10 Majestic moments
How the past decade has changed one local venue, and the local music landscape as a whole.
It's been 10 years since a pair of new owners, Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie, bought the Majestic Theatre on King Street and began slowly building up a local concert powerhouse. On Friday, the Majestic will celebrate the anniversary, with Against Me! headlining the venue/promotion company's free Live On King Street series. This happens as Gerding and Leslie's promotions company, Majestic Live, prepares to merge with a former competitor, Frank Productions.
The current Majestic crew have turned around a theater that badly needed renovations and a new direction. More importantly, they've savvily built up their business into other areas of live music and other events here. Personally, I've had a whole mix of experiences at the Majestic. I've gone there to see once-in-a-lifetime shows, like Loudon Wainwright III in 2008 and Neurosis in 2015. I've seen a good few shows there that were hotter and nastier than they needed to be, some house staff interactions that were more surly than they needed to be. My interactions with the owners has ranged from pleasant conversations about music to the more tense conversations that inevitably happen between journalists and those they cover, but they've been civil all in all. Once, years ago, I wrote a silly thing poking fun at the Majestic for running out of "S" letters for its marquee (I recall a few dollar signs being subbed in for "North Mississippi Allstars"), and they took it in stride pretty well. As a music fan and observer, I've watched the venue go through a whole host of moves, from the impressive to the eye-rolling to the icky.
But this is about a lot more than one venue. The past 10 years have seen Madison's live music landscape expand and change in a lot of ways, and the Majestic has played an undeniable role in much of it. To look back on the decade, let's consider a 10 moments that say something about the Majestic and where Madison's music community might be heading.
The purple, my god, the purple.
There is one thing about the Majestic that cannot be disputed: Before the current owners took over, the interior was atrocious. The walls were slathered in a repulsive purple paint, which blotted out every last glimmer of historical charm. The current red-and-cream interior is muted by comparison. The Majestic Facebook page recently posted a throwback photo, and yeah, it's as ugly as I remembered. The theater, built in 1906, has some limitations that can't be helped, like its dogleg floor plan and its steep balcony. But when it comes to what can be helped, the place has kept up a good balance of functionality and historic-movie-house glitz.
That first lineup.
When the Majestic reopened, True Endeavors (since acquired by Frank Productions) dominated the local market for club shows. The Majestic occasionally partnered with True Endeavors in the early years (and has continued to recently), but mostly worked on its own bookings. Early on, it was clearly a bit of an uphill battle to break in. Still, there were some winners in the reopened Majestic's early lineup, like Leon Russell, who died in 2016, and Mandy Moore headlined the venue's official grand-opening show, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective? (There was also a soft opening type thing a few days before that; I worked for The Onion at the time and they asked us to suggest some local acts, which ended up including El Clan Destino, Pale Young Gentlemen, and The Midwest Beat.) Looking back on the 2007 schedule now, it probably wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time, but for a while the Majestic was kind of the off-brand next to more established venues like the High Noon Saloon. To go from the early stages to the stride it's in now speaks to a great deal of persistence and business smarts.
The social media presence.
The Majestic was definitely ahead of a lot of its local peers in understanding the importance of social media and online marketing, and using things aggressively rather than treating them as an afterthought. As of this writing, their Facebook page has 72,000 likes and counting, a pretty staggering number for a local venue or promoter. It's disciplined, on message, occasionally petty, and about as subtle as a bullhorn upside the head. Which, you know, fair enough—being shy with that stuff never got anyone anywhere. It's both a contributor to, and an effect of, the company's successful efforts to market to UW Madison students. It sums up a lot of things about the Majestic: It can be tacky, but it seems to pay off.
As a member of the media, I've got to say: Wow, has the Majestic enjoyed an easy ride from the local press or what? Part of it is that the Majestic is a popular spot (see above), and that the current owners have genuinely transformed it and deserve some credit for that. Plus, they're media-savvy and know how to turn on the charm, as well they should—it's their job, and they're unapologetic champions of their venue and events. The other part is that local arts coverage is just generally a soft and neighborly businesses and, though Madison has plenty of talented journalists, publications everywhere are under-resourced and scrutinizing a local music venue is understandably not a top priority.
Still, could the press have restrained itself at times from credulously printing the owners' every word. Or boosterish comments about acts playing the venues, printed instead of the writer doing their own legwork? Or laying it on real thick with headlines like "King Street's Crown Jewel"? None of this is the Majestic's fault, and it's not sinister, but it illustrates a need for a bit more sobriety and a bit less coziness.
I'm not sure when exactly it began or ended, but for a while the Majestic was charging for bottled water, and the downstairs bar wouldn't give you a free glass of water. This is a venue that has a fully functional bar, already has borderline-New York City drink prices, and more importantly, people are drinking there at events that tend to get hot and sweaty. It's gross, it's wrong, and it's unsafe. Show me a balance sheet that mathematically proves that you have to charge $3 for water to keep the Majestic's lights on—it's still gross, wrong, and unsafe. It's the kind of thing that happens at Milwaukee's widely despised venue, The Rave. Amid all the friendly press for the Majestic, why didn't more people point out the issues with this? At some point last summer the venue installed a water fountain in the hallway near the bathrooms. I'm glad they finally did the right thing, but it's still hard to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.
