Lollapalooza’s Huston Powell on how you can get into the festival business

What actually goes on behind the scenes in the music industry? Who finds the next Disclosure or Rihanna? This man does. Meet Huston Powell, the mastermind behind Lollapalooza.

We met him to talk about how he got into the music industry and how you can do the same. He shared with us his predictions for the next superstar acts about to break and how The Killers left their CD in his laptop when they were just starting out. Huston was the guy who knew Hot Fuzz was about to blow up, so you’re going to want to know what he has to say.

1. How did you get into your job?

I went to business school and I moved to New York City. I started working in investment banking for Morgan Stanley and I got there and on the first day I was thinking what the hell did I get myself in to. I hated it for four years. I became friends with a promoter in Austin who was just starting out and he told me to move to Texas. I moved to Austin and I worked for free for nine months, learning the music business. I started out doing production, not knowing what I was doing, at a venue called Stubbs. I did that for six months and then I started booking very small events after that. We had five employees then and now we have 150. I had a very, very lucky break.

2. How do you find artists?

Very rarely do I see something or someone that I think immediately are going to be massive. It’s only happened to me twice in my career; once with The Killers in 2004 and when I got the Mumford and Sons demo. I met The Killers when they turned up to a showcase in a van. Brandon Flowers was driving! This was way before they were signed by Deaf Jam and Island. They wanted a gospel choir to sing the backup to I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier. So we arranged a choir from Austin. I had to take Brandon Flowers into the meat locker of this BBQ joint and play the song for this gospel choir. When I saw them perform for the first time I was like wow this is really going to be huge. Then later that night when they left I saw that they had accidentally left their CD in my laptop. I heard Hot Fuzz on there, like months before it actually came out, and my initial thought was that this record had at least five major hits on it. You don’t see acts like that very often.

3. Which artists are you liking at the moment?

I look to the UK more for breaking stuff than I do the US. I think the trend now is getting very young. Acts like Twenty One Pilots, Halsey and Walk the Moon are getting very big very quickly. The more heady electronic stuff is getting very big like Odessa, and Flume is obviously going to get really big. I think the return of M83 is also going to be huge.

Zoo looks like he could be the next Kygo and I’m always asking who is going to be the next Disclosure. I think British singer-songwriter Låpsley is going to be enormous very soon. Just watch. My friend Kirk Sommer, who is the US agent for The Killers, Adele, the Arctic Monkeys etc, tells me about a lot of acts. A year and a half ago he told me to listen to Hozier, to listen to James Bay, you know he has an insane track record. If he tells me to listen to Låpsley then I’m listening.

4. Which British bands do you think haven’t broken in the US yet? Why is that?

I spend a lot of time listening to British bands like Rapboy, Nothing But Theives and Pretty Vicious. They have started to crop up but I’m waiting to see if they will fully break in the United States. It’s difficult to predict, Catfish and the Bottlemen broke but The Maccabees never really have. It took Muse a lot of years at the club level before they popped in the US. I think Americans think that the UK is the music spawning point for the world. If you name the ten biggest bands in the world, most of them are from the UK. You guys have the big names like The Rolling Stones. Some things don’t translate like Robbie Williams or Grime but you know Americans are very in tune to what’s popping over here.

5. What do you think about EDM?

I think it’s really interesting. Every time I want to take a cut at it, I realise that this is what the young people like. When you go to the shows it’s fun. I really don’t judge music by genre. I like One Direction, I think they’re a phenomenon and I like Taylor Swift. There is something for everyone. I don’t say whether I like Justin Bieber or not. My nephews and nieces love Taylor Swift. I think there is some really creative stuff going on, especially with EDM. I often wonder what they are doing up there. When I hear Deadmau5  it’s very original and I go to the shows are there are 5,000 people going crazy and I think this is what they want. I wouldn’t compare Calvin Harris with Mumford & Sons – I think there’s a place for both of them.

6. How can young people break into the music industry?

I think the music industry, particularly the festival scene, is a hard industry to break into. It’s tough to get your foot in the door. There’s no set hiring process. If you have money to go out and promote your own shows then yeah it would be easier, but it often doesn’t work out. If you talk to promoters and say that you’re willing to do whatever it takes then they’ll be willing to give you a shot.

You also need to be prepared to work for free. When you get that shot it becomes apparent, very quickly, if you’re actually serious about making it in the music business. If your first job is working as a runner on a Kanye West show in an arena, and all you want to do is watch the show, then you’re not serious. The person who says that they are willing to do anything, even the laundry or the coffee run, is the one who will be offered the opportunities.

I don’t think you can actually learn about the inner workings of the music industry until you get experience, you need to see what goes on at shows. The band shows up at 10am, they unload their kit, they do sound checks and radio interviews, they do fan club stuff – you know a lot goes on that people wouldn’t know about until they experience it for themselves.

7. Are there a lot of opportunities in the music industry?

You need to network and go to people and ask for opportunities. Say that you’re willing to hand out flyers, to go to their catering service for them, whatever it is, say you’ll do it. That way you can get in and an opportunity will present itself. Every single person I meet says that they want to get into the music industry because they love music. I say well everyone loves music! You don’t have to be a music expert but you need to learn above a certain level. Do you know the history of the Arctic Monkeys? Do you know what side projects Alex Turner is working on? It’s more than just saying “I like the Arctic Monkeys”. We have a huge internship programme, mainly in the summers, and they do everything from show marketing to helping out with talent buying. That’s a great first step. 

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