Iconic brands are instantly recognizable. Think the Volkswagen Beetle or the McDonald’s arches.
Brands like these are rooted in our culture. They have a status that goes beyond simply what they sell. They come to represent our desires, hopes and dreams.
However, sometimes an iconic brand may actually disappear. Juggernauts like Pan Am, Blockbuster, and Oldsmobile have been hurt by changes in technology or phased out for various reasons.
Having brand recognition can be hugely powerful, but when reviving a once iconic name, it can actually be a challenge and uphill battle to change built-in perception.
Antone’s, a once famous blues club in Austin, Texas has gone through six different business iterations and was even closed for two years after being open every day for 38 years.
However, Antone’s is once again becoming a destination location for visitors of Austin and a place many musicians desire to play.
In today’s episode of Small Business War Stories, we walk with Will Bridges of Antone’s about how they have been able to revive this amazing and iconic brand.
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A summary of our interview with Will Bridges of Antone’s is below.
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- What was it like to undertake reviving an iconic brand like Antone’s?
- With an established iconic brand, how do you balance tradition and keeping things fresh for new audiences?
- How did you balance that blues tradition with new acts?
- What’s a potential pitfall? Can you share something that could have gone wrong?
- What was the process with finding this location and why was it important to be here?
- How did Gary Clark Jr get involved with the project and what’s it been like working with him?
- Where do you see Austin and the Antone’s brand going in the next 10 years?
Antone’s is an iconic presence here in Austin. It’s a place that has hosted some of the greats in the history of music. People like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who basically got started here. You were the one that brought it back to Austin after it went away.
What was it like to undertake this project?
Will Bridges: It definitely has not been easy. From a marketing perspective, it is a lot harder to revive a brand than it is to start a new brand. I think, sometimes, entrepreneurs or business people might overestimate that just because something has a name, it’s going to be successful. This was a project that I certainly didn’t take on very lightly by any measure.
Clifford Antone founded the club. After Clifford passed in 2006, Susan, his sister who had been a part of the club for many years started running it full-time. The club changed hands, maybe, four or five years after that to the owner of Emo’s and had to move it out to East Riverside location. That was, really, the only major change. When you talk about reviving Antone’s, I think, there were probably smaller little mini revivals over the years just ramping business up and different people coming into roles and getting involved.
One thing about Antone’s that makes it special is that prior to it being closed before we took it over, which it was closed for about two years. Prior to that, it had been open for 38 years without ever really being closed for more than about a day.
Even when they would change locations, they would time it so that they’d have a farewell show at one location. Maybe a down day or two max, and then they’d jump right in to shows at the new location. The continuity of it was always really tight, but sadly, when the Riverside location closed, there was no plan to start a new one. It was about two years until we opened this one.
When you work on reviving an iconic brand, how do you balance keeping with tradition and the fact that so many musical legends went through the stage with engaging new audiences? Austin has a lot of live music. There’s a high standard to keep people engaged.
Will Bridges: Yeah. That is the key question. I think I am probably a little biased with my answer here because one, I’m from Austin and I take it for granted that I have an intuitive understanding of this brand to some degree and some of the brands that might be considered authentic old Austin brands.
A little back-story there, I grew up in Austin. My dad use to take me to the Guadalupe location. I remember meeting Clifford and seeing that scene as a young kid. I grew up playing music, recording music, promoting music. Antone’s was always one of the major outposts for our music community. Really, more than just a music venue. It was just a community hub. I never thought in a million years that I would be involved, but as this is often the case in a community especially when you stick around in your hometown, you get a little older and you start to realize that some of the things that you grew up enjoying and maybe taken for granted, now, are no longer running at full tilt for a lot of us.
Fortunately, that was a calling of responsibility to say, “It’s our turn to step up and take the reins of some of these things and steward those traditions and that culture forward.“
That was very much the case for this project. To summarize what, I think, is so key about translating any brand and that’s really the key word I like to use is, it’s all about context and relevance to recreate Antone’s in 2016 in a way that will position it for success for decades to come. It’s not just a literal copy paste of what it once was.
