Louis and Christine Messina: Veteran concert promoter and his wife now make Austin home

    11:52 p.m Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 Arts

The guests clattered across the paver-covered courtyard to pry open the enormous wooden doors that could have guarded a Renaissance palazzo.

Dressed casually but carefully, they streamed through the tall, narrow rooms below figurative paintings and beamed ceilings. Here and there, the visitor could spy the captains of Austin's music industry, delegates from key groups such as C3 Presents, South by Southwest, ACL Live, Austin Music People and Transmission Entertainment.

They made the summer pilgrimage to this gated home in the Rob Roy on the Creek neighborhood, not to perch on staircases and terraces or to nibble deli snacks but to pay tribute to a man and his wife who had quietly moved to Austin a year ago.

The hostess, Christine Messina, model-tall, tanned and slender, slipped to each guest's side, making them feel at home in the otherwise formal spaces. Her husband, Louis Messina, coiled and catlike, did the same, offering self-deprecating asides about the subjects of the early-evening party: The 10th anniversary of his music promotion business, the Messina Group, and the astonishing 54-page special section in the Aug. 13 issue of Billboard magazine dedicated to his Austin-based company.

"The fact is, he essentially invented the modern concert business," says Brent Grulke, creative director for South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival. "In an industry rife with blowhards, frauds and all manner of pretenders, he's the real deal: forthright, charming, passionate, loyal, knowledgeable, and a master at getting things done. He's the person every music businessperson in Austin looks up to. When he speaks, we all cock an ear."

Closely cropped and slightly grizzled, Louis Messina could go unrecognized at almost any Austin club or party. Yet he and his tiny staff, working out of a shady but unremarkable office park on Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360), promotes, alongside sports and entertainment partners at AEG Live, stadium-filling artists Taylor Swift, George Strait and Kenny Chesney, as well as new additions to the roster, such as Reba McEntire and smaller acts such as Austin-based Electric Touch, graced with the talents of his sons, Louis Messina Jr. and Christopher Leigh Messina.

During the past decade, the concerts have earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Billboard lists a Swift double-bill at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., as the Messina Group's highest grossing concert to date, at just north of $8 million.

That's not all. Before embarking on his current blockbuster projects, Louis Messina helped business partner Allen Becker build what was once the world's biggest and most powerful concert promotion company, Houston-based Pace Concerts. Pace was sold to SFX, itself later swallowed by Clear Channel Entertainment. That company spun off its concert division, which became Live Nation, still a national powerhouse.

"Louis' a legend, an icon and a true pioneer in the music business," says ACL Live's Jan Mirkin, who credits Messina with defining the modern music festival with his Texxas Jam series staged in football stadiums from 1978 to 1988. "He is smart, innovative and has a heart bigger than Texas."

Ina way, Louis Messina was born into the promoting business. What he mostly learned, however, from his father,Louis Charles Messina,a colorful New Orleans boxing promoter, was what not to do.

"My dad was full of life," Messina says. "He may not have been the greatest businessman in the world. There wasn't a bar he didn't know. He was more interested in seeing his name in the paper."

The Messinas of old, gritty New Orleans seemed to emerge from the pages of a Tennessee Williams play or short story. His father descended from Italian, French and Russian Jewish ancestors; his mother, Marian LoBueno Messina, came from a small-town Italian line. She worked at JC Penney to support the family.

"My dad gave away more tickets than he sold," Messina says. "People say: ‘He must have inspired you.' No, not at all. As a kid, I would say: ‘What are you doing?' He just cared about the action."

Until he was 10 or 11 years old, they lived in downtown New Orleans across from Congo Square and the Municipal Auditorium.

"We integrated that neighborhood — the only white family for three blocks," Messina says. "I learned to run fast. But they left me alone because everyone was afraid of my grandfather. He was a mean, mean, mean man."

Later, they moved to middle-class Lakeview. He started promoting music while still at Prytania Private School and distinctly remembers watching Elvis Presley from backstage at the Municipal Auditorium, where his father gained access for them.

"I was so overwhelmed with the energy he created and the energy of the audience," he says. "I can close my eyes and see exactly where I was sitting. I was a huge Elvis fan. Still am. I decided then and there to get into music business. That or play centerfield for the Giants. I was also a Willie Mays fan."

