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Behind the Scenes of Hot Austin Music Venues: From Amphitheaters to X Games - Q&A with Austin Live Event Guru | PART ONE

Paul Thornton has been one of the most innovative leaders in the live event industry since starting his first company, Bravo Entertainment, in 1995. At its height, Bravo produced roughly 700 live music events annually throughout the country. 

He is now the President of TAG Presents, which forms half of Austins Paragon Presents partnership. Under Pauls leadership, TAG designed and managed the Pollstar award winning Austin360 Amphitheater in addition to bringing the X Games to Austin and organizing the Austin Fan Fest during the Formula 1 US Grand Prix.
XLIVE sat down with Paul to discuss his background in the live event business, the keys to brand integration in live music venues, and his views on the future of live event technology.

Part One

What were the key factors that influenced your decision to get into the live music business when you first started Bravo Entertainment in the early 1990s? Did you have any mentors in the industry that played an important role in helping to establish your career?

I got my start in the music business by promoting bands in college at parties, then just out of college I started taking bands to play in Mexico during spring break trips and graduation trips. I would build a stage on the beach, run all of the bars, and only the students on our trips had access to the concerts. The business took off pretty quickly and we were able to gain a large market share for those college trips. This is really when I started working with agents, and then started doing some shows in Orange County, CA in the early 90s. We would do shows at Empire Ballroom, Lava Bar, Tiki Bar and other locations with bands like No Doubt, Everclear, Bush, and Sublime that were new to the scene at the time. I started to see opportunities in the Northwest music scene and we moved operations up there to focus on developing business in  a market where demand for live music was strong and growing rapidly. Our business was successful from the outset and thats when Bill Silva noticed what we were doing and we ended up creating a partnership for the Idaho market with Bill. When it comes to mentors Bill Silva was certainly one early on, and Peter Jackson (management for Eric Clapton and was contracted by the Idaho Center) was a mentor, and later when we partnered with House of Blues two other gentleman that I worked closely with that I consider mentors were Alex Hodges and Larry Vallon.

One of your newest ventures has been the design and management of the Austin360 Amphitheater, which has won numerous awards including Pollstars Best New Major Venue of 2013. What was the impetus behind creating a new music venue in Austin and what are the most unique features of the Austin360 Amphitheater that make it a compelling venue for both musicians and fans?

I was recruited by The Circuit of the Americas (the F1 track in Austin) to lead project management and design for the construction of the new amphitheater. My other key role was to establish a management team and run the venue for the first few years to make sure that it was earning revenue and consistently bringing in top talent. The ideas behind the venue started with thoughts of designing a grass bowl with a temporary stage, but after analysis of the Austin market we felt that the Austin region was finally ready for a full-scale amphitheater so we bit the bullet and designed it to accommodate 14,000 capacity with permanent seating, permanent roof, stage and power. The real challenge was that since the venue is in the middle of the Formula 1 track, we had to design a very flexible space that could be used for different kinds of entertainment, including sports (had the X Games vert ramp on the floor), driver autograph signings, F1 and MotoGP entertainment, and more. 

We also knew that putting together a high caliber VIP program was crucial so we built out a luxurious double decker Crown Royal Club overlooking the amphitheater, which could also double as premier hospitality space for races on the track. Some of the unique features that make it a great venue is the tower that goes up about 250 feet right behind the stage, which has hundreds of thousands of programmable lights all the way up. It was important to make sure that we didnt block the tower view from the seats, so we designed a plexiglass see-through roof over the stage that incorporates the tower railings down into the roofline. Another unique design feature is the way the walls were curved into the ground, which makes for the perfect refraction of sound and the best acoustics of any amphitheater in America. We also designed the venue to have a very intimate feel. Even though it can accommodate 14,000+ people, you would never know that it was the size of a college basketball arena when you are there to attend a show. Lastly one of my favorite ideas that we incorporated was to create a tailgate environment for every show by opening doors to the grass plaza earlier than the amphitheater doors with food trucks and a craft beer village on-site complete with games like cornhole and ping pong to keep fans entertained until the show.

Brand integration has been an important topic of conversation for venue owners as they look to create lucrative opportunities for revenue generation. How do you go about the process of working with brands to authentically integrate their products and messaging into the venue in a way that complements the in-venue experience for fans?

This one is pretty easy for me since theres a general rule with brand integration that I like to follow “ A sponsorship needs to have a real benefit for the fan or it isnt worth doing. I want brands that want to create hands on, participatory experiences for our fans, not just stick marketing materials in their faces. The way we do this best is through creating our own activation team that works together with brands to identify and execute innovative sponsorship campaigns that enhance the live entertainment experience for our fans. Our team knows our fans best, knows our venues best, and can be extremely helpful in guiding the activations for the brands to make real touchpoints for the fans as a benefit that emotionally connects them to the brand. Our philosophy is a bit unique in that we have an in-house activation team. Almost every promoter or venue that I talk to leaves the activation entirely up to the brand and their marketing agencies.

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