The Story of Austin City Limits: Bill Stotesbery, Tom Gimbel, and Tyronne Walker at ComNet19
Bill Stotesbery and Tom Gimbel, who lead KLRU and Austin City Limits respectively, have been pioneers in building a new nonprofit media model in Austin. Tyronne Walker of Greater New Orleans Foundation moderated a conversation with Stotesbery and Gimbel on how Austin City Limits was transformed into a global brand, how Austin City Limits expanded as a brand while maintaining its core mission and integrity and how KLRU and Austin City Limits created a new non-profit media model.
Tyronne Walker: Well, great. Welcome guys. Welcome to ComNet. This is a really cool time to talk with you all, particularly because we’re in Austin. The reason why I’m really excited about this conversation, I got to admit, like Austin, I’m from New Orleans, and so we have a lot of similarities between our two cities. Both cities are known for their unique culture and entertainment, particularly music. We have, I think, a really awesome festival and jazz fest.
Bill Stotesbery: You do?
Tyronne Walker: Well, I think it’s pretty good.
Tom Gimbel: Really, it’s pretty good. Not bad.
I think it’s pretty good. I am really excited to get to a part of our conversation that talks about Austin City Limits fest that kicks off, as Sean said, today, but we’ll get to that later. First, Bill, I want to start with you. Bill Stotesbery, who leads the local PBS affiliate, talk a little bit about how Austin City Limits even came about as an outgrowth, as a creation, of your local PBS station.
Bill Stotesbery: Sure. It was the 1970s, early 1970s, and a couple of things happened. At the station, we had been producing a program called Carrascolendas, which was the first multilingual kids’ educational program that was on television in the US, not just public television, but on television. Carrascolendas was funded rather generously by the Department of Education and allowed us to put a production capability in place that was unusual for a station our size.
Also in the 1970s—anybody that knows the story of Willie Nelson and the Outlaw Movement—there was a move from Nashville and other places into Austin, where they found a creative community. A number of musicians found a creative community they liked and created something that was known as Cosmic Cowboy Days, or Outlaw Days, or different phrases for it. At the station, at the time, there were a number of the management guys—producers, directors, the programming head—who were music nuts.
One of the guys decided it would be interesting to try to put on a music show in Austin. He had been producing a music show in another city for a while. They came together and thought they’d do a Cosmic Cowboy show and bring some of the critical mass that was in Austin together. In 1974, they taped a couple of episodes. The one that is generally known as the pilot episode is the Willie Nelson episode. That aired finally in 1975.
They pitched it to PBS. They got turned down a couple of times. Finally, PBS picked it up, and it was distributed nationwide, and it’s been playing now for 46 years or 45 years.
The longest-running television music channel in the country.
Bill Stotesbery: Yep. Not just in the country. It’s actually now … once we passed a Japanese music program and a British music program, it’s now the longest-running live performance music program in the world in the history of television.
Bill Stotesbery: Thank you.
Pretty awesome. I want to stick with you for a second because you mentioned this guy Willie Nelson who’s a little bit famous. He has really become synonymous with Austin City Limits, and Austin for that matter, for the type of music that he plays but, obviously, because of his incredible live performances and the like. There’s a story that I learned in the book about Austin City Limits about Willie Nelson.
In fact, Willie Nelson … while he’s considered the pilot show to kick off this incredible run that you guys have had, he wasn’t the original pilot act. Tell us that story.
Bill Stotesbery: The original act was a singer-songwriter named BW Stevenson who just coincidentally was one of my favorite singer-songwriters when I was in Austin in the 1970s. We brought BW in to play. BW was later … probably his biggest hit over the years was My Maria, which actually then he gave to Brooks and Dunn.
Brooks and Dunn.
Bill Stotesbery: Yeah, so Brooks and Dunn … if you ever hear My Maria, that’s a BW song. He came in and performed. The audience was small. The setting didn’t work. The production values stunk. After looking at it and deciding, the crew made a decision to ditch BW Stevenson. The interesting thing is that episode disappeared then for decades. Nobody knew where it was. There was an assumption back in the old days of two-inch tapes; particularly, we used to record over two-inch tapes because they’re expensive. If you needed a take, you’d go grab something that nobody wanted and just put it in and record over it.
You said two-inch tapes.
