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The worst fears of Madison musicians — that they would lose gigs due to a consolidation of ownership and operation of several local music venues — have not come to pass.
But a year and a half ago, the anxiety was real. That's when Frank Productions merged with Majestic Live and gave the global concert promotion company Live Nation (owner of Ticketmaster) a controlling interest in the new company FPC Live. In addition to being the new owner of the Majestic Theatre, FPC Live also bought the High Noon Saloon and now runs the Orpheum Theater while booking acts at Breese Stevens Field and other venues. FPC Live also puts on the Live on King Street summer concert series and Freakfest, the State Street Halloween festival.
But FPC Live's biggest move locally was opening the doors to The Sylvee, the 2,500-person capacity live music venue the company built to host national acts, many of which might not otherwise have stopped in Madison. In The Sylvee's first year of operation, 140,000 tickets to its shows were sold, according to Justin Kibbel, the venue's marketing manager. In that time, 29 shows at The Sylvee sold out, and as of mid-September, another seven shows yet to take place had also sold out.
"It was a lot of change and it happened very quickly," concedes Matt Gerding, who became one of three FPC Live presidents with the February 2018 merger of Frank Productions and the Majestic, which Gerding co-owned with Scott Leslie, who is also an FPC Live president.
"The last thing we wanted to see was the local music scene pushed down or boxed out," Gerding says. "But by maintaining our independence, I think that anxiety has started to dissipate."
While local bands rarely open shows at The Sylvee (that's determined by the national acts and their management companies; "It's never up to us," Gerding says), the venue is pumping oxygen into the local scene. Sylvee shows are attracting more music fans from out of town and inspiring larger audiences to check out live music at smaller clubs in town.
Ty Christian, a board member and IT administrator for the Madison Area Music Association (as well as lead singer for the heavy metal band Lords of the Trident), agrees. Christian argues that the Madison music scene is more vibrant than it has been in many years. And that's partly due to FPC Live making Madison a destination for live music.
"As someone who has been actively gigging inside of the scene, setting up shows and booking and working with promoters since 2004, I've been in the scene awhile. And it's booming. It really is," he says. "Some people may not see that. Some people may not appreciate where it was and where it is now. But I think there is a lot to be excited about in the current state of the scene."
Before The Sylvee, Christian says, many bigger touring acts skipped over Madison between playing shows in Milwaukee or Chicago and the Twin Cities. Now Madison is a viable alternative to those cities.
FPC Live's booking power benefits second-tier national and regional acts — bands more likely to play rooms the size of the Orpheum, Majestic or High Noon. But local musicians indirectly benefit, too, even if they're not booked to play these venues or hired to open for a touring act.
For instance, some of the people who flock to shows by The Avett Brothers get a taste for folk-rock and roots music. They then look around to see who plays that kind of music locally and go to see Madison bands like The Mascot Theory or The North Code. That may explain, too, why there are so many more small clubs, bars and cafes now connecting local musicians to local audiences.
"There's definitely a ripple effect of these big splash shows," Koszewski agrees. "The more that you can show the average Madisonian that there's a music scene period, then they're more inclined to make live music a part of their lives."
In the year or so since FPC Live significantly increased its hold on the city's biggest stages, several new small venues have popped up, including The Winnebago, Communication and BarleyPop Live.
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