Entertainment Director Sharilyn Mayhugh shares her guidelines for successfully booking the music performances for the Austin-based Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.
By Amanda Pinney, Photo by Alison Narro
The city of Austin is known for its impressive live-music scene, and the combination of crowd-pleasing, internationally known and loved entertainment and high-stakes sports is what makes the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas an attraction. October marks the USGP’s sixth year in Austin.
With the venue’s ability to host crowds in excess of 100,000, COTA’s entertainment director, Sharilyn Mayhugh, knows it’s important to keep the track’s musical atmosphere upbeat in order to provide a recipe for event success. After snagging Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder as the performing artists for this year’s event, held Oct. 20 through 22, Mayhugh sat down to share her tips and tricks when it comes to making the artist ask and building the ultimate stadium soundtrack.
- Define Success. “Before starting any project, you need to understand what success looks like in order to deliver it. Each year, I talk with Bobby [Epstein, CEO of COTA] and Katja [Heim, chief operating officer of COTA] about what we want to accomplish with our talent bookings and pose questions such as, ‘Are we programming what appeals to our existing fan base? Are we programming to drive incremental ticket sales? Are we programming in [an]effort to ideally accomplish both?’ Once I have that feedback, I know what I need to do and who I want to talk to.”
- Commit to Excellence. “Excellence in selection: Formula 1 is the top of the class, the crown jewel of racing and so, our music and entertainment offerings have to match the star power of the race. Excellence in execution: Deliver a great experience for the artist and word will travel. Last year, Taylor Swift and Usher plus The Roots put on incredible performances. They showed their commitment to excellence and we made true to ours. In turn, 2016 proved to be an amazing race weekend, some may even say game changing. When Taylor Swift walks away, having set her own personal concert-attendance record, and a good time was had by all, starting conversations with artists we’re interested in for future races is automatically easier.”
- Be Bold. “As far back as having Elton John headline the post-race concert [in 2015], a common question that had been asked is, ‘How do you top last year?’ The short answer to that is by being bold, bold in thinking and bold in asking. Wow moments are created in the unexpected, so, when brainstorming about who should follow, no acts are off the list just because they aren’t touring or may not be accepting offers for one-off dates. Once I land on an idea, despite any potential hurdles that idea may present, I make the ask. It’s kind of a no risk, no reward approach.”
- Personal Music Taste Doesn’t Count. “It’s one of the hardest lessons talent buyers have to learn. You can’t make choices based on your own likes, not to mention the likes of everyone around you. If you do, it almost always ends up being the wrong choice. It’s human nature to gravitate to what attracts us, which makes it that much more important to define a criteria set for why an artist works for this event. The right choices are always going to be the artists who check off the most boxes in that set. I work hard to keep myself and the team accountable to the criteria.”
- Light That Prayer Candle. “You can educate about the event, you can make a great offer, you can show an impressive roster of artists who have previously played who will give a good report, you can be as bold as you can be, yet that still doesn’t make for a guarantee of a yes. In the end, there is an element of luck involved in closing the deal, and I make a point to recognize and acknowledge it. My friend Andy Langer sent me a gift post-F1 last year, a Taylor Swift prayer candle. I confess that candle was burning during some very important hours and days while working on this year’s lineup, with something along the lines of, ‘May this candle light the way to repeat the success we’ve had the good fortune of receiving’ playing over in my head. Wouldn’t you know, within five minutes of stepping onto the grounds of the Luck Reunion festival during South By Southwest that’s held on Willie Nelson’s ranch in Luck, Texas, my phone rang with the call I’d been waiting on: confirmation that Justin Timberlake would perform this year. That’s a true story.”