Bill Stotesbery: Two-inch tapes.
Bill Stotesbery: Yeah, that was back then. They were things this big. We assumed that it had been recorded over, and then we just finished a long process to digitize 8,000 of Austin City Limits performances.
Bill Stotesbery: In the course of doing that digitization, we discovered the BW Stevenson episodes. No one’s ever seen it really outside of a few of us at the station. Eventually, we look forward to making that available.
Great. Tom, I’ll turn to you. You are the leader of Austin City Limits, the general manager. One of the things that Bill talked about was how that original pilot show that was supposed to be the kickoff from a production standpoint just wasn’t right. It couldn’t give the organization the product that it needed. Can you talk about Austin City Limits and how important live music and the overall look, and feel, and sound that’s made it so unique and, ultimately, has influenced Austin as the hub for live music performances?
Tom Gimbel: Your question is about the production?
Yeah. The production. How the earliest decision to not go along with that first pilot set a tone for the type of show that you all are trying to provide all the time with live music performances.
Tom Gimbel: Well, I’m going on nine years as the GM of ACL, and I’m by far the baby of the bunch. Terry Lacona, our executive producer, has been there for 42 years. David Huff, our audio engineer, and Gary Menotti, our director, have been there since day one. The people who work behind the scenes at Austin City Limits are unbelievably committed to the quality and integrity of the performance. I think it clearly started from the first day, when you say this BW Stevenson episode is not as good as we can do, so that’s not what we’re going to put on the air.
Every show since then, from booking the artists, which there’s a lot of decision-making and a lot of thought that goes into who is booked on Austin City Limits … before they ever step on the stage, they’ve been vetted for creativity, for quality, for something special. We’re not looking at how many records they’re selling or what position they are on the charts. It’s how good are they? What is that going to mean when they step on that stage?
From there, it’s using the best available technology, whether it’s camera or audio, lighting, everything that we can do to make that experience as good as it can be. I always say we bring an artist and an audience together, turn on the cameras, and get out of the way. It’s that purity of audience and artist connection that I think is what makes Austin City Limits so special and why it’s lasted for 46 years.
When we had a previous conversation about Austin City Limits and its founding and the foundation of it, one of you shared a story with me about the earliest days of Austin City Limits and the work that went into selling this to the local community, particularly the local bar scene and the like. Who, at the earliest phases, were the hubs for these live performances, where people would come to see these live performances? How has Austin City Limits worked with the local music scene and the industry and helped to grow that?
Tom Gimbel: I’ll speak to the fact that as a public television show, we don’t have the budgets that would allow for us to pay to fly an artist in, put them in hotels, per diems, and all the other expenses associated with bringing someone in to tape the show. We work very closely with C3 Presents, Margin Walker, and other promoters here in town who bring artists to play Stubbs, the Irwin Center, the ACL Festival. Those are opportunities for us to do tapings.
We have a lot of communication with the clubs and the bookers around town to say, “Who’s coming through, and who might be appropriate for a taping?” It’s a symbiotic relationship because part of the reason the acts want to play in Austin—everybody wants to come to Austin and play here—is because of the reputation of Austin as the live music capital of the world. I think Austin City Limits has had something to do with that.
Bill, you may be able to expound upon that. This has become Austin, and Austin City Limits has become like a key milestone in the life of an artist. In the earliest days, obviously, there was a lot of focus on country, and new country and the like, but that isn’t still the case anymore.
Bill Stotesbery: No.
This platform is something an artist, across genres, wants to get on their belt. It’s usually a good indicator of their quality, as Tom talked about but, more importantly, of their rise. Speak a little bit about how Austin City Limits has made this place, this city, a key milestone in the life of an artist.
Bill Stotesbery: Sure. On the issue of country music and it being a country music program, I know there’s some PBS folks out there on the heels of the Ken Burns country music series, which we ran and did great for all of the stations. You realize country is coming back, but it was critical for the show’s survival to diversify the genres, diversify the show, culturally in all different ways. Some years ago we began the process of trying to bring in different artists, going back to Ray Charles, the Social Club.
Bill Stotesbery: The Social Club, Tom Waits. Over the last few years, the show has really become a pretty remarkably diverse showcase. That said, in the early days, the idea was to try to get as many iconic artists on stage as possible. I think it established the reputation of the show. In the first few years, many of the artists were living in Austin because that was where … we were the Cosmic Cowboy capital at that point. As we began to diversify, it became more important to bring in artists from other places.
