site will offer behind-the-scenes footage, and experimental music, art and short films. Underwriting is pending.

Two special guests appear on this 35th season when hip-hop joins the diverse roster of artists. Mos Def — a rapper with a Grammy nomination who also has Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his acting — will appear, as well as K’naan, a Somali-Canadian poet, rapper and musician. K’nann’s work “is mixed with African rhythms and very socially and politically conscious — not about gangsters,” Lickona said.

But do they like to cook? It’s not required for booking, but the show’s longtime makeup artist, Glenda Pierce Facemire, found that many ACL performers have seen the inside of a kitchen. As she preps artists for the camera, conversations often turn to food — as when Jason Mraz bragged on his mom’s meatloaf.

“That started this thing for me,” said Facemire. “I thought, there must be plenty like him out there,” musicians with recipes they yearn for on the road. So she’ll have a new book out in October: Music in the Kitchen: Favorite Recipes from Austin City Limits Performers (University of Texas Press). Fans can mix up everything from Joan Baez’s corn soufflé to B.B. King’s diabetic German-chocolate cake.

Even with all the goings-on, Lickona remains focused on making two of his booking dreams come true. Bruce Springsteen has yet to perform, “but not for lack of trying repeatedly” on Lickona’s part. And Bob Dylan. “In his case, he’s so inscrutable,” Lickona said. “He hates to do TV. So don’t hold your breath on that one.”

EARLIER ARTICLES

ACL comes out of a city full off eclectic music and different flavors of public broadcasting, 1999.

Current looks at the successful music festival that bears the ACL name, 2004. Under its licensing agreement, KLRU cannot reveal how much the branding deal brings in.

LINKS

In 2008, the New York Times called the Austin City Limits Festival a “first-tier rock fest.”

Umbrella site for Austin City Limits. Series website on PBS.org.

The Austin City Limits Music Festival this year will be held Oct. 2-4 in the city’s Zilker Park.

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