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IOWA Magazine | 06-23-2022

Lollapalooza Co-Founder Don Muller Guides Rock Royalty

A small-town Iowa music fan helped launch some of the world’s biggest music legends.

Don Muller (84BA) knew he wasn’t cut out to be a plumber. So instead of joining the family business after college, the Riverside, Iowa, native skipped his University of Iowa graduation and set off on an 1,800-mile adventure, with only $900 to his name.

Don Muller PHOTO COURTESY Don Muller Don Muller

That trek became the journey of a lifetime, launching Muller’s career as a powerhouse music agent who would hobnob with the likes of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and help bring Lollapalooza, one of the world’s most iconic music festivals, to life.

The former head of SCOPE Productions, a student group that hosts live entertainment on Iowa’s campus, steered westward, through vast plains and sun-bleached expanses, in a beater car. He was headed for a friend’s couch—and the bass-thumping energy of the Los Angeles music scene.

“I think I was the only third grader in Riverside, Iowa, jamming to Jimi Hendrix,” says Muller, who credits his older brothers and their 8-tracks—of everything from Hendrix to the Beatles—for turning him into a “music junkie.”

This addiction is what propelled him into the gritty L.A. club scene, where he gained a “sixth sense” about which singers would become stars—such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, both of whom Muller would go on to represent.

His knack for identifying future rock legends gave Muller a leg up in landing his first gig in Triad Agency’s music division, after spending two years as an assistant at another agency. Muller became an agent at Triad in 1986—signing Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden as his earliest clients—and eventually moved on to other firms, including the William Morris Agency; Artist Direct, a digital music company he co-founded in 1997; and Creative Artists Agency. Today, he’s a seasoned partner at William Morris Endeavors, a global music company, and boasts a celebrity roster that includes the Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Beastie Boys.

“Throughout my career, I’ve never dreaded Sunday nights; I’ve loved them,” says Muller. “I’ve always been the first one in the office every day and the last to leave.” He has relished the chance to build relationships with a broad range of musicians—and help them with everything from advertising and marketing to finances and contract negotiations.

Such connections came in handy in 1991, when Muller partnered with pal and fellow agent Marc Geiger and Jane’s Addiction’s lead singer Perry Farrell to create Lollapalooza, a multicity festival billed as “alternative rock’s biggest roadshow,” with headlining bands such as Nine Inch Nails and the Violent Femmes. “During Lollapalooza’s early years, music was exploding—that whole world was changing,” says Muller. “It was a coming of age.” Today, the event has morphed into an annual four-day festival in Chicago, featuring dozens of hip-hop, techno, and alternative rock performers.

In the decades since those first Lollapalooza sets, Muller has had an insider’s view of some of alternative rock’s most mythical moments, going behind the scenes to console a sick Cobain after he canceled one of his last shows in Munich—and later attending the Nirvana frontman’s funeral. He remembers driving home afterward with a carload of weeping mourners, including singer Chris Cornell’s wife, listening to “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley, another of Muller’s musicians who would end up dying too young.

Although he’s had a storied career—with five of his bands in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—Muller isn’t ready to quit the business anytime soon. He still feels like that lucky kid in the back of the club, jamming to his rock idols and keeping an eye out for the next big star.

He attributes this good fortune to having been in the right place at the right time. “‘Music movement’ doesn’t even begin to describe those years,” says Muller. “It was a whirlwind, and it was swirling all around me, and I was plugged into it. I just got so damned lucky.”

ILLUSTRATION: SCOTT BIERSACK

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ILLUSTRATION: SCOTT BIERSACK Click on the image above to view the full poster.

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