While we still work Austin artists into every season, it has become a stopping point for artists from all across the country, and even international artists as they’ve come in. I think one of the biggest opportunities for us was when we had Juanes, who’s a Colombian singer-songwriter. That was a break into international. Now it’s on booking agents and publicists … it’s on management’s radar, and that’s made a big difference.
Austin City Limits is about what’s going on in Austin, not always, unfortunately, about Austin musicians. I hope as we move forward in the station doing some new things, we’re going to look at some … we have a spinoff brand called ACL Presents that we’re going to hope to begin to develop some additional properties that will feature more local artists as well.
I want to get to talking a little bit about the different parts that make up this Austin City Limits package, right, for lack of a better way to describe it. Before I get to that, Tom, I think Bill’s getting to really the role that Austin City Limits has played in helping to advance the culture and set a cultural tone of what the city of Austin is. Can you talk a little bit about the role that this initiative, which has now become a world-recognized effort, has played in its connection to the culture of this city?
Tom Gimbel: Well, if you look at Austin as the live music capital of the world and the quality of the artists who live here and the quality of the artists that play our stage, I see this symbiotic relationship between tech and the businesses that support Austin City Limits as underwriters. The live music scene here attracts a lot of desirable talent for the businesses here in Austin. You think about Dell and other businesses that have grown in Austin during the same time that Austin City Limits has grown. We’ve really grown together.
Live music attracts talent for those businesses. Those businesses do very well. They underwrite Austin City Limits. We create live music. We bring it to the world. I know when I was a high school student, and I was a musician, and I was thinking where am I going to go to school? I remember watching Austin City Limits. I saw the people in the audience look like they were having a great time. The bands on the stage looked like they were having a great time. It’s like, I want to go there. I always think of Austin City Limits as this ambassador or a beacon for Austin that goes out nationally, and now over recent years, it’s started to go out around the world.
I think people … when you travel and you wear an Austin City Limits T-shirt, they’re like, “Oh, I know where you’re from.” It’s very closely linked. The city of Austin, and the music, and Austin City Limits are very closely linked.
Bill Stotesbery: I think that’s true. I think it’s also important though to recognize that Austin City Limits is just part of a larger cultural quilt that goes on in Austin. The movement of Austin as the live music capital of the world really probably started with Armadillo World Headquarters and maybe even with some other clubs like the Victory Grill, which was one of the early clubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the early days. Austin’s always had a music community. There’s been a strong and diverse music community in Austin.
Austin City Limits was able to pick up on that, and develop it, and distribute it nationally, as did South by Southwest. The South by Southwest Music Festival, as it came along, created a validation and a reaffirmation of that and others. There’s a rich culture in Austin, just like there is New Orleans, or in Memphis, or in Minneapolis.
You said New Orleans, right, just now.
Bill Stotesbery: I did.
I like that. I like that.
Bill Stotesbery: I did that for you.
That’s right. Great.
Bill Stotesbery: Yeah, did that. Anyway, there’s cities all across the country that have that. We’ve just been fortunate because we’ve had the opportunity to create this show and send it out into 98% of the markets in the US, and five continents. It’s created, I think, more of a focus than perhaps some other areas.
You actually went the place I was about to go, so I’ll just piggyback off of that a little bit. We had some of the leaders from South by Southwest here yesterday and another in conversation about their role. You mention them a lot. Talk a little bit about being in a city and a place that’s known for not only music, but … I think, Tom, you may have talked about this in our previous call, about Austin City Limits not just being about music. It’s not just about entertainment, but that it’s a hub. The South by Southwest folks describe themselves in a very similar way. Talk about Austin City Limits, not only just the show but the festival, and being more than just an opportunity for a platform for music and musicians.
Tom Gimbel: I think Austin City Limits has become a lifestyle brand. I think it speaks to the culture of Austin, which is diverse, tolerant, fun. It’s an outdoors community. It’s a place where people like to come together in community. The Austin City Limits music festival, these two weekends and the energy that you feel in the city, I think is really the manifestation of Austin City Limits as a lifestyle. You see an incredibly … unlike any other major music festival, and it is one of the top music festivals in the world. You will not find a more friendly festival. You won’t find a more diverse audience. You’ll see little kids. You’ll see young, old, very diverse demographic groups.
