Los Angeles, circa 2005. Roommates Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie have a vision. It isn't caused by heat, smog or celebrity sightings, but it does lead to a risky situation. They quit their jobs and move to Madison, Wis., a faraway city with an unfamiliar culture. With the help of two investors, they purchase a crumbling vaudeville theater with a checkered past. Some call it a money pit, but Gerding and Leslie don't listen. To them, it's a diamond in the rough, the perfect spot for the concerts of their dreams.
"It was love at first sight, except for all the filth and purple," recalls Leslie.
Less than two years later, in 2007, the Majestic Theatre, 115 King St., reopened as a music club. It will celebrate its fifth anniversary this Friday.
The two entrepreneurs were terrified but gratified. They'd worked in the music biz, but never on such a big project - or in such a small office. They were both in their late 20s. They had lots to learn about business - and life.
"We had this super-tiny office. That winter was so cold, but we never turned the heat on," recalls Leslie. "We were constantly wearing our stocking hats, typing on our laptops."
They knew to keep their heating bills low, but that was just square one.
"It's been an interesting, challenging process, figuring out which shows do well here," says Gerding.
Adds Leslie: "We're both from the Midwest, but Madison's pretty unique. What works for a college town in the middle of Ohio doesn't necessarily work here. Madison's used to having lots of choices, and a lot of them are pretty high-caliber."
Gerding recalls the anxiety surrounding their first jam-band show. They'd heard that Dead-inspired groups have a big local draw, but only a dozen tickets had been sold. They pictured empty bank accounts and cupboards filled entirely with ramen noodles. They had yet to witness the power of the grapevine. The ticket buyers brought their friends, who in turn brought their friends, and before long, 300 people were grooving the night away.
But advice-givers can't always be trusted. If the Majestic crew had always done as they were told, they probably wouldn't have succeeded.
"When we moved here, people kept telling us that students don't go to shows," says Gerding. "We were like, 'That can't be true,' and then focused lots of energy on convincing students to come to our shows. We knew we had to make it a cool alternative to State Street's nightlife."
In the past, many local venues were hesitant to target the under-21 crowd. Gerding and Leslie adopted a different viewpoint.
"You can have a show like Ed Sheeran that draws all 17-year-old girls, but those 17-year-olds will be 21 someday. They'll come back because they'll have wonderful memories of seeing a show here," says Gerding.
To get college students through the door, Gerding and Leslie experimented.
"One day, Matt was like, 'Here's what we're gonna do: an '80s dance party.' Then the next weekend, it was a '90s dance party. The weekend after that it was '80s vs. '90s, and that's what stuck. People like to see what wins. After that, we knew that if we had a cool idea, we should go for it, even if it didn't fit with everything else we were doing," says Leslie.
Leslie says that staying calm and true to their vision has worked wonders. Over the past few years, the Majestic crew have gone from hosting one show every couple of nights to two or more events nearly every night of the week. They've also started booking other venues large and small, from the Alliant Energy Center to Redamte Coffee House.
Leslie credits this growth to strong relationships with agents, managers and the artists themselves.
"We make playing here a really pleasant experience, so they want to stay loyal," he says.
Gerding and Leslie also make sure to jump-start their own motivation. That's one reason they booked the Hold Steady for the Majestic's fifth-anniversary party on Sept. 28.
"We're rock 'n' roll guys," says Gerding. "The Hold Steady captures the essence of who we are as people and a company. They're a party band and should be fun as hell on the street, so that's where we're having them play."