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Concert Music Is Not Dead

Terry Lickona, an ”Austin City Limits” producer for all but three of the show’s forty seasons, talks about growing the concert music show, and outlasting MTV.

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Terry Lickona hasn’t been at Austin City Limits, the television show, for all 40 years, but he got there as soon as he could. Lickona, 66, became a producer on the show during its fourth season, in 1979, and (along with the show’s co-creator, Bill Arhos who retired in 1999) he’s been ACL’s defining personality and tastemaker ever since. Early on, he was responsible for booking such artists as Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison and Neil Young, gradually broadening the show’s mission beyond Texas country, folk, and blues. And, as I wrote earlier this week (“Austin City Limits, Now 40, Feels Younger Than Ever”), the mix of artists has expanded even more since 2002, when the Austin City Limits music festival began. This interview was conducted in September at Lickona’s office in the ACL Live at the Moody Theater building in Austin. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Jason Cohen: I assume it’s not a coincidence that the 40th anniversary show and season premiere is the same weekend as the Austin City Limits music festival?

Terry Lickona: Actually, it is a coincidence. Our new seasons typically begin the first weekend of October, and they have for years and years. The festival, it kinda bounced around for a while. Now that they’ve basically landed in October and these first two weekends, it’s going to coincide with our season premiere for the foreseeable future. Sometimes it works out.

For instance, this year our premiere is with Beck and of course he’s one of the headliners of the festival. And PBS decided basically, unilaterally, that they were gonna schedule our two-hour special on October 3. So the stars all lined up by happenstance. Brilliant strategy. We’re also scheduling a couple of [older] episodes on the Friday and Saturday night of both weekends.

JC: How much of an effect has the existence of the festival had on the booking of the show?

TL: Just in general, the effect has been huge. I mean, when the festival started, coming up on 13 years ago, ACL the show had already hit its stride, but I think we had also sort of reached a plateau. We were certainly well established on PBS, and we had a loyal following among viewers, fans, and artists. The festival wanted the reputation, the legacy, the credibility that the show brought along with it, which certainly made it easier for them to launch a new festival successfully from day one and to book the kind of talent they wanted, and even get a little bit of a discount on the talent rates because a lot of the revenue was coming back to benefit the show. In the process, it introduced all of these young people to the brand. I still have a hard time thinking of it that way but it is [a brand].

I still remember going to the festival the first year, just walking around in the crowd and talking to people, and a young girl, this UT student who was just thrilled to be there, having a great time, we got to talking and she asked me if I was from Austin and what I did. And I proudly said, “Well I’m the producer of Austin City Limits the TV show.” And you know, she kind of had a blank stare and went, “There’s a TV show?”

I think it’s safe to say they’re more aware of the TV show now. We have definitely leaned more in the direction of so-called indie music, which of course encompasses a whole lot of other genres, styles and artists. But the show was kind of headed in that direction anyway.

JC: When you introduced the Nick Cave taping, you talked about how he’s been around for 30 years, and the show has been around for 40 years, but it was still the first time he had done it. But it would’ve been sort of unthinkable to have him on the show in like, 1992.

TL: That was really an incredible show. I didn’t know what to expect, I had never seen him live myself. He hadn’t done a whole lot of TV or videos, either. In retrospect, that show was sort of the Tom Waits show of the 21st century for ACL. Because when we did Tom Waits, which was one of the first bookings that I made when I was the producer in season four, that was sort of a headscratcher for a lot of people, with a lot of wondering, “This is gonna air?” or “How are you gonna get this show together?” It was a far cry from Willie and the types of acts that we had been booking for those first three years. But to this day, it’s probably one of the five or so handful of shows that people still point to and talk about. To the extent that we continue to renew the rights every three years or so when they run out. It’s become our annual Austin City Limits Christmas show.

JC: What else is on the list of things that you renew the rights for?