C3 Presents programs the lineup to be diverse and to cater to a large number of people. We have the Austin Kiddie Limits brand, where families are encouraged to come out. I think that is what Austin City Limits as a lifestyle brand means. Certainly, music is right in the center of the bull’s-eye. It’s people who really love music, but people who love music love community. They love food. They’re passionate people. They like to be with one another. I think that’s what Austin City Limits is.
Awesome. The interesting thing that is Austin City Limits is about your relationship between the nonprofit, that is the PBS affiliate, and Austin City Limits, the for-profit. Talk about how that partnership began. How did that come about? How can that be instructive, that partnership, a for-profit entity connected to a clear mission that supports the nonprofit that is the PBS affiliate? How can that be instructive for those of us in communications that work in foundations and the like, trying to find revenue streams to support mission-driven work?
Bill Stotesbery: Sure, so I’ll start and then kick it to Tom because the origin of it was sort of a defensive measure on the part of the station. The station for years had produced the show, and the show was a show. It was something that we created and we put on air. We really didn’t consider it as a brand. We just considered it as a production. Beginning 15, 20 years ago, the station began to think about Austin City Limits as a brand and now to develop it as a brand. In thinking about it as a brand, you start thinking about monetization, so merchandising at the simplest.
Things as simple as T-shirts and swag of different kinds. But then you begin to get into possibilities of syndication, of new production, of taking that 8,000-hour archive and figuring out how to monetize it. There are restrictions on how much a nonprofit can generate from non-mission-oriented income. We didn’t want to be in a position where we were defending whether or not T-shirts were mission-oriented income from Austin City Limits. In addition to that, as you begin to go out and commercialize music, you’re stepping into a minefield of rights and potential legal issues—we wanted to make sure that we had people who understood it and that we had some insulation for the nonprofit.
We looked to a number of organizations around the country … in the Twin Cities, Minnesota Public Radio, the Twin Cities Public Television … to organizations, widespread organizations, that have for-profit subsidiaries of nonprofits, particularly associations, and found a base of knowledge out there that allowed us to create this for-profit Austin City Limits that would become the brand extension, a brand development unit, of the larger nonprofit purpose. That’s what Tom’s really been driving in the years that he’s been here.
Anything you’re going to add to that, or did he say it perfectly?
Tom Gimbel: No, I mean, he said it perfectly. I think what ACL Enterprises looks to do is really have that laser focus on the commercial operations around Austin City Limits. KRLU, as a public television station, has so many moving parts, and the mission to be in the community, and to program, and all the different things that KRLU does for the city of Austin. It was difficult to have that organization going and then commercialize Austin City Limits at the same time. It just brings an added layer of focus as well as the legal, and tax, and business advantages that it has.
Bill Stotesbery: I think one of the key things from a communications perspective is having the relationship between KLRU, the for-profit Austin City Limits Enterprises … I’m sorry, KLRU, the nonprofit; Austin City Limits Enterprises the for-profit. Tom actually wears two hats. He’s general manager of ACL on the nonprofit side and CEO of Austin City Limits Enterprises on the for-profit side.
It really allows us to protect and control the way the brand is presented and treated—as opposed to if we had simply outsourced all of the commercial functions to a third party that we didn’t have a relationship with, we didn’t maintain the sanctity of the organization in some way, I think we would have much less control and possibly see a damage to the brand. It’s been good not to have that.
Let’s stay on brand a little bit. Those who work in communications professionally, we’re always trying to figure out, one, how do you maintain a brand and protect the brand? obviously, which is a whole different world and effort. And then, many times, you have to be innovative if you’re trying to extend a brand. Can you guys talk about what your experiences were in creating this brand that is Austin City Limits, and what are you doing to keep it fresh and appealing in a new generation?
Tom Gimbel: Obviously, the core of the brand is the television show. We’ve talked about what the television show means and how it started. About 26 years into the life of the television show, there was the idea to have this music festival. In 2002, in Zilker Park, was the first Austin City Limits Music Festival. I guess it’s now celebrating its 18th year or 17th year. It has revitalized the brand in a different kind of way. It’s introduced the brand to a new generation of typically younger fans. Nine years ago, ACL Live at the Moody Theater comes online, and that brings a new extension to the brand and another type of audience that we’re serving.