The theme nights.
'80s vs '90s dance nights! Brew N View movie screenings! The annual Mad Men-themed holiday party! Other thing-vs.-thing dance nights! The January slate of "Wisconsin [genre] Fest" shows! I'm probably missing a bunch of other stuff, but the nights that happen between the big shows at the Majestic reflect the venue's shameless hustle. Its themed DJ nights—including events put on by outside promoters, like the Queer Pressure and, way back, the Indie Queer parties—have helped to fuel Madison's fertile DJ scene, and there's a natural interplay there with a bunch of other downtown spots that host good local selectors (Nattspil, Maduro, Tavernakaya, Merchant, etc.) July's Mad City Soul Club event, featuring Madison treasure DJ Phil Money, was a great idea that I'd love to see come back, and other annual events, like a Latin Music Fest in late fall, boost up other corners of the local music scene that deserve a better platform.
Small club shows.
Rehabilitating one venue is only a fraction of the Majestic Live story. As the company found its footing, it gradually began booking in smaller venues, to accommodate artists who didn't make sense for the Majestic Theatre itself. This has included pretty regular shows at The Frequency and more sporadic ones at spots including Crescendo on Monroe Street and even the little Dragonfly Lounge (RIP). Some of them were shows that might also have otherwise ended up at the High Noon, and/or being booked by Frank Productions and True Endeavors. I actually think this, as much as any other big moves Majestic Live has made, had a big impact on the landscape of show promoters in Madison and their shifting priorities, right up to the impending merger. At times it's made that landscape more competitive (which in itself can be healthy), but it has also expanded the variety of touring shows that get here on a regular basis.
Live On King Street.
The Majestic's summer Live On King Street program started as a one-off in 2011 and expanded into a full-on series in 2012. By now, it feels like something that should have always been there, a no-brainer slam-dunk kind of endeavor. Usually the line up is a mix of jam bands, hip-hop, reggae, and some middle-of-the-road rock stuff, and each year there tends to be at least a couple of compelling gets—including Dessa, Speedy Ortiz, and The Budos Band. The Majestic has expanded into outdoor shows elsewhere, of course. It co-promotes an annual festival in western Wisconsin called Summerset and helped organize a Flaming Lips/Garbage concert at the Madison Mallards' Duck Pond in 2012, which now seems like a precursor to its work on summer concerts at Breese Stevens Field. Not every night at Live On King Street will appeal to a given listener—in fact it's kind of set up that way. But the success of the series tells you a lot about the Majestic's eye for new opportunities, including ones that you kind of can't believe someone else didn't see before.
All that branching out the Majestic has done has included a fair bit of comedy. A decade ago, Madison's live comedy offerings were just not that great. The Comedy Club on State had a pretty generic lineup of road-dog usual suspects back then, some of them good, but it wasn't really ambitious about nailing down exciting stand-up artists. Comedy in theater venues was hit-and-miss too, and comedy in rock clubs was just starting to become more of a thing. Today you can almost take it for granted that we'll get at least couple of noteworthy stand-up shows in town per month, and a lot of good comics are recording albums here. Part of that is due to the Comedy Club stepping it up, but Majestic Live was also part of that rising tide.
Under its current ownership, the Majestic has hosted acts including Natasha Leggero, Hari Kondabolu, and Patton Oswalt. Majestic Live has also had a role in booking comedy at other venues, including at the Barrymore and at the Orpheum (including a rapidly sold-out run of shows from Dave Chappelle). The Majestic's most exciting moment in this regard, though, came in 2014, when stand-up duo the Sklar Brothers recorded two performances at the Majestic for a special, Sklar Brothers: What Are We Talking About? A bigger-ticket comedy act can hit any town with a large enough population, but it takes a more appreciative and receptive comedy audience for a great, if slightly less big-ticket, act like the Sklars to pull a taping off successfully. Plus, seated shows work really well in the Majestic.
When Majestic Live finalizes its merger with Frank Productions, the resulting company will announce a new name, and what happens after that is anyone's guess. The two companies have already been collaborating on a lot of shows the past few years, so there's a reasonable argument to be made that the merger won't really change all that much. Both Majestic and Frank seem to have concluded that working together makes more sense than competing over growing but still finite territory. As we discussed on a recent podcast, this in itself might not end up being such a big change after all. Still, it creates one company that will book a very big chunk of Madison's touring music and own several venues outright.
The "new" Majestic began its first decade as an upstart, with no one quite knowing what to expect from it, and will begin its second as a defining force in live music in Madison. What that says about our city is not just up to the owners, but to our audiences, our artists, and everyone who works to keep the music community healthy and accountable.