TL: That’s it. Now, occasionally we’ve dipped into the archives to pull out a clip or song or two from a show like Stevie Ray [in 1990]. We used two pieces of Stevie Ray’s performance for the 40th anniversary. Generally speaking, one of our frustrations is that we have, going on 40 years, these incredible historic performances in the archives that are not accessible for people. We’re in the process of digitizing everything. We all hope that someday we can figure out a way to offer and have people pay, if they want to download a particular song from a Roy Orbison show or whoever it is, or an entire show, and everybody would benefit. We’re not there yet.

But you can go online and watch a lot of the episodes. We’ve started streaming, as much as the artist will allow, the actual tapings as they happen, which is an added live dimension. People, whether they’re in New Zealand or Bluffton, can watch the entire show, not just what’s edited for PBS. The old model of taping a show, and then it sort of sits around until October or November when it airs—that doesn’t make a lot of sense in today’s world.

JC: Is there an example of an artist where you might not have gotten them if not for the festival? Or they came to play the festival because they wanted to play the show?

TL: None this year. I know there are a couple in the works for next year that I can’t really speak to at this point. Originally, when the festival wanted to book Beck, Beck’s management approached me to see if, before they committed to the festival, if we would commit to doing a taping with him at the same time. Which of course I would’ve been happy to do, but I kind of turned back on them and I said, “Well, that’d be great, but if we could figure a way to get Beck to come here in April when he’s in Dallas, we could tape the show in April and then it would air in October.”

JC: Coldplay, which played the festival and taped the show in September of 2011, stands out because it was done as a faux New Year’s Eve episode.

TL: Yeah, we’d love to continue that tradition if we could: to find an act that would be big enough that PBS would be interested in carving out the time on New Year’s Eve. I haven’t come up with another one quite as big as that, but we actually made a play for Prince to do a show this year. We got a call out of the blue about a year ago from Prince’s booking agent, who wanted to talk to somebody about Austin City Limits. I naturally assumed it was intended for the festival, and maybe they didn’t have the right contact. But it turns out that Prince is actually a fan of the show. He’s watched Austin City Limits back home in Minnesota, apparently on a pretty consistent basis, and has discovered amazing artists whom he had not heard before. Esperanza Spalding was one who he mentioned, and Grupo Fantasma—he saw their Austin City Limits show and hired them as his band for a few months, in Las Vegas.

You get around to who’s on our dream list of artists who have still not done the show—of course Bruce Springsteen is still number one on my list. It was so frustrating, as you can imagine, two years ago, when he was here for SXSW, to sit in our own house here and watch Bruce and his band come out and do a killer show. But he had a pretty legitimate reason for not taping. He had just reconfigured the E Street Band after Clarence Clemons died, added a horn section and back-up singers, and just didn’t feel like he was ready to do a whole hour of TV. So how do you argue against that?

I thought we might have had a shot at getting Paul McCartney to do a show when he was here in Austin last year. He played at the Erwin Center, but the first show they put up sold out in seconds, and so they immediately put up a second date. By the time I got to his manager, it was too late. There just was not one extra day in his schedule.

JC: Do you have a favorite show, or shows?

TL: I’ve gotten a little better at this over time. I’ve always gotta include Tom Waits. And then the very next year, in our fifth season, we scored Ray Charles. I think in terms of the show’s history, it was a validation that Austin City Limits had become something more than an Austin or Texas music show—to get someone who was such a living legend. And he was totally hip to it, he was aware of the show when I went to talk to him at the Frank Erwin Center, I didn’t have to explain what it was. So that ranks right up there. And I would say getting Neil Young to do the show in our tenth season, when he basically was just hanging out at Willie’s place in Austin for a couple of months, just messing around in the studio. We kind of booked that show through a connection that I made with his driver. Just, “come down and do it.”

But the one that still resonates more than any other was Stevie Ray’s last performance. Not just musically but emotionally. I think it was his last TV performance before he died in the helicopter crash. It was so powerful. It was so obvious that he was at the top of his game. Eric Clapton described his performance as coming from a higher power—just flowing through his hands and his guitar like a river. I still…hundreds of times I’ve seen that show, it still mesmerizes me and I get the same goose bumps when I watch it today.

