Breese Stevens Field has hosted several successful shows, including the Steve Miller Band, July 2016.
At this point, you don’t even have to squint your eyes very hard to see it. The pieces are all right there.
Look up East Washington Avenue, where a construction boom is transforming the gateway to the Capitol Square into a hub of restaurants, coffee shops and high-rise condominiums bursting with millennials and Epic employees.
Take in Breese Stevens Field, an outdoor site that began hosting events just two years ago and has sold out concerts for the Avett Brothers, Wilco and Cake. Witness the High Noon Saloon and Brink Lounge. Now imagine adding a shiny and sizable new concert venue right in the middle of it, and it starts to look an awful lot like the pieces of a Madison music district falling into place.
The vision is coming into clearer focus after the recent unveiling of architectural plans for the Sylvee, a dedicated 40,000-square-foot, 2,500-capacity music club owned and operated by Madison-based Frank Productions. Named in honor of the company’s late matriarch, Sylvia Frank, the venue will occupy the ground floor of Gebhart Development’s new Cosmos project on the 800 block of East Washington.
The Sylvee (shown in the rendering above) is slated to open in 2018.
The Sylvee is expected to break ground in the next few months and will begin hosting concerts as early as summer 2018. It represents an exciting prospect for music fans, a place where bands that currently aren’t giving Madison a second look — acts like the 1975 or Kendrick Lamar — might play. But that vision includes a list of assumptions longer than a Bruce Springsteen setlist: that the Sylvee is going to be a raging success, avoiding pitfalls that have stunted and sunk other music venues. And that its presence won’t have a detrimental effect on other Madison music venues, from the High Noon to the Barrymore Theatre further east and, of course, the Orpheum Theater, now fully leased and operated by Frank Productions’ longtime nemesis, California-based Live Nation Productions.
Over the past several decades, the city’s music-venue history has been one of stops and starts. Some of its most storied clubs have gone up in flames — the legendary Club de Wash in 1996, O’Cayz Corral in 2001 (O’Cayz re-emerged, phoenix-like, three years later and a few blocks away, as the High Noon Saloon). Others, from the R&R Station/Paramount to the Chamber on King Street, were victims of either bad management decisions or a few too many run-ins with law enforcement over liquor license and crowd management issues.
As Madison’s demographics shift and what’s known as “the corridor” along East Washington evolves, Frank Productions believes the new venue will help shape the city’s cultural landscape. “With the High Noon, our venue and Breese, we kind of feel like we’re building a future there,” says Charlie Goldstone, president of Frank Productions Concerts LLC. “That whole east side, from the Majestic to the Barrymore, is really going to be a vibrant place for live music.”
Once upon a time, Camp Randall Stadium and the Kohl Center, both owned and operated by UW Athletics, hosted major music concerts (U2! The Rolling Stones!). The stadium hasn’t seen a show since the early ’90s; the Kohl Center hosts them only rarely. And while Dane County continues to cast around for privately funded solutions to renovate the ancient Dane County Coliseum — the place where Herb and Sylvia Frank cut their teeth booking shows in the 1960s — that venue only hosts a handful of shows a year.
Given Madison’s reputation as a town packed with music-lovers and college students, it seems the potential for something bigger exists — and that’s actually a big part of why the Frank family pursued the Sylvee. They’ve been casting around for their own music venue for several years now; they operated the Orpheum while it was in foreclosure back in 2012, but were prevented from putting in a bid to buy it when the Paras family paid off the theater’s mortgage in 2013.
“We know there’s a market here that’s strong for concerts,” says Goldstone. “We’re not at this finite amount of shows right now, where there’s no room for anything else and there’s nothing that’s going to play here that isn’t already playing here. We wouldn’t be investing the amount of money we’re investing if we didn’t actually believe this.”
Goldstone is tight-lipped when asked about the type of acts that might eventually play the Sylvee, although he notes the venue will be open to any genre, from rock to folk to EDM. Tag Evers, the longtime Madison concert promoter who founded True Endeavors and now works at Frank Productions, points to national acts like Chance the Rapper (who actually played FRZN Fest at the High Noon Saloon before breaking it big), Jack White and Widespread Panic as examples of artists who’d be a perfect fit for the Sylvee. These acts currently gravitate to Milwaukee venues like the Riverside Theater and the Rave/Eagles Ballroom. Or skip Wisconsin altogether.
“The club scene used to be really small,” says Evers. “Now you have a larger set of opportunities, which is reflective of the fact that as the music scene grows, as demand increases, new venues emerge. One of the issues that Madison has had for a long time is in between that 2,000-capacity space and the arena space, there’s nothing. This venue will help meet a need that’s been here for a long time.”
The numbers only show part of the picture. The capacities of the Sylvee and the Orpheum Theater aren’t actually that far apart; the Orpheum can fit 2,300 and the planned capacity for the Sylvee is 2,500. The obvious difference is that the Sylvee is being designed specifically as a concert venue, while the Orpheum is a historic theater that’s been retrofitted to host concerts. Goldstone argues that the Orpheum, like the Overture Center, is better suited to host seated events. Aside from some seats in the balcony and a couple of potential skyboxes, patrons at the Sylvee will stand at shows.
The reaction from the city’s other music venue owners to the impending arrival of the Sylvee ranges from optimism to concern to uncomfortable near-silence. Such is the nature of competition, apparently.
Not surprisingly, the folks associated with the Orpheum express the most trepidation.
“We do have a concern as to how fast the music scene is growing,” says Eve Paras, whose family leased Orpheum’s operation and concert-booking responsibilities to Live Nation last April. “One thing to think about is the scale and the size of the scene. As things become bigger, they could hurt parts of the city. [By] creating more venues in a city that’s not ready for it, venues could lose money if they’re forced to compete within the city.”
