Behind-the-Scenes with ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona

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Reel To Reel: A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story

Meet Terry Lickona. You may not recognize his face, but you know his influence. Lickona prefers to be the man behind the scenes making sure all the pieces come together, and though he claims he’s not musically talented, his role in the industry is highly instrumental. He wears the title of executive producer of Austin City Limits and also co-produces the GRAMMYs each year.

After a fateful move to Austin, Lickona started the journey he now gets to call his career. We chatted with him about that path and how he’s added yet another job title to his resume—artist manager to 22-year-old James Junius (Junius was on the South by Southwest lineup this year, so check him out if you didn’t catch him down there).

Apparently, we’re also the first to put him on the spot about choosing barbecue or tacos down at SX, so that’s our claim to fame now.  Read the full interview below.

Vinyl Mag: So how did you end up as the executive producer for Austin City Limits?

Terry Lickona: Well, to make a long story short, I used to be a radio DJ back in New York where I’m originally from. And when I was in my twenties after college, I decided I wanted to pull up my roots and go live some place else and see what it’d be like. I’d heard about Austin and the music scene here–even back then–so I thought I’d check it out and maybe stay a couple of years. And 43 years later, I’m still here.

It turned out to be a good deal for me. My first radio job in Austin was with the NPR station KUT, and they happened to be in the same building as the PBS station where they were producing this new music show called Austin City Limits. I’d never set foot in a TV studio and never thought twice about working in television, but I’d always loved music even though I don’t really have any music talent. But I’ve always hung out with musicians–I’m one of those types. So, I got my foot in the door of this new TV show, and within two years I became the producer, and here I am. The show has become the longest running music show on television anywhere in the world as far as we can figure out. It’s become a great showcase for all kinds of music … I think that’s why it’s been so successful is that it’s kind of an “anything goes” format.

VM: How do you feel like your experience as a radio DJ helped prepare you for the producer role?

TL: I think it did in the sense that, for eight hours a day, all I did was play music and listen to music and discover new music … it definitely opened up the whole world of music to me more than just your typical listener. I would say it definitely did expand my horizons when it came to my musical taste. Anything that’s good is kind of my main criteria–good, original, authentic music that stands out.

VM: Do you have a favorite artist that you’ve put on the show?

TL: Well, that’s a hard question to answer after all these years! I think probably my favorite artist in the last couple of years is Kendrick Lamar. That might surprise some people, because people wouldn’t normally think of someone like Kendrick doing our show, but we pretty much are open to anything. He’s such an electrifying, live performer, and I think we really captured all of that really well on our show, and he seemed to think so, too. He raved about it afterwards. It was one of the only TV shows that he’d done when that record, To Pimp A Butterfly, first came out. But we do a little bit of everything, so my favorite show changes sometimes year to year.

VM: What’s the process like of finding and choosing artists for the show?

TL: Well, part of my job is to book the talent, and that’s the part I enjoy the most. It’s kind of like when I was still a DJ in radio—I try to absorb as much music as I can. I try to keep up with what’s happening and what’s new. We do 13 new episodes a year, and since our format is so eclectic, I try to break it out so that there’s a little bit of each in the mix to come up with those 13 shows. And I also try to mix it up between what’s new and what’s classic. We’ll have legacy artists—we just did a show this week with The Pretenders with Chrissie Hynde–and we’ll do shows like that at the same time that we’re doing Kendrick Lamar or somebody who’s brand new.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that timing is everything. I don’t want to book an artist too soon before they’ve kind of hit their stride, and I don’t want to be the last one either. When an artist has a new record out or when they’re on tour and they’re getting a lot of attention, that’s usually the best time for them to do it.

VM: How do you make sure you capture the full experience of an artist with the TV format?

TL: We try to create the most natural environment we can for the artist or band just to get up on stage and do their show without feeling like the TV is getting in the way. We shoot the shows in Austin, of course, in our own venue with a live audience, and Austin music fans are the best. They’re very enthusiastic, and they don’t hold anything back and they don’t act inhibited just because of the cameras. So, we try to stay out of the way! The stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience, and we keep the stage low to the floor, so there’s a real connection between the performer and the audience. The artist could reach out and touch the people on the floor in front of the stage. That makes a huge difference in terms of the whole entertainment and chemistry of the show, and then we capture it!

VM: How is your role as a producer for the GRAMMYs different from your role at ACL?

TL: Well, on the GRAMMYs I’m the co-producer so I’m not the top dog, and I don’t personally book the talent like I do for ACL. For ACL, when we do a taping, it’s one band. For the GRAMMYs, there’s like 25 and it’s live TV, and there’s all this pressure about the awards … it’s definitely a different vibe.

VM: Has working behind the scenes completely changed how you watch award shows?

TL: Oh, yeah! I would say so once you see what goes on behind the scenes, what it costs and how complicated it is to put one of these performances together that you see on TV. When I was watching the Academy Awards with the rest of the world, I saw that huge faux pas … I could not imagine how that could’ve possibly happened. We’re behind stage during the GRAMMYs, and we sit next to the people with the envelopes, and it’s just hard to imagine how somebody could make a mistake like that, because we’re so buttoned up about it. So, I had to laugh but also shake my head wondering how did they do that!