A year ago, actually almost exactly one year ago today, ACL Radio goes online. Now we have a radio station that is 365 days a year of Austin City Limits, playing music inspired by the television show, the festival, and the venue. There was a time, I think, where there was some concern on how do you fence this all in? Are we going to lose the brand? I would speak to two things from a communications standpoint. One is to choose your partners wisely. I think with C3 Presents, with Stratus Properties, with the MS radio group that we did ACL Radio with, we chose three really good partners that understood the intrinsic value of our brand going in.
They lived here. They knew it. They understood it. They could really be in touch with what Austin City Limits meant. And then the second part is to have some sort of oversight. Make sure that within your agreements and within your working relationship there is an acceptable level of oversight—that if you find that your partner is drifting outside the lanes of what you want your brand to be, you do have the ability to bring them back to focus and back to the center. Ultimately, at some point, the brand takes on a life of its own.
For many years I think we tried to correct people about, oh, that’s the festival. That’s the venue. That’s the radio station. We’re the television show. Now, I just embrace it all. I just embrace it all. There’s a lot of things here in town that want to put “City Limits” on the end of it. Just like there were a lot of things in the world that tried to put “palooza” on the end of stuff. I read Perry Farrell from Lollapalooza saying, “At some point, we just decided that that was an homage, and it only helped our brand.” If someone cares enough that they’re going to call their elementary school fair “School City Limits,” that’s awesome. It just means that what we’ve created at KLRU with Austin City Limits is special to a lot of people.
That’s awesome. All of us that build and have the responsibility to grow brands also have the responsibility to protect the brand. I think Tom started to talk a little bit about the efforts that we go through to protect the brand, and sometimes we have to realize that we can’t put so many boundaries on it. At some point, we got to allow it to be what it’s going to be to consumers. Can you talk about at any moment where the brand was compromised or challenged, and what you all had to do in order to really protect it?
Bill Stotesbery: It’s an interesting question, Tyronne, because, in all candor, I can’t think of a moment when the brand was really compromised over its history. I really never thought about that question before. I can think of times when there have been challenges. Tom referred to when we started to do trademark licensing out to the festival or out to the venue, and people became concerned about what if the venue, what if the theater where you guys were the other night, brings in Chippendales or brings in monster truck rallies? Is that going to damage the brand?
We put some language in the agreements. We have learned over the years that’s not an issue. We had a guy come to us one time who was developing casinos along the Gulf Coast and wanted to put Austin City Limits Bar and Grill into the casinos. We made the decision that was not consistent with the brand equity and the brand promise that we had. We turned that down. In all honesty, I think the station—and this isn’t Tom or me; it’s everybody involved, including the board and our brand partners—has done a good job of protecting it. I can’t think of a point where I’d look at it and say it’s been compromised.
Tom Gimbel: I think our fans police us more than we do internally. I love the fact that fans are passionate enough to write in. When you book Pearl Jam, or Modest Mouse, or Arcade Fire, and they think that Austin City Limits means Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard, they might say, “This isn’t my Austin City Limits. I don’t know who this guy is on the television that I was watching last night.” Obviously, we want to bring a diverse music offering to the world.
That’s what we want to do, but each person has their own idea. Each fan or each generation has their own idea of what Austin City Limits is and what it means to them. The wonderful thing is that all 8,000 hours that we’ve recorded so far are preserved. They’re there to be enjoyed by these generations for years to come. I think each person has their own experience with it. Internally, I don’t think we’ve really had a point in time where I felt like the brand was jeopardized.
Bill Stotesbery: I think one of the things that continues to blow my mind, looking at it from a PBS standpoint … I’ve been with PBS for 15 years. I’ve watched Austin City Limits change and diversify over the years. Like all broadcast television, our audience tends to be older. Online is a different demographic, but 55 and up, maybe 65 and up, is the iconic viewer. Austin City Limits continues to play across the country, but while we’ve moved from being a country music show, and with more traditional artists, suddenly we’ve got Raconteurs, and Run the Jewels, and Rosalia.
I always think about the 70-year-old couple in Butte that is sitting there turning on Austin City Limits on Saturday night and the Raconteurs. I think that’s amazing that we still seem to get embraced. People keep coming back. It’s great.
