“The confluence of where live event and live television meet is the sweet spot,” Joe Lewis tells Billboard. As a veteran live events producer, Lewis (founder of his own Joe Lewis Company) has teamed up with master television producer R.A. Clark (founder/president of Lion Heart Entertainment) on their joint broadcast firm Lewis & Clark — combining their decades-long experience in the arena of live event production.
“The in-venue and on-air experience is where our two worlds intersect,” continues Lewis. “I bring the televised event piece of it to Joe’s live event piece. When put together, we can take it from the time you walk out of the car up until the time you watch it on TV,” adds Clark.
Officially formed in August 2021, Lewis & Clark recently scored its first gig with the upcoming 2022 MusiCares person of the year gala, honoring the legendary Joni Mitchell. Having produced The Academy of Country Music Awards show since 1999, multiple Grammy-branded specials celebrating the music of of Elton John and The Beatles (to name a few), and even the Miss Universe pageants, Clark and his expansive expertise in doing music on live television made him the ideal candidate to take on a project for MusiCares, the philanthropic partner of The Recording Academy.
To complete the in-person experience for the gala’s attendees, Clark called on Lewis, who’s a seasoned producer of “red carpets, galas, dinners, experiential events for fans — all of that high-touch precursors to a broadcast,” describes Clark. With a resume that includes big consumer-facing events, such as the NFL Experience and the Academy Awards pre-shows, Lewis and his skill set complemented Clark’s, which led to them partnering up on the MusiCares gala and launching Lewis & Clark.
Below, R.A. Clark and Joe Lewis sit down with Billboard to talk about their debut project with Joni Mitchell and MusiCares, their plans to shake things up at next year’s event, and what it takes to put on a good show.
What led to the formation of Lewis & Clark?
RC: It was really MusiCares. I’ve known Laura Segura (executive director, MusiCares) for many years. I knew that when she came in, she was gonna look into shaking up the MusiCares person of the year event. So I told her, “Well, no matter what you do, wherever you go with it, I’d like to at least get my foot in the door.”
I got the initial proposal and called Joe to tell him that there are things in this scope that I don’t do – like, running a live event, red carpet, silent auction, catering, tables. This stuff was Joe’s strengths at Joe Lewis Company (JLC). I’m more in the broadcast, concert, awards show arena. Bringing our two strengths together really led to the formation of Lewis & Clark. We came up with the company name to pitch to clients, and it felt like a gimme — like we’re exploring new worlds in event production. That’s how it came together.
JL: It was low-hanging fruit. When someone lobs a ball over, you swing at that thing. It was like a basketball-sized softball — Lewis & Clark. It exemplifies who we are as a new venture blazing a new trail. We are doing something completely new together. Not new to us as independents, but new together. That was the exciting part.
What services do Lewis & Clark offer?
JL: As an event production company, we have about 50,000 square feet of production space. We really function a lot like a mini studio, or how studios used to be. All the audio, video, sound, lights, scenic fabrication, printing services are all under one roof. When it comes to creative storytelling and television production, that’s all under the same roof with Rac’s expertise. Together, we can provide our combined experience and expertise in one phone call. Going into 2022 and beyond, companies, networks, organizations and studios are looking to be leaner, more efficient, and nimble – that’s something we can offer. We have 30 to 40 years of combined experience and wisdom between us, and there’s very few people who can say that they provide that under one roof.
RC: It goes back to our complementary skill sets. I don’t know what Joe does entirely, but I know enough. Joe doesn’t know what I do, but he knows enough — and we intersect. It’s made for a stronger pitch to our clients. Like I said, I don’t know everything about event production. But and Joe and his team do, while I’ve lived and breathed television production for many years.
Can you briefly give us more details on what your individual skill sets are?
RC: Joe and JLC do live event production. That means red carpets, galas, dinners, experiential events for fans — all of that high-touch precursors to a broadcast. My skill set stems from growing up through live television events. I bring the televised event piece of it to Joe’s live event piece. When put together, we can take it from the time you walk out of the car up until the time you watch it on TV
JL: Even before then, too! We also line up the digital presence and lead up to these events, so there’s continuity from the moment you announce the event all the way until it’s over. This makes sure that the narrative is the same all the way through, and it really starts from the moment they contract you. Today, we just had a conversation with MusiCares about what we’re doing starting right now. That’s how far out we have to plan. This show is at the end of January.
How far are you in the planning process for the person of the year gala?
RC: It was just announced last week, so we’re in the early stages. We’ve had initial conversations with Joni’s team about the creative process of who’s gonna be in the show and who would be the musical directors. We want this to be a great experience with Joni that helps MusiCares.
That’s the key to me: My success barometer is Joni feeling, “Wow, this was great and we’ve raised a lot of money and awareness for MusiCares.” People in our industry know about the MusiCares organization, but the consumer at home is still learning. I think we can help broaden the awareness for the organization to outside of the industry. There’s that opportunity especially if we get it broadcast.
Do you know if she’ll be able to perform that night?
RC: Not yet. We just started conversations with her camp. I don’t know enough about her abilities right now. I don’t know if MusiCares does. The door is wide open to any and all participation by Joni. We know that she’s gonna be there. She’s coming. We’ll play it by ear until we actually begin those conversations. You’ll just have to wait and see.
JL: There’s lots of details still coming together, but the great thing is there will be no shortage of artists who want do it because she’s so respected in the industry. Who’s gonna be there will span generations. It’s not gonna be specific to one generation, and I think that will be very exciting.
Have you started placing calls to artists to perform at the gala?
RC: Not yet, but I’ve put together a wish list. I’m a fanboy of hers. I know her catalog very well and appreciate her jazz roots in [1979’s] Mingus down to [1969’s] Clouds and [1970 single] “Big Yellow Taxi.” It’ll be an honor to see who fits in those different arenas — like jazz musicians, for example. As Joe said, we’re not gonna be just in the Laurel Canyon era. We’re gonna be bringing it into a contemporary era, too.
