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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  A Few Clouds
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How the Majestic Theatre changed Madison's club scene
A live-music empire
Gerding (left) and Leslie book shows at a half-dozen local venues.
Credit:Joe Engle

Scan Madison's concert listings on any given weekend and you'll quickly see that the Majestic Theatre is an integral part of the live-music scene. Nearly six years ago, booking and promotions professional Matt Gerding and musician Scott Leslie purchased and refurbished the former vaudeville theater at 115 King St., and it has since grown into a formidable concert venue with an equally formidable booking and promotions component, Majestic Live.

Now, in addition to booking shows at the Majestic itself, Majestic Live is responsible for regular concerts at the Frequency and the Barrymore Theatre, plus some shows at the High Noon Saloon, Redamte Coffee House and the Alliant Energy Center. They feature national acts, local favorites and nearly everything in between.

Peter Truby watched this transformation take place while he worked at the Majestic from 2009 to 2012, assisting Gerding and Leslie with marketing and other duties. Now he works for the Windish Agency, a Chicago company that books touring artists.

"Once they took over [the Majestic Theatre], they were pretty adamant about tailoring programming and marketing to a student and downtown population," he recalls.

Truby says that, in expanding to other performance spaces, Gerding and Leslie shifted from transforming their own venue to transforming the music scene as a whole.

"[At] the outset, it was definitely them trying to make their room fit into the mold," he says. "And by the time I left, it was them reaching their hands into the entire music community."

Thinking like musicians

It's hardly surprising that Majestic Live set its sights on fusing a music venue with a booking company, given Gerding and Leslie's backgrounds. They've seen what works -- and what doesn't -- at venues across the country.

Leslie says the process of thinking like both a musician and a booker began before he and Gerding bought the Majestic.

"I would talk to him about a tour in L.A., and he would know all the venues and say, 'This person is great' or 'I haven't heard great things about this place.' And when you're on the road, you learn what's important to bands. A clean dressing room, being treated well. You'd be surprised how many venues are not prepared for bands to arrive," Leslie says. So he and Gerding opened a venue they hoped "bands would love and agents wouldn't hear about the next day."

Jonk Music's Chris Winterhack, who worked as a marketing coordinator at the Majestic in 2007, recalls that one of the biggest challenges was "changing our perception to the cool music venue doing everything from local to indie to hard rock to country."

Part of the equation simply involved filling up the show calendar and the venue itself.

"I think the quality of the acts has gotten better, and the volume has improved," Winterhack says. "The owners have developed better relationships with the agents, getting bigger names and more shows."

In the early days, when the Majestic was hardly the biggest game in town, Gerding and Leslie didn't envision helming a live-music empire. Not quite, anyhow.

Leslie calls Majestic Live a "natural evolution" that was welcome but not planned. Gerding, meanwhile, says they "wanted to operate a great venue and let that determine what the role was going to be."

Building the empire

So how did Majestic Live grow so big so fast, in a city with established booking companies like True Endeavors and Frank Productions?

Leslie says promoting the Majestic itself, not just the shows or the styles of music it brings in, has been essential.

"We're not a venue you can go to on a Friday and know that you'll hear country," he says. "What we want to be is a venue you're aware of, so when we book an artist you like, you can reach us."

The renovation of the Majestic building also played a part.

"The companies that did the restoration did a nice job, so physically, it's a really beautiful space," Gerding says. "And so it snowballed into being a venue that garnered a bit of a national reputation fairly quickly." With Majestic Live, Gerding and Leslie moved into booking shows at prominent venues like the Frequency, the Barrymore Theatre and the High Noon Saloon. Darwin Sampson, owner of the Frequency, booked most of his venue's shows until the Majestic team approached him a couple of years ago.

"They said, 'We have a need for a smaller venue, and we like working with you, so can we work with you?'" Sampson recalls. "It seemed like the best course of action."

The Majestic Live team is in the midst of a two-year agreement with the Frequency in which it books most national acts and Sampson handles the local and regional artists.

"They ask me what I prefer, but I try not to limit them, being mindful that we wouldn't want to do quiet acoustic on a Saturday night or something like that," Sampson explains.

It seems this setup might lead to some head-butting, but Sampson says he's pleased with the way things have panned out.

"I still book the occasional national acts myself, but they've brought in some great people. They had the Lumineers here before they got big," he says. "I really don't compete. If there's an artist that I really like, that I want, I can push them a little."

Sampson acknowledges the rivalry between the Majestic and other booking companies but doesn't think it's too ugly.

"I'm sure they butt heads with other companies, and there are people who love them or hate them," he says. "But I don't think the spirit is uber-competitive. This is a small town."

Making King Street stately

By many accounts, Majestic Live's growth and influence have resulted in gains for the city. Truby says the Majestic began meeting the city's needs from the get-go.

"Venues were looking to put shows in, and that was what [Gerding and Leslie] were able to deliver," he says.

Truby acknowledges that "there was some temperature reading that had to be done" to work among other booking and promotion companies, but he says that overall, the Majestic "was looked on pretty favorably: more live music for the Madison community."

Local DJ Nick Nice, who performs at local venues and dance clubs halfway across the world, agrees.

"I see it as much more collaborative rather than competitive," he says of the relationship among venues in the wake of Majestic Live's growth. "If it is competitive, then it's more in a healthy rather than predatory way. It's great how they can book shows at the Frequency, for example, and build an audience for a relatively unknown act like Reignwolf with the hopes of filling up a larger venue like the Majestic down the road."

Winterhack adds that it's not just concertgoers benefiting from the Majestic. He points to King Street's evolution since Gerding and Leslie took over the theater in 2007. Before that, the building struggled. As a movie house, it failed to turn a healthy profit, and as a dance club, it developed a negative reputation after several incidents involving guns and other weapons.

"They took a beautiful theater, remodeled it and made it one of Madison's premier venues. The King Street area did a complete 180. There's great entertainment there now, and everyone on the block benefits," Winterhack says. "Restaurants get business before the show, and when the show's done, everybody clears out and goes to local merchants and all these great bars that have appeared around the venue."

At the moment, Leslie is particularly proud of the Live on King Street concert series, which brings hundreds of music lovers to a stage outside the Majestic on several Fridays in the summer and early fall.

"This is our third year doing that, and it's one of the more rewarding things we do," he says. "We've yet to make money on it, but it's become part of the fabric of what it means to be in Madison in the summer."

From Minneapolis to Austin

Majestic Live has also ventured into event planning beyond Madison's borders. Examples include the Summer Set Music Festival near the Twin Cities and a showcase of Wisconsin and Minnesota artists at this year's South by Southwest, in conjunction with Minneapolis venue First Avenue. The company has even managed a concert series at a tennis stadium in South Carolina.

Could this foray into national booking be a harbinger of things to come?

Leslie says the South Carolina event sprang from Gerding's friendship with one of the parties involved.

"That's probably an outlier," he says.

In other words, Madison is the Majestic's home, and Gerding and Leslie want it to stay that way.

"Our interest is in Madison. That's where our company is, and that's where we'll always be," Leslie says.

And as for further expansion?

The pair predict they'll organize more shows at the Barrymore and more outdoor events like Live on King Street, but they insist they're not planning to open any new venues or turn the Majestic into a chain.

"I wouldn't say we have any big plans for world domination," Gerding jokes, "but we do enjoy being creative with what we do. There are ways to do really cool things and make money, too."

Whatever Gerding and Leslie have up their sleeves, it looks like the Majestic will play a significant role in Madison's music scene for quite some time.

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