You all allow us to go to this great festival that kicks off today. Tell us what you’re most excited about with Austin City Limits Festival this year.
Tom Gimbel: Acts or just the experience?
Tom Gimbel: Well, Guns N’ Roses is coming. That’s pretty cool.
That’s tonight, right?
Tom Gimbel: Guns N’ Roses is tonight. Rosalia, who Bill mentioned, is from Barcelona. I think she is somebody that we’re actually going to tape next week. She’s going to surprise a lot of people. A lot of people who don’t know who Rosalia is are going to become big Rosalia fans after this next week here in Austin. We’ve got Billie Eilish coming to the festival, who is beyond a musical icon. She’s a cultural phenomenon.
Tom Gimbel: We’re going to be taping her. Lizzo is another one who’s fantastic.
Tom Gimbel: We made a conscious decision … so with Austin City Limits, we air 13 new episodes a year. Most often, an episode features two artists. Occasionally, we’ll give an hour to a superstar to take up the full hour. If Robert Plant, or Paul Simon, or …
Tom Gimbel: Tyronne Walker would certainly get a full hour.
You got it, man. Yeah, I’m ready.
Bill Stotesbery: Based on this performance, you’re an hour.
Well, look, I’m grateful for it.
Tom Gimbel: We made a conscious decision, and this is very rare, that if a debut artist, someone who is just coming out, is going to get a full hour … and that’s Billie Eilish. Her audience tends to be a much younger teenage female. To Bill’s point about the elderly couple sitting in Butte, Montana, they’re going to see an hour of Billie Eilish with no commercials. She is on the cutting edge of creativity and what she brings to the stage. We’re going to create a moment for PBS.
PBS does very, very well with the young kids and then we adults, but typically, teenagers are not the sweet spot. We’re going to attract a lot of teenagers to PBS for an hour of Billie Eilish. We did that very consciously because we want to create an event. We want to create something that really draws people to PBS. In addition to the artists I just mentioned, I’m also always excited by just the experience at ACL Festival. Being in Zilker Park in downtown Austin, it is going to be a little hot this weekend.
Not as hot as New Orleans, so we’re fine.
Tom Gimbel: It’s beautiful. The people are friendly. The music is great. The food is good. It’s just like I said—it’s the living embodiment of the Austin City Limits brand. I’m always just excited about sharing the experience.
That’s interesting. So much in communications is about sharing best practices and learning from others, from their successes and failures as well. How has this creation of Austin City Limits and the great outgrowth that it’s had, how does that help the rest of the PBS world in America?
Bill Stotesbery: Wow. I don’t know that I’d …
Come on, you can toot your own horn here.
Bill Stotesbery: I don’t know that I could make that claim. I think that … let me first of all say, without even a doubt, Austin City Limits would not be finishing its 45th season if it wasn’t for PBS. Music doesn’t last on TV. A music series will last awhile. American Bandstand lasted for a while. Soul Train lasted for a while, a couple of others, but that was decades ago. Music today, other than the occasional special … you don’t see music programs on prime-time television. For whatever reason, they don’t draw the audiences. You don’t draw the audiences. You don’t draw the sponsors. You don’t create funds.
The fact that PBS has the model that it has and has been able to maintain its purity is what really allows Austin City Limits to exist. Having said that, Austin City Limits has kept a place for performance that’s not strictly classical. Great Performances does a great job with classical music, with Broadway. Metropolitan Opera does a great job with opera. We really held that base of performance of popular music across multiple popular genres. Now Live from the Artists Den has come forward. There’s other music shows that have been created.
Probably every couple of months we get a call from somebody saying, “We’re going to start a music show. Can we come visit with you about what you do?” We say, “Sure, come visit with us.” I think we’ve been able to secure that as a legitimate piece of PBS programming. I wouldn’t claim that we’ve made anything with PBS that it isn’t capable of making on its own.
When people come to ask you how to do it, that means you’re doing a pretty good job.
Bill Stotesbery: Yeah, it makes us feel good. The quick answer is it’s not easy.