Have you attended any of the person of the year galas in the past?
RC: I’ve never attended because I’ve always been busy around Grammy season. But what I love about MusiCares with Laura now leading the charge is how open they are to any and all suggestions. We wanna take it in a different direction and explore. In the past, people have gotten used to walking into Exhibit Hall A, and then going over to B, and there’s been this established routine. I’d like to make it a new experience, so they go, “Oh, that’s interesting and that worked better.” Those are the types of things I’m excited about.
Are there any initial ideas on how to involve the fans more?
RC: We’re still talking about it. It’s my crazy idea because it’s been such an industry event. I see an opportunity in the after event. I don’t know yet what it would look like at home. We’re not streaming it live, so it’ll be an edited show. It could be something in the leadup to the stream or broadcast.
JL: I think that’s right. There’s a whole world out there that MusiCares could speak to. Because Joni’s music transcends so many genres, there’s an opportunity to let the world know, not only about Joni Mitchell, but more about MusiCares and their message.
Her music has been sampled by so many artists it’s unbelievable. Bringing in those artists who may not be in the Joni Mitchell genre, but have been part of the Joni Mitchell journey is very important to us. That opens it up to a much broader audience domestically and internationally. That’s the thing that excites me, Rac, and MusiCares the most. If they didn’t want to change, MusiCares would be doing the same things they’ve done for the last several years. They obviously want change, and if we can be some of those change agents and help them get there, then that’s what our job is.
With your combined experiences of working on shows, like pageants and Super Bowls, what’s unique about doing music on TV? What are the specific challenges to that?
RC: As a showrunner and executive producer, I’m always intrigued whenever I go to a concert and recognize how different it feels from watching it on television. If we sat in a room, it would be different from being on a Zoom call. I can’t read the body language. I can’t feel the room. My challenge is how we get more of that feeling that’s in the room into the broadcast. It’s difficult because there’s always a disconnect when you capture something even if it’s live. All your senses are involved when you’re at a concert, and you don’t have that on television. That’s always the biggest challenge for me.
How do you think producers try to make it more realistic for at-home viewers?
RC: By capturing the audio of the audience and seeing them more on camera. Seeing who’s bopping along and singing. Capturing those types of moments on camera. The only thing you’ve got is audio and video, but there have been some things I’ve watched on television when the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I could feel the room. That’s the director capturing all those images and putting it in a way that translates emotionally. It’s hard to translate emotion through television, but for magical performances – be it acting or signing – you can sometimes feel it come through.
Joe and I can only put so much in front of the cameras. It’s up to the artists and director — the artist to emote it and the director to capture it, so I, at home, feel like I’m experiencing that emotional connection. That’s way too esoteric, but it’s true.
Are there any issues with music rights when an artist performs live?
RC: We usually pre-clear all the music on every event that we do. We get what music the artist wants to do, and we talk to the publisher and the label. The clearance department works on that to get it cleared. That doesn’t prevent artists from doing something off the cuff. We have fair use, but we do our due diligence with our friends at publishing companies and performance rights organizations to make sure everything is clear before it hits the air.
Can you recall any televised show in which you did feel that emotional connection through the screen?
RC: I worked on one for the Academy of Country Music. We paired people from all five branches of the military singing with a country artist. I’m getting chill bumps again just thinking about it. These were heroes in the military, so immediately there was that emotional part to it already. And on top of that, they paired it with singing an emotional song with an artist. Toby Keith was singing “Call a Marine” with a Marine. There was also The Band Perry singing “If I Die Young” with someone from the military. If you can find those moments when there’s an emotional component to the performance, those are the ones that stand out for me. Joe, how about you?
JL: Anytime you can involve the consumer, fan, or people at home in a unique place or moment that’s unrehearsed, unscheduled or organic, those are the best moments. It’s not the easiest to do. In the last 18 months, Rac did an excellent job with it during the ACM’s this year.
What COVID precautions are you taking to make the show as safe as possible?
JL: It’s a top concertn for The Academy and MusiCares. We’re taking it day by day. As the Delta variant and COVID ebbs and flows, so will we. One thing we’ve learned to do is pivot. We are gonna follow the LA County safety guidelines. We are gonna do whatever is necessary to get asses in seats and put on a great show on the air. We are used to it by now. We know how to do this.
It’s very fortunate that the event is happening in Los Angeles, where 65% of the population is vaccinated and where people are smart and doing the right thing. We’re an industry that requires people to be vaccinated to participate. We’ve got all of that going for us. I don’t think there’s a better place to do a live, consumer and fan-facing event than in Los Angeles right now. We don’t have the playbook yet, but when they give us the playbook, we will run the plays necessary to do the event.
Executive producing the MusiCares person of the year gala is such a great debut project. What are you personally most excited for as you put the show together?
RC: I hope I’ll get to meet Joni Mitchell! [Laughs.] All kidding aside, my real excitement is about getting the mission of MusiCares in front of the general public. The music industry is well aware of their good works, but I’m hoping that we can share that mission with everyone who listens and enjoys music. The industry gets it. They pay for these tables. It’s a fundraiser for MusiCares ultimately, and we’re here to help them do that, but I think we can help on the consumer-facing front, which is one of Joe’s strengths.
JL: To be able to do a big tribute show for a rock and roll legend with Rac in our own backyard is what’s most exciting. I’m a kid who grew up in northwest Florida. What the hell am I doing in Hollywood? For me, whenever I get to do one of these shows, I pinch myself. To be able to take over and do a show for MusiCares and Joni Mitchell, this is what dreams are made of.