After a few odd jobs, Messina landed a sales position at WWOM Mother Radio FM, where actor John Larroquette could be heard on the air as DJ "Judas."

"There was no format," he says. "They played what they wanted to play. A record rep would walk in and say: ‘Here's the new Pink Floyd album.' And they would play the whole record, not just one song. No kidding."

He teamed up with a Nashville promoter and a shadier character for his first fateful concert on Nov. 3, 1972, a sellout for Curtis Mayfield ("Superfly") and B.B. King at the Loyola Field House. There was one problem: Those artists didn't perform. A rowdy crowd demanded their money back.

"We needed the riot squad," he says. "My partners left with the money. I was devastated. There's an old saying: ‘You gotta pay your dues.' Well, I just took out a lifetime subscription. It can't get any worse than this."

But Messina bounced back and, by 1975, he had met Becker, who lured him to Houston to expand Pace, which had started in the 1960s by promoting motor sports. The two guided acts through Texas, basing a national network in the state, happily located in the middle of the country and burdened with lower overhead than on the coasts. To reach ever larger audiences and circumvent the traditional venues, Pace built huge outdoor theaters.

"During the Pace days, when you came to Texas, you worked for us," says Messina, who swaggered like a rock star back then. "Then we became sort of the Darth Vaders of the industry by building all those amphitheaters. We started invading each other's turf."

All along, Messina's territory was behind the scenes, not onstage. His eyes glisten when he talks about concert experiences that go back to Presley in New Orleans.

"I feel that way every show," Messina says. "Night after night, it's magic. ... There's nothing like it for me: Watching people, watching their eyes and lips, singing along to every song. I'm excited right now. My hairs stand up."

A few day after the Billboard event, the Messinas let down their hair at the Lucky Lounge on West Fifth Street. Onstage were Electric Touch, which has already played Coachella, Lollapalooza and the ACL Music Festival, opened for Heart at ACL Live and signed with Island Records. The group is fronted by charismatic lead singer Shane Lawlor,whom the Messinas informally adopted when he moved into their guesthouse.

"My daughter thought Shane was one of her brothers," says Christine Messina, mother of two young girls. Besides the two rockers in Electric Touch, her husband has two adult sons by previous marriages. One, Barak Messina, is operations manager at ACL Live.

If Louis Messina, 64, sometimes plays the scamp — tossing back tequila shots at the Lucky Lounge and insisting everyone join him — Christine Messina, 38, seems the composed manager of personal lives. At the loud, red-shaded lounge, she tends friends and relatives visiting from out of town. Ever watchful, she gently, but firmly warns her family that a reporter is present.

"Louis and Christine are two of the coolest people I know," Mirkin says. "When I first met Christine, I was immediately impressed by her intelligence, kindness and undeniable beauty."

Mirkin is among the few dozen Austinites who socialized casually with the Messinas during their first year here. Little by little, the couple is building a public profile as well, helping out charities around town.

"People are interesting here," says Christine Messina about the couple's moving from their longtime base in Houston (they had owned a vacation home here). "The last year was about settling in, making a home base for family. It's been very welcoming."

Born in Indianapolis, Christine Messina grew up in Coral Springs, Fla. Her father, Charles Thompson, is a retired consumer electronics executive from the Midwest; her mother, Carol Thompson, was born Bach Nhan Nguyen in Vietnam. An unusually tall girl who took etiquette lessons and played soccer and softball competitively, their daughter breezed through school.

In 1991, she matriculated to the University of Texas, where she studied business and marketing. On the side, she modeled, mostly for print advertising and commercials, and befriended a scout, Denise McLemore Shirley, with whom she remains close.

Later marketing efforts led her to banks and branding companies in Dallas, Houston and Austin. Helping Continental Airlines with its charitable contributions familiarized her with Houston's high-octane arts scene.

"That's when I found a real passion for the arts community," she says. While raising money for the newly opened but sometimes empty Hobby Center, she met Louis Messina. After a few friendly business meetings, the previously married acquaintances fell in love.

"I knew there was a connection between Christine and me," says Louis Messina, playfully bantering with his wife on the sofa of their immaculately tended house. After previous entanglements — three marriages for him, one for her — some hesitation remained about the next step.