Tom Gimbel: I mean the point about we wouldn’t last this long if we were anywhere else but PBS—the core value of Austin City Limits is the integrity of the library of music that we’ve accumulated over the last 45 years. Terry and the producers that have been booking talent for the last 45 years have been able to do so in the PBS world, where if they were on a commercial network, a commercial network is going to say, “Bring me the biggest stars. Bring me the biggest-rated performers that we can have on television this week.” When you start to play that game, integrity goes out the window, and the quality of music goes out the window.
What we have now is this incredible library of quality music. Everybody in the audience right now has a phone, and they’ve got 8 million songs on the phone, whether it’s through Spotify, or Apple, or Amazon, or YouTube. One of the big challenges in our world today of music, when you’ve got so much choice, is where do you find the quality? Where’s the curation? The service that Austin City Limits provides to the music fan is this curation of quality music that we’ve been privileged to be able to do because of our relationship with PBS and only booking stuff that is great and not necessarily worrying about booking stuff that’s going to rate and is going to produce a result for the advertiser.
Back to that concept about the brand and protecting a brand, obviously, and staying true to it, which gets to, obviously, a big part of many of us here at this conference … we’re doing communications for nonprofits that are mission-focused, completely tied to a sustained mission focus as well. Look, you all have had a front-row seat to some of the best musicians in the world. Your partners have as well. Obviously, you talked a lot about the vast library of great music and history that is at your disposal at Austin City Limits. So much of how musicians, or how we as a culture, communicate and express ourselves is through music. What are artists today expressing through their music that’s unique?
Bill Stotesbery: Wow, yield to you on that one.
Tom Gimbel: That’s a good one.
I think that the messages that they’re expressing are the messages that we’ve expressed as human beings since music has been created. It’s love, and death, and anger, and hate. Politics, freedom, and every topic you can think of. What I find really interesting and what we’ve seen in this season and some of our other recent seasons … you mentioned Kendrick Lamar. We had a band called Rainbow Kitten Surprise that was on. We just had a band called KG Elephant. Billie Eilish is going to do the same thing.
I love how musicians now—and this is a good New Orleans analogy … but they’re drawing from so many different genres of music. We’re not seeing a country artist, or a rock artist, or a hip-hop artist. Kendrick Lamar had a live band that brought jazz, and rock, and soul, and hip-hop together on the stage. Rainbow Kitten Surprise has bluegrass and hip-hop elements, and rock elements, and psychedelic elements. As we’ve been in this digital age, able to consume more music, and this world of musical genres and styles are available at our fingertips, this younger generation of musicians right now, they’re just encyclopedias, and they’ve got all of it.
They’re putting it in the pot and stirring it up and delivering something that is really cool and really unique. I was worried a few years ago where the next headliner’s going to come from. All the headliners that we were seeing at festivals and all the big acts we were booking were largely acts that came up through the traditional major-label system. We looked at the touring numbers, and it was still Elton John, and Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen—and all these heritage acts were still the ones dominating the box office and dominating the airwaves.
Now, we’ve seen an incredible new generation of musicians that are coming up. Again, they’re expressing traditional themes, but they’re doing so in a way that I find really, really compelling. It makes me hugely optimistic about the future of music.
You’ve talked a lot about the formation of Austin City Limits and, to your credit, I think talked a lot about the individuals inside of the organization that have been there from the beginning. How has it been as an organization to keep the talent, and what part has that played in building this product that is Austin City Limits? That is one of the conversations we’ve been having at the conference … has been around building strong teams, right, and building talented teams. We know that’s critical to any operation, especially in communications. Talk a little bit about the team and the continuity that you have from people that have been able to stick with you all for a while.
Bill Stotesbery: Yeah, so it’s an interesting question because there’s always this tension between how do you bring in younger talent, new ideas, but also make sure that you’re still always honoring and serving the people that have been a part of it forever? Tom said we’ve got people who, literally, in Austin City Limits were there since the first episode. That’s 45 years and 45 times 13, whatever that comes out to, episodes. I think the quality of the show, the look of the show, and the history of the show is a function of those individuals. I think those individuals have stayed that long because of the sheer enjoyment of what they do. Just the process of loving music, and loving production, and having it down to such a science.
