The Mastermind Behind Lollapalooza Music Festival
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:16
Photo Courtesy of Huston Powell ‘91
Powell seeks out lesser-known bands and gives them the opportunity to attract new listeners.

Huston Powell ’91 has mastered the art of tracing musical tastes around the world. Working with Austin-based concert and festival promoter C3 Presents, Powell has the task of booking bands for the world’s most prominent festivals. Most notably, Powell holds the reins to the annual Lollapalooza music festival.

After his time at Amherst, Powell took an unconventional path to join C3 Presents, the incredible force behind much of the eclectic music, good vibes and flower headbands that the world has come to love.

The Path to C3 Presents

For Powell, coming to Amherst meant a drastic change of scenery. Powell grew up in Kentucky and had spent little time in the Northeast before his acceptance to the college. Fortunately, Powell came to love Amherst. A member of both the basketball and lacrosse teams, he kept himself busy with sports and extracurricular activities throughout his four years. After graduating as an economics major, he worked for T. Rowe Price, a global investment management firm in Baltimore, Maryland.

After three years with T. Rowe Price, Powell took a teaching opportunity at the Woodberry Forest School, an all-boys’ boarding school in Virginia. There, Powell taught algebra, geometry and SAT prep. He also had a chance to apply skills learned from his Amherst athletic career, coaching basketball and freshman lacrosse.

Following his three years of teaching, Powell decided to attend business school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After business school, he worked on Wall Street for the next four years, a drastic change perhaps similar to his initial transition from Kentucky to Massachusetts. He spent four years working on Wall Street after business school, and once there, he experienced a change perhaps as drastic as his initial transition from Kentucky to Massachusetts.

“I worked at Morgan Stanley, which was an interesting experience, but I didn’t really enjoy the Wall Street life,” he said. “The hours were super long, and ultimately it just didn’t appeal to me all that much.”

It was during that time that Powell found a friend in Charles Attal, a startup music promoter in Texas. “He said, ‘Come down here and you can work with me and learn the business,’ and so I did,” Powell said.

And just like that, in the spring of 2003, Powell joined Attal in the music industry. Since then, the impact of his work has been felt all around the music world.

A New Chapter

C3 Presents is a company that works independently in concert promotion, event coordination and artist management. Its home market is Austin, Texas, but the venues it books extend far beyond the area. Annually, C3 Presents books around 1500 concerts from all over Texas extending into the Midwest, and in places like Park City, Utah and Washington, D.C. Although C3 Presents is in charge of a huge number of concerts, Powell explained that the company is most famous for its festivals.

“C3 has about 130 employees. We book Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits music festival, a lot of smaller festivals, like CounterPoint Festival down in Georgia ... we do almost 30 different festivals around the world,” Powell said.“I specifically book all the Lollapaloozas worldwide. There’s a Lollapalooza in Sao Paulo, Brazil; there’s one in Santiago, Chile; there’s one in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is what I’m working on right now, and for the first year, next year in September 2015, we’re going to launch a Lollapalooza Berlin in Germany.“

Lollapalooza Festival: A Yearly Challenge

When it comes to Lollapalooza, Powell has to know what an audience of thousands wants, sometimes before their musical tastes have become immediately apparent, a task Powell describes as a “tricky process.” Preparations begin very early. Lollapalooza Chicago begins July 31 of next year, and Powell said he is already 80 percent done with the booking. In order to create just the right mood for Lollapalooza, Powell does extensive musical research.

“I’m talking to all the bands’ agents all over the country,” he said. “I’m talking to them about who they think is right to play that year, who has new releases and what the right vibe is.”

The effort that goes into each festival is repeated each year to adjust to changes in the music world.

“Lollapalooza specifically is a multi-genre festival: one part rock, one part hip-hop, one part electronic music,” he said. “We also don’t like to repeat bands too often, and we’re looking at the different changing trends in music.”

Powell also looks to demographics for guidance. The primary audience demographic for Lollapalooza Chicago is 16- to 35-year-olds, and it skews toward the younger, creating a core demographic of around 18 to 25. After Powell carefully considers the elusive “vibe” of each year’s festival, artists are chosen for booking. A quick glance at past Lollapalooza lineups shows the extent of the work that Powell does each year.

“Of course, we have a certain budget,” he said. “And then, you know, it comes down to if we want to spend it on Eminem or Kendrick Lamar. What do we think of Of Monsters and Men with the new record coming versus the Alabama Shakes with their new record approaching? We just have to listen to music and try to figure out, anywhere from nine to 10 months out, what we think is going to be hot that summer.”

Powell’s booking experiences with bands vary constantly. Lollapalooza’s notable reputation in the music industry grants Powell immense power in booking artists, but larger bands can still challenge C3’s authority. Powell explained some of the difficulties that he faces when booking big names.

“At the headliner level, it’s very difficult because those bands have a lot of opportunities. Maybe they won’t be in the United States when we want them; maybe they want to do their own tour, and they’re going to be playing arenas; or maybe, like in the case of Eminem, they’re only going to do a couple of dates,” Powell said.

“That’s one of the changing things in the music business — there seems to be fewer and fewer really big bands. When you think about the biggest bands in the world, they’re bands like Coldplay, Radiohead, Eminem and Jay-Z and, you know, those are hard bands to replace.”

If a band plays Lollapalooza, Powell’s policy is to wait a few years before he can book them again, so the pool of headliners is constantly dwindling. This requires Powell to continuously make new discoveries, because he’s always looking for the next big thing.

The Evolution of Music

Powell has the unique opportunity to give smaller, newer bands a chance to gain thousands of listeners. Powell has booked once-unknown bands like MGMT, Foster the People, the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons — all of which are now household names.

He said he has his eye on quite a few up-and-coming groups that might become the next Radiohead or Eminem.
“You know, there’s Sylvan Esso, and 21 Pilots has started to do really big numbers,” he said. “Is MSMR going to be a bigger band? There’s a lot of this new wave electronic, like SBTRKT and Flying Lotus. The first time I booked Deadmau5 was for almost no money in 2008 before all these DJs exploded. Now, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5 and Skrillex — they’re all major touring artists. I think Kygo is going to be really big, and I’m also curious to see how bands like Tame Impala do. Oh! I also think Alt-J is really exploding.”

Powell noted that new festivals are popping up everywhere. Five or six years ago, the number of festivals was nowhere near as high as it is today. Crowds of thousands are drawn to festivals like Boston’s Boston Calling, New York’s Governor’s Ball and Delaware’s Firefly.

“The market is getting a little bit saturated with festivals,” Powell said.

Despite the intense workload involved in organizing Lollapalooza, Powell said that his career continues to be “very culturally stimulating.” His final meetings don’t take place around an office table, and he frequently has the opportunity to work outside the office.

As part of preparations for Lollapalooza, he’ll be in South America for two and a half weeks to see all the incredible bands that also make the trip. Last year it was artists like Vampire Weekend and Lorde.

Powell noted that he’s a 46-year-old trying to stay on top of what a 22-year-old wants to listen to, but as he confidently rattled off today’s most popular bands, he showed that he still had the ears and musical taste of a 22-year-old.

Matt (not verified) says:
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 13:34

I love what Powell is doing to keep the ecclectic progressive sound going and finding new amazing bands that just need exposure. Can I intern for him?!?! ;). I have a solid set of skills for design and internet marketing, if he needs that!

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Sat, 11/08/2014 - 00:06