"You shouldn't deny yourself happiness just because it doesn't always work out," Christine Messina says. They married April 23, 2005, surrounded by immediate family on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands.

"I have the love of my life," Louis Messina says. "We have this beautiful life together and beautiful children. The house is full of this wonderful energy. We did the right thing. We went down the right path."

‘I've got six balls in the air today."

Louis Messina is working the Bluetooth like a pro this morning, landing deals at his Lost Creek-area office for Chesney and Strait on separate calls. He sounds like a Hollywood producer out of central casting, minus the foul mouth and inflated ego. He's more the soothing diplomat these days, but one that senses the right moment to take care of business.

"What are you going to pay me?" he coos over the phone. "I do have a budget on that end. He won't be touring then, so you'd have to step it up."

Last month, Louis Messina's fingerprints were all over the Fire Relief: Concert for Central Texas that raised more than $700,000 at the Erwin Center. Still, he doesn't take credit.

"Ray Benson just needed someone to put the pieces together," he says, days before the event. "That's what we try to do: Make things happen. That's what sets us apart from other promoters."

Several of Austin's promotional competitors collaborated on the charity event, a friendly collusion Messina hopes to encourage in the future.

Only nine people work at the Messina Group Austin office on any given day — another staff of six holds down the group's Nashville operations, which mostly oversee concerts at the historic Ryman Auditorium — and they are physically arranged into the triangles of veteran promoters dedicated to Swift, Strait and Chesney.

"This is the factory here," Messina says, giving a guided tour. "We're the mechanics. It starts with the artist. Planning the tour. Routing the tour. Putting the cities together. Putting talent together. Making deals with buildings and support artists. All the details. Marketing and promoting the show. And finally, producing the show on the local level."

His company doesn't put together, however, the sound, lights and artistry of the concert. The team's job is to make sure everything is perfect when the artist arrives at the venue.

"I don't tell George Strait what songs to sing, except when I'm really drunk," he jokes. "I do the front of the stage, and behind the stage, not on it."

Messina recalls that, during the 1970s, Pace also operated on this kind of personal level. But that changed when the radio conglomerate Clear Channel purchased SFX, introducing what he felt was as a dehumanizing corporate culture.

"I hated it," Messina says of the merger. "It was like being in prison. I hated going to work every day. I hated the direction the company was going. ... There was nothing but negative energy. It was almost, instead of coming in with an olive branch, they came in with baseball bat. They forgot one thing: the artists. Without the artists, there is nothing."

When Messina left Clear Channel, he tangled with management over a proposed no-compete clause, which eventually allowed him to promote five country artists, including Strait and Chesney. Nurturing close ties rather than forcing the country artists through a maw of endless tours, he was able to shed the six-shooter mentality of the high-risk promotion business.

"There was a time when winning through intimidation worked," he says. "It's a stressful business. ... But I'm not as stressed as I used to be. No 12 cups of coffee a day, a cigarette in one hand, a cup in the other. There were times I would pick up the phone in the morning and go through hundreds of calls every day. I was not focused. That was when bands were inventory to me."

Ten years later, Messina thinks even industry giants like AEG and Live Nation are following his lead, downscaling to fit each artist's needs.

"I think it's coming full circle again, in a good way," he says. "Not just buying an act, and here's all this stupid money, which everybody loses. That model is starting to go away."

Now Messina plays the role of elder statesman in a city that has already launched waves of music promoters.

"I've known Louis for over 30 years. He's one of the top promoters in the world," says Freddy Fletcher, partner in Stageside Productions at ACL Live and owner, with his wife Lisa Fletcher, of two top recording studios, Pedernales and Arlyn. "We are so lucky to have him in Austin. He brings a whole new level to our music community. I'm lucky to have him as a friend."

Although its promotional scope is global, not local, the Messina Group, its leader and his wife are already becoming part of Austin's musical ecology.

"My world is all about personal relationships," Messina says behind the desk of his angled office, studded with music industry trophies and mementos. "The corporate world is all about the check. I'm already thinking two years from now for each artist. We're talking long-term. And this company does everything we say we're going to do. We work for the artist, rather than the artist working for us."

mbarnes@statesman.com

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