The challenge with that core group is when you do bring in new talent from outside—cameramen, or publicists, or whoever it may be—you’re not just bringing a new employee in. You’ve got to really integrate someone into an ecosystem and recognize that everything, every change you make to an ecosystem, has the potential to screw things up. That process of onboarding and bringing in, it’s something that has to be done really carefully. We’ve had issues over the years with equipment, with people, with artists—and you build an organization that’s resilient enough to absorb those and respond in a positive, constructive way. Yeah, that’s really about the best thing I can say is it is a place that people like to work. The program, specifically, the people love to produce.
Tom Gimbel: Yeah, the challenge of bringing new people into Austin City Limits is you can’t get anybody else to leave. It’s such a privilege to be a part of this brand and this show that I think that’s why you see people that have been here for 40 years. It’s very, very special and very rare.
You all, we’ve got time for two more questions, but you all have been giving out a lot of good nuggets. If you could, what advice would you give to communications professionals around developing communications strategies for products, and brands, and initiatives? Austin City Limits is a product, ultimately, and it’s a brand that you’re constantly cultivating, and growing, and finding new innovations. What have been some of the strategies that you guys have employed to extend that brand, and further promote, and bring more people into the product that you have?
Bill Stotesbery: From my standpoint, I think a lot of times people become more interested in the individual aspects of the brand than in the spiritual aspects of the brand. I think as you begin the process, “You embrace the notion that this isn’t just a show. It’s a brand.” Really understanding what you want the brand attributes to be and how you build a brand promise that’s directed at the audience that you’re hoping to reach. And then how you enforce those attributes and brand promise as you’re doing extensions into new products and new offerings.
If at some point you’ve got to re-evaluate, if you want to rebrand, you’re not just changing the mark. You’ve got to keep in mind what you’re doing to the trust and the expectations of the audience that you’ve developed. How you carry those attributes into the individual representations I think is always critical. It starts with the spiritual aspects and not really the visual aspects.
I’m a good, well, I try to be a good Baptist guy. My grandmother would say that I’m not doing that good a job of it. It is not normal or it’s not common for a professional, particularly in music and the like, to talk about a spiritual aspect of a body of work. I know you don’t mean that in a religious sense.
Bill Stotesbery: Right.
Speak more to what that means for the work that you all do in mission-driven work.
Bill Stotesbery: I think PBS is probably one of the best examples of that in the sense that the most critical brand attribute of PBS is trust. How you make sure that you’re maintaining trust with your audience, that you’re maintaining trust with your partners, that you’re maintaining a level of trust within the system—and the employees, and the organizers, whatever it may be—and protecting that is critical. We said earlier, Austin City Limits is about an intimate experience between the artist and audience.
That can be how the radio programming lists are put together. It can be when we honor an artist for the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, which is our newest brand extension. I guess radio is actually the newest. How you make sure that you incorporate that intimate experience into the design of the event. I think you always have to start there. If you start there, ultimately, I think the brand survives and prevails.
Tom Gimbel: I mean, speaking to attracting new audiences, there’s a number of different ways now that someone can come to the Austin City Limits brand through the television show on PBS, but beyond that, now we have YouTube, and streaming, and other ways that people can access just the TV component of it. Then you’ve got a festival especially. You’ve got a venue experience. You’ve got a radio experience. We’ve also started to license the show internally as well as second-window domestic on things like American Airlines, where you can watch Austin City Limits. Anecdotally, I hear more fun stories about people who watch “Jack White taped Austin City Limits.” The Raconteurs played last night for us. My ears are still ringing.
He said, “I was watching my episode on the flight.” People can see the show in a lot of different places. We’ve also taken our festivals and gone international with Sydney City Limits and Auckland City Limits. Those events bring that experience to people in those markets, and then you can follow up by … you have a festival in Australia. We then look to license core episodes of Austin City Limits to cable in Australia, which then extends our social media presence, which then extends our merchandise presence. You just continue to grow in that way. Our pillar is excellence in live music. That can be at a festival. It can be on television, in a venue, on radio, online.
I have thoroughly enjoyed talking to you, Bill and Tom.
It was an amazing experience and an awesome, awesome, awesome venue. I think it set a tone for this conference and the type of energy we’re going to have here and innovation. To be able to hear the story that is how this great brand started and the role it plays in creating and building this brand that is this unique city. More importantly, hearing about all the great ideas that you guys have and innovations that you’re introducing, I think it’s been a really awesome time to share with all the rest of us and the rest of the ComNet world. Thank you all. It’s been awesome.