Austin has changed, the landscapes changed, the economy has changed and that model might not work. The balance you’re trying to find is, authenticity. It’s got to be authentic. It’s got to connect to the roots of its original origin and the intention of the original origin, but you’ve got to translate that relevance to fit the new context in the future context. In this case-
A key goal of bringing Antone’s back was to make it a blues club again. In it’s last iteration on Riverside, it had really just become more of a venue. They did the blue Mondays tradition, but other than that, there were not many blues shows at all.
Zach Ernst, our talent buyer, who books here at Antone’s and also at the Paramount Theater and the State Theater. He is, basically, Clifford’s protégé when it comes to talent buying. He met Clifford when taking Clifford’s History of Music class at University of Texas. He was just blown away and just became a sponge of everything that Clifford had to talk about.
When we brought Antone’s back, Zach and I had a lot of conversations about what that was going to mean musically. There are a lot of musicians that have been involved in the Antone’s community for a long time. It was very important that we got those musicians back into the mix because this was their home. A lot of musicians felt that ever since Antone’s closed, they felt like they didn’t really have a home base.
We wanted to make Antone’s a blues club again. We used the term, “club” as a real term of endearment here in Austin for rooms that are consistently presenting music with a consistent identity and voice. We’re a club town long before out of town shows would even come to Austin. We have to make our own stars and we have to make our own scenes.
How did you balance that blues tradition with new acts?
Will Bridges: We knew that in 2017 and beyond, you can’t make the business work just having blues shows. There are not enough touring blues artists to really fill the calendar. If you just did all the local blues, you’re going to miss out on that segment of the demographic that wants to be seeing shows from out of town and bigger acts.
Step one was regaining our identity in Austin, and finding our soul again. Once we got Antone’s back on the right track in terms of its blues heritage, we could start experimenting with deviating from that and working with outside promoters, other talent buyers, friends that we all know in the community. We started experimenting and presenting other types of music as well.
This is all a metaphor for the relationship between blues and other genres. I consider blues to be one of the mother tongues of the music language, especially rock and roll, funk, rhythm and blues, hip-hop.
You have done a fantastic job over the last year. Antone’s is already a destination for people visiting Austin. It’s a stage that local musicians aspire to play on.
What’s a potential pitfall? Can you share something that could have gone wrong?
Will Bridges: Revitalizing any brand is tricky because you’re up against past expectations and the public’s perception and relationship with that brand. There are always going to be people that say, “Oh, that’s not how it was. It was like this. They shouldn’t have done that. They should’ve made it more like this. I liked it better when it was like that.“
That’s the trickiest part. It’s just that you’re recreating something and you’re trying to arm it with all the tools it needs to succeed, but also get the blessings of the folks that used to know that brand and its previous iteration.
What was really tricky in this case, this is the sixth iteration. A lot of people don’t realize there have been that many different versions of Antone’s.
I’ll give you the quick rundown. It started at the corner of Sixth and Brazos, 1975. That was the original.
The one that people forget about is Great Northern. After about a seven-year run on Sixth Street, which what is attributed to really starting Sixth Street, by the way. Sixth Street was not an entertainment district or a street that was known for musical bars or really, anything. Clifford and Antone’s was really what sparked that.
After a good run there, that building actually got torn down. They got displaced. They knew this was a temporary move, but they went up North on Great Northern. It was only a two-year stint, but ironically, it ended up playing important role in the overall trajectory of Antone’s because it was a really big room, bigger than they needed at the time. It allowed them to do some bigger road shows with Willie Nelson, James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, and some of these relationships that Clifford cultivated there then carried forward to the other clubs. Those guys would come play smaller rooms because of the relationship that they had made with Clifford at Great Northern.
After about a two-year stint, Clifford was looking for a perfect space for the club to really have a long term life at or lease at and everything. They found a space on Guadalupe, at 29th and Guadalupe. That became the longest tenure. It was about 18 years. That one started in ’82, the year I was born, actually.
A lot of folks who we consider to be the Antone’s generation above myself, the old guard Antone’s were the folks who went to that location. A lot of them because they were going to UT (University of Texas) or ACC (Austin Community College) and that location was on the edge of campus. I’ve heard so many stories about people that were at UT, walking around, looking for something to do and walking and basically stumbling without knowing what they were walking into.
The Antone’s experience just blew them away. People remember meeting Clifford and seeing Sunnyland Slim play an amazing set that just changed their life forever. A lot of great memories were had there at the Guadalupe location. Clifford was always talking about moving back downtown at some point.