But being behind the scenes, whether it’s the GRAMMYs or anything else, definitely gives me an appreciation for the artists. I get to work with an artist when they come in to tape Austin City Limits. We spend the whole day together, so we get to know each other really well, and then at the end of the night after the taping, I do an interview in the dressing room with each artist. So, I get to realize what they’re dealing with, and these artists don’t live normal lives, obviously. They get up on a stage night after night, and they pour out their heart and soul, and then they have to do it again the next day and deal with all of the logistics that go along with being an artist. The insecurities, the paranoia, and the anxieties … I have a respect for them, knowing what they go through.

VM: Does seeing all of that make you glad you’re on the production side and not a performing artist yourself?

TL: Oh yeah, I like being behind the scenes!  When I was a radio DJ—that was fun doing my own show on the air. I did some on-camera TV for a while, too, nothing special, but I can’t imagine getting up on a stage and doing that night after night. So, I am glad to be just the guy behind the scenes who makes it all happen along with a big team of people–it’s not just me, of course.

VM: What made you want to add artist management to your resume?

TL: So, this is not something I was planning to do ever in my life. If you’d asked me six months ago, I would’ve laughed and said your crazy. But I met this young artist named James Junius on Facebook! He just reached out to me and said he was from Utah and that he grew up watching Austin City Limits, and one of his favorite artists was James Taylor and he heard that we were going to do a taping with James Taylor. He asked if he could find a way to fly down to Austin if I could get him in to see the show. Well, of course, that part’s easy, so I said, “Yeah, come on down,” and he came to the taping with James. He spent the day at the rehearsal and even introduced himself. The next thing I knew, he and James Taylor were sitting over there in the corner talking for an hour and a half, and they just hit it off instantly. He brought his guitar with him and sang some of his songs, and there was something about him and his songs but also just his personality that impressed me more than most of the artists I deal with and especially somebody just starting out at that age.

It was kind of a wild hair or an impulse for me to want to reach out to help him. I found myself taking on more and more responsibility, because I have those connections that I could use to help him and at least open the door. I helped him submit to South By Southwest for a showcase, and they accepted his application.

VM: How is being a manager different from your other jobs?

TL: It’s really interesting … as long as I’ve been involved with music and producing a TV show, I’ve worked with a zillion artists and managers and publicists and record label people, but I’ve never been involved inside of the process as somebody who’s representing the artist and pitching the artist to the other people.

VM: What drew you to this particular artist?

TL: He’s just a really good person. He’s got a lot of heart and soul for somebody his age. He’s very bright, very tuned-in to the music business and what it takes to try to get anywhere. So, I’m also at the point in my life where I am in a position to help somebody. That’s not to say that I want to open up my own artist management company and sign up a dozen artists right away. But if I can help somebody who I believe in who I think has talent, then why shouldn’t I? I feel like it’s almost an obligation to take the lessons that I’ve learned in life, the people that I’ve met and maybe put that to good use and help somebody else along the way.

VM: Kudos to James for putting himself out there with you and James Taylor!

TL: He’s good that way! He’s down at the convention center at South By right now, and he’s going to every panel he can get into, and he printed up a bunch of flyers to hand out to people about his showcases this week. He’ll go up to anybody and introduce himself, but in a good way–not to be pushy. He also has that kind of personality that it’s hard not to like him. And then on top of that, when you find out that he’s actually got talent, that makes it even better.

VM: What skills from your job as a producer have carried over into managing an artist?

TL: I would say I’ve got pretty good people skills when it comes to dealing with all kinds of people no matter where they’re from or what age they are. People have always told me throughout the years that I seem very calm. I never seem to get rattled or uptight when there’s a lot of stress, and that’s just the way I am I guess. I think that has helped me with James and this new role. Instead of trying to shove him down somebody’s throat, I think I’ve got a pretty good sales pitch when it comes to why I think people should listen to his music and why I like it and why I think it’s worthy. So, when you’ve dealt with so many different people over the years and all kinds of different situations … most situations that I find myself in I’ve kind of been in before or I’ve seen how other people deal with them. So, I think there is a connection between one set of skills and the other.

VM: If you had to describe James’ music to a new listener in one tweet, what would you say?

TL: I would say, singer-songwriter at heart but with a very contemporary outlook about the world he lives in today and someone who loves to experiment with different musical sounds as he tells a story with his songs.

VM: Besides him, of course, are there any other particular artists you’re looking forward to seeing at SXSW?

TL: You know, I’ve got a list of people that I’ve put together … people have given me names of people I need to go check out. I’d say 90 percent of the artists that I see this week I’ve never heard of or at least never seen or heard their music. But if someone who I trust recommends them, then I figure it’s worth me taking the time. Maybe the one exception to that is Ryan Adams is playing a showcase this Friday night, and I’m definitely going to go out and see him. He’s always been a favorite!

VM: And because it’s SXSW, we have to ask: barbecue or tacos?

TL: Tacos, for sure! I like really good barbecue … I’m not really the biggest meat eater in the world so I kind of limit my meat intake, but if somebody points me to some really good ribs or brisket, I will definitely go for it without any hesitation. Some people who come to Austin during SXSW eat barbecue every day, but you can’t beat a good taco! A breakfast taco, a lunch taco, you can have a plate of tacos for dinner. And you can have anything you want in your taco! You can have your eggs and bacon breakfast taco, your chicken taco, your salmon taco–yes, they do have it. So, I’m a bigger fan of tacos, because I think you can do more with them. Tacos win my vote.

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