Amy Corbin has been pursuing Stevie Wonder for years. He’s been on a shortlist, alongside Bruce Springsteen and Radiohead, of acts she has long hoped would agree to headline the Austin City Limits Music Festival. This year Corbin got her man. Wonder, Coldplay and Arcade Fire are among the 130 acts that will draw 75,000 people each day next weekend to Austin’s Zilker Park for the three-day festival’s 10th anniversary.
As the festival’s senior promoter, Corbin spends seven months, starting in October, handpicking, negotiating for, and, ultimately, booking the headliners and the rest of the bill. It’s a dream gig for anybody who spent a semester in college booking the student union, but it can also be stressful.
“Most of the year, every phone call is like asking somebody out on a date,” said 32-year-old Corbin, who has been with C3 Presents, an Austin-based concert promotion and event company, since its inception. “For a lot of that time, there’s definitely a fear of rejection. Every time you have to call somebody back, I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, it could be a yes or no.’”
These days, plenty of national acts say yes to Corbin, who helped build the festival from a two-day, sixty-act event booked with three weeks’ notice in 2002 to a regular stop for top-tier, stadium-level bands like Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Eagles. The festival’s clout also propels younger acts like the Kings of Leon and Ray LaMontagne to stardom by exposing them to huge crowds early in their careers. As a result, within the concert industry, Austin City Limits has become widely regarded as one of the “Big Four” music festivals—a class featuring Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza (which is also booked and produced by C3 Presents).
Corbin and C3 Presents’ principal partners—Charles Attal, Charlie Jones, and Charlie Walker—admit that what originally got the festival off the ground was primarily its 2002 licensing agreement to secure the Austin City Limits naming rights from Austin’s PBS affiliate, KLRU, home to the country’s longest-running music television program. And while the festival now includes splashes of dance music and hip-hop (Kanye West headlines this year), Corbin has been careful to largely book within the confines of the television show’s diverse, but well-defined, aesthetic—a mix of rock, country, soul, gospel, Americana, and singer-songwriters.
“In the best of ways, it’s the most mainstream festival out there,” said Michael McDonald, a New York-based manager whose client roster includes LaMontagne, John Mayer, and Sarah McLachlan. “They book with both the history and credibility of the television show in mind and the musical breadth that Austin is known for.”
Given ACL’s ascent, Corbin says she now spends less time convincing bands and their representatives that the festival is worth playing. (This year, managers and booking agents representing national acts passed along at least 1,500 submissions for only 130 spots.) Instead, her focus is on finding the right combination of artists who will make festivalgoers feel like they got their money’s worth. Unlike most festivals, the large majority of the three-day passes for ACL traditionally sell out before the lineup is announced, which means fans are putting blind faith in Corbin’s judgment.
“The fact that we almost sell out the festival without a lineup puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us year after year to deliver,” Corbin said. “Obviously, the first year they perceive us to have failed them, it’s the next year that doesn’t sell out.”
Although conventional wisdom suggests that most ticket buyers are only interested in the bands occupying the headlining slots, Corbin said she pays as much, if not more, attention to building ticket value by also stacking talent into the middle of the lineup. This year’s late-afternoon to early-evening slots feature legends like Mavis Staples and Randy Newman, along with three of the hottest young bands of 2011— Foster the People, Young the Giant, and Fitz and The Tantrums.
“She’s become particularly great at knowing a year ahead of time what’s going to be the next year’s buzz band,” said Jackie Nalpant, a booking agent at Paradigm, a talent agency whose acts on this year’s lineup include Newman, the Cold War Kids, and Delta Spirit. “She has great instincts for what will work.”
Nalpant knows the value of landing an act on the lineup. Last year, Gayngs had to cancel its festival appearance after its bus driver left the band in Austin and took its equipment to Tennessee following an argument over rental fees. In a lawsuit against the bus company, a Tennessee jury found in the band’s favor and awarded $270,700 plus interest.
“All the other buyers for the other festivals are in Austin, and knocking one out of the park there has a trickle-down effect,” Nalpant said. “The lawsuit was based on not getting to play ACL, and the jury attached significant monetary value to that loss.”
With the festival so close, Corbin said last-minute cancellations are her only stress, although this year’s unusually strong and long Texas heat wave also concerns her. “All you can do is cross your fingers, hope for another great festival and immediately start thinking about next year,” she said.