The next location went to 5th and Lavaca. I consider that my generation and our generation. That was a great venue. It was a great blues club. Based on where Austin was at, at that time, in terms of being a touring destination, that’s when they really first started experimenting with some different genres and open it up a little bit. Clifford was always very open to that. He believed in the same sentiment that I said earlier as blues being an origin for these different genres that had only made sense to expand the program and to cover some of those related genres.
Clifford passed away in 2006 and that’s the location they were at when he passed. He passed away unexpectedly and it totally just took everybody by surprise. That’s what set into motion, the efforts to maintain that location but they had a good run there and Clifford had apparently already been talking about, maybe, moving the club as well. There was a real scramble at that time to have bigger rooms because as we started to get more and more of this touring acts, people were rushing to have rooms big enough that could really accommodate the bigger acts. They could sell enough tickets to make that math work.
Another business owner, another club owner got involved, took it out to Riverside. That’s when it really became a venue. That was the largest version of Antone’s ever. It was great for the big shows, but it lost touch with the club feel and the blues stuff.
That brings us to today. What was the process with finding this location and why was it important to be here?
Will Bridges: When we realized that, “Man, we might have an opportunity to take this project on,” it was very intimidating. We thought, “We’re not worthy,” but we also felt a sense of responsibility.
We began looking at spaces downtown. There are not a lot of “big rectangles,” as I call them, left downtown. That’s really what you’re looking for when you’re looking for a music venue space. It’s a big open rectangle where you’re not going to have to rip out a bunch of infrastructure because then, you’re destroying value. If you have to rip out a kitchen, well, somebody put that kitchen in there and they’re probably trying to get rents that reflect that.
You hate to have to rip a bunch of stuff out. The more pristine and untouched it is, the better. Also, I just love that because of the aesthetic of it and everything, but there are not many places like that left downtown. We spent about a solid year just trying to find the perfect space, making inquiries about spaces, negotiating different potential leases before we found this space. This one, it was right under our nose because this little section of Sixth Street had a big empty lot across from it for a long time that would’ve, at the time, made this space seem like it was on a dead block.
But then The Westin Hotel started constructing their new hotel. Around that time when we thought, “This whole block is going to come back to life.” We felt like activity was already skewing south and east of downtown because of the hotel density, because of the proximity to the convention centers and all the events and business that go with that.
We felt like we got incredibly lucky. We found this space, hit it off with the landlords, one of the landlords who we were actually our point of contact at our first meeting actually told us a story about the first time that he went to Antone’s when he was going to UT.
When he told us that story and his eyes lit up, we thought, “Okay. Finally. Somebody that really gets this.” This space was basically a first generation warehouse space and had been so since it was built in the early 1900s.
The litmus test was bringing Susan (Clifford’s sister) to see the space. We brought her in and she said, “Oh man, the blues are already here.” It was important to us to bring Clifford’s sister back into the fold so that she could be one of the partners and be involved.
Once we had the space, we focused on what we felt like were the two most cherished venues: the original at Sixth and Brazos and the Guadalupe club. Those were the golden era. It was also when a lot of the great blues players from Chicago and other blues hubs around the country were still active, alive, and touring and Clifford was able to get, pretty much, all of them down to those clubs.
We studied those clubs and their heritage as best we could. We went through every picture we could find and every recording we could find. We used that to inform us as much as possible on the design and look and feel of the new club, all while trying to translate those elements to make sure that they’re also well positioned for 2017 and beyond.
You mentioned how important it was to bring Susan Antone into the fold. Let’s talk about Gary Clark Jr. who’s one of your partners in this venture. He’s a homegrown Austin talent and a tremendous blues guitarist.
How did he get involved with the project and what’s that been like?
Will Bridges: Gary and I have known each other for a long time. We went to Austin High together. We really got to know each other as people, as friends, and as music colleagues. Right after I graduated, I started getting more involved in the booking side of things.
Any time I had a budget for anything, any time I curated an event or show, Gary was always my first call. It didn’t matter what genre they were going for. I just always knew that if I could get him there, then the show would be amazing and the people would be impressed with me.