JC: It’s been a few years now since the move from UT to the Moody. Are you still kind of amazed that this place is the house that ACL built?

TL: It’s another one of those things. Just like when the festival started, because we had talked about that for probably ten years, but it was like, how can a local PBS station possibly start a music festival, and why would we? Likewise with this venue. We were approached seven or eight years ago by Stratus Properties with this idea, they had been bidding with the city to develop this block, and the criteria the city insisted on was that there had to be some sort of non-profit piece in their plan. And Stratus quickly figured out, “Well, public television, that’s non-profit. What’s an iconic non-profit institution in Austin that might be an asset to have in our new development?”

So they approached us and offered to build a state of the art venue, not only a soundstage but a venue that would be a year-round place for music, and pay for it. The only cost to us was to install new equipment. Which was not insignificant—that was about a six million dollar thing in itself.

The first year was kind of shaky. I’ll never forget, soon after we had moved in, there was a leak from the W Hotel swimming pool, directly above the area where we stored a half-million dollars worth of cameras. That’s not the kind of problem we would’ve had back at KLRU. And I remember the first time I walked out on the stage to introduce a show, which I had done a gazillion times back in Studio 6A, it almost, literally, blew me off the stage. There were so many people in the room.

But the truth is, artists who have performed both here and in the original studio, and there are maybe three or four—Wilco is the one that comes to mind—prefer doing it here. They just prefer the live feel, and the energy in the room is bigger, so it feels more natural to them. As cool as it might have been to see Pearl Jam in Studio 6A, it’s a better fit here. It definitely feels like home now. When we went back to Studio-6A for our Hall of Fame special, even though it was an emotional experience to be back in that room, it felt almost a little claustrophobic. Like, not enough room to do what we need to do.

JC: The backdrop in the new place doesn’t fool you as easily. I’m sure you heard people say that they thought the show was taped outside a hundred times.

TL:  A million times! Even the artists were convinced that it was really outdoors. It was something about the scale of the room, and of course the fake tree branches hanging strategically around the edges. Nobody snapped to the fact that it never rained, or that the leaves were never blowing in the breeze. The two biggest things that changed once we moved from Studio 6A to here is that, and no more free beer.

JC: It’s a very particular thing, what the show has always done, attempting to make a TV show that feels like a real live show.

TL: It seems simple, when you think about it. Austin City Limits started with a very basic premise. It was, and still is, a concert music show. People have said over the years, especially back when MTV was a new thing, that concert music is dead. Nobody’s gonna want to watch a concert on TV. People’s attention spans are not that long, and with MTV and all these exciting music videos, why would somebody just wanna watch somebody get up there and play guitar or sing?

To me, in trying to kind of analyze why such a simple format and premise stood the test of time, it comes down to the way we present it. When you see a live performance on TV, the focus is mostly on the star. You barely even get to see anybody else in the band if somebody takes a solo. And these shows have 20 cameras, or they’re constantly cutting every three seconds from one shot to another.

When we shoot a show, everybody’s on a small stage. We kind of force them to play closer together, like they used to when they started out probably. Gary Menotti, who is our director, and doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves, the way he shoots the show and captures the music, he lingers. He lets people get sucked in to the performance. If somebody is pouring out their heart and soul through their singing or playing, and if you’re a real music fan, you wanna experience that. You wanna look at it. You don’t wanna be distracted constantly by camera shots jumping all around the place. So I think it’s the way people experience watching live music on our show versus anywhere else. Even going to a concert.

JC: Certainly festivals are kind of like the “shuffle” of live music: two or three songs, catch half a band, catch another band.

TL: And the irony, unless you want to thrust yourself into the crowd, is that most most people, including myself, just hang in the back and watch the big screens. Watch it on TV—the way somebody else captures it.

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