When I did our first project, Lambert’s BBQ in 2006, I got Gary involved as much as I could with the venue there. I would always think of Gary as, “Would he like this?” I’ve told him this, of course, over the years and we did the same thing when we were building this place up. He’s a tall guy. Things are like stage height and dressing room height. We always make sure that if somebody like Gary comes in, we’ve got to be able to make sure and accommodate him.
Gary and I had a sit-down about two-and-a-half, three years after his career had really started to explode. We had seen each other in passing. I had seen him backstage and we had gotten to chat for just a little bit, but we hadn’t had a chance to really sit down and catch in a while.
He and his team were doing a little video shoot over at Deep Eddy Cabaret, a bar that I also, now, run. It was for this documentary called, Two Trains Running, which was actually at the Austin Film Festival. An awesome film. You should check it out. It’s about the history of the blues and particularly country blues and how that genre and also, the revitalization of that genre played into some of the civil rights movement stuff at the time. Anyway, really interesting documentary.
After the shoot, we were all sitting on the patio, having some pitchers of cold beer, which is what you do at Deep Eddy Cabaret. I had a chance to tell Gary about this whole Antone’s situation. There were some people saying, “Hey, we’re willing to sell it.” There was interest from buyers, but everybody was waiting to line up the dots in terms of who would be involved, where it would go, and all that before anybody was really willing to pull the trigger.
We had this little window of an opportunity. I was really on the fence a little bit because of all the history and because of all the expectations and because the brand had gotten a little off its path, I knew, (1) it was going to be a real challenge and a lot of work to get Antone’s back to it’s glory and really do it justice, and (2) there was just so much pressure because as somebody born and raised in Austin, if you screwed that up, you’d never live it down. It was like, “Is it worth risking everything to jump in and try and save this?“
I gave Gary the whole rundown and we talked about it. We were talking about things like, all that nostalgia, honor and love we feel for Antone’s. Should we channel that into just a new music venue and call it something different? Because there were also other hurdles just to even get access to the name “Antone’s.” Obviously, it was going to be a lot more expensive than to just go out and start a brand new venue.
Gary really listened to me. He really thought about it before he spoke, but he told me his take on it which was basically that he thought, “Man, we owe it to Clifford. We owe it to the legacy of Antone’s to try and do everything we can to save it.” Like I was talking about earlier, he acknowledged that we also have to make it new. We need to find a way to translate it into the future and have it be, not just a continuation of Antone’s, but a rebirth.
Where do you see Austin and the Antone’s brand going in the next 10 years?
Will Bridges: Well, I really hope, if you look at where Austin has come from in the last 10 years and just all the exponential growth we’ve experienced, 10 years is a long time. My goal and my hope for Austin is that, in the next 10 years, we really get our feet set and really find a balance amongst all this growth. There are going to be some really key challenges. Affordability and transportation are two major components of that. I really want to see an Austin where the arts flourish downtown. I think that’s key and I think we’re already starting to see indicators of that happening again.
I hope that the residential urbanism that’s happening downtown can really continue to mesh with the creative class in the arts sector. That’s always a tricky part of a growing city. I think it’s important that Austin gets that right. Also, I think, it’s incredibly important that we continue to preserve and safeguard our green spaces and our cultural outposts.
I often say that our brick and mortars, our bars and restaurants and music venues and parks, are our cultural infrastructure. They are the coral reef of the culture as we know it in Austin. Maintaining that is incredibly key. How that translates to Antone’s, in 10 years, we want to be celebrating our 50th anniversary that actually, in eight years, which will be a huge milestone for the club.
Antone’s is already an international name. Clifford made it so, but by reinvigorating this club, we hope to just reactivate all those relationships and channels around the state, around the country and around the globe so that people know that Antone’s is not only Austin’s home of the blues but one of the best blues clubs in the world and one of the best live music venues in the world, and a place that will continue to harbor and nurture talent and hold the blues torch for the City of Austin, Texas.
Reviving a well known brand can actually be more difficult than starting a completely new brand. You are battling a lot of people’s past experiences with the brand, which might be different than where you think you need to take it to be relevant today.
Will Bridges, and the other partners at Antone’s, have been successful with transforming the Antone’s brand by maintaining the club’s roots in blues music, but also mixing in other types of music to keep it relevant for 2017.
Their hope is to make Antone’s one of the best live music venues in the world.
If you have any question or comments about reviving an iconic brand or about this episode of Small Business War Stories, please leave a comment below.