CHRIS LOTTEN photography
California-based Live Nation took over booking and promotion for the Orpheum Theater in April 2016. Above: STS9 in 2015.
The Paras family initially fought Frank Productions’ plans to launch the Sylvee, even going so far as to hire a lobbyist to convince the nearby neighborhood it was a bad idea. Now that the project is officially moving forward — it received final approval from the city in December — they’ve refocused efforts on their own venue. In July, the Orpheum installed a handsome replica of the theater’s original 1920s-era sign. Paras says Live Nation is moving forward with plans to increase the number of concerts hosted at the Orpheum. (After repeated attempts, Live Nation representatives declined the opportunity to speak for this story.) The venue’s February calendar, which has nine shows, including a pair of nights featuring the Head and the Heart, seems to bear that out. So does an offer posted on the marquee last week offering a $15 ticket special for students.
At other venues, people are expressing more optimism about the addition of the Sylvee.
“The profile of venues that have developed here speaks entirely to Madison as a city with a rapidly developing scene,” says Matt Gerding, who, along with business partner Scott Leslie, owns the Majestic Theatre on King Street. “We’re big believers in being one of many pieces on the music scene. When there’s more venues, there’s more music. All boats rise.”
High Noon Saloon owner Cathy Dethmers, whose proximity to the new venue puts her squarely in the most-likely-to-be-affected position, is willing to wait and see what happens.
“Given the fact that we are a much smaller venue offering a completely different experience, I’d assume the impact will be minimal,” says Dethmers, one of the scene’s longest-tenured players. “It may be positive overall if we are able to attract additional music fans to our shows as a result of increased traffic in the neighborhood.”
Or at least not take them away. Steve Sperling, general manager of the Barrymore Theatre, which seats 971, says Frank Productions has promised to continue booking shows at the Barrymore, allaying his biggest concern. “I take them at their word,” he says. He also thinks that with a new venue on the scene, Live Nation may begin looking at booking shows in his space again, something the company hasn’t done in the past few years. He notes that while the Sylvee will likely fill a key need, the city still needs more spaces in small clubs, along the lines of the High Noon (capacity: 400) and the Frequency (capacity: 126). “We get emails all the time from people looking to play here who are nowhere big enough to play here,” he says.
While those acts might not be able to fill the Sylvee on their own, Evers believes opening the Sylvee will provide more opportunities for local musicians to play opening sets for national touring acts. Roy Elkins, the founder and CEO of Madison-based Broadjam Inc., an organization designed to support musicians, thinks there’s a good chance his constituents could benefit from a new venue.
“From an independent perspective, it can only help,” says Elkins, who also helped found the Madison Area Music Awards. “Having more venues is always good for local musicians. It makes the scene more vibrant.”
The key to the realization of the Franks’ new venue actually lies in what has become one of the city’s signature events: Madison Freakfest. Back in the early 2000s, the annual Halloween bash on State Street had devolved into a full-on teenage riot, with police squads, tear gas and property damage, an aggravating and expensive mix. In the past 10 years, Frank Productions helped convert Freakfest into a gated, ticketed, family-friendly event that, just last year, was headed by Anderson .Paak, one of the nation’s most up-and-coming hip-hop artists.
The company’s success with Freakfest is what led to step two — the annual concert series at Breese Stevens Field, co-programmed with the Majestic, which just completed its second season. The series, which has featured major national acts like the Avett Brothers, the Steve Miller Band, Wilco and Cake, managed to go off without a major misfire. And in some cases, the shows outsold the artists’ subsequent performances in Milwaukee.
“That first show with the Avett Brothers sold out right away — it exceeded everyone’s expectations,” says Goldstone. “We proved to them we could do these shows with 7,000-8,000 people without any serious crowd problems. It just became this Madison thing that’s cool to go to.”
It also likely helped convince the majority of neighborhood residents that Frank Productions could manage the typical problems that face music venue owners. Goldstone believes that the Madison venues that own and manage their own programming (think Overture and the Majestic) enjoy an advantage.
“That’s why us having a venue that’s specific to concerts, and us being in control of as many concerts as we can, makes us feel confident that it’s not going to end up in the situation where there are liquor and police problems,” he says. “It’s going to be on us to bring events and the experience to do that. We won’t be relying on somebody else for our business.”
As the reactions rumble across the music-venue scene, it’s hard not to be reminded of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s famous quote: “All of this has happened before and it will all happen again.” When considering the question of how many music venues Madison can actually support, it’s instructive to flip back to 2007, when Gerding and Leslie began booking concerts at the Majestic Theatre.
CHRIS LOTTEN Photography
In 2016, the Majestic Theatre hosted 296 indoor concerts and a popular outdoor series, Live on King Street.
“When Scott and Matt came online, the world was ending for Cathy at the High Noon and Steve at the Barrymore,” recalls Goldstone. “For us, too. We thought at the time that this wasn’t going to work. They proved all of us wrong.”
And how. In addition to hosting 296 concerts last year, this January the Majestic sold more than 2,000 tickets for a five-night series of themed festivals — in the dead of winter, no less. And these numbers don’t include Live on King Street, the Majestic’s uber-successful signature free summer concert series.
People love to compare Madison to Austin, a pair of cities that share liberal vibes and vibrant arts scenes. Austin’s population now tops a million, and the city hosts massive festival events such as SXSW, so the cities’ music scenes aren’t exactly what you’d call similar types of fruit. However, a state-of-the-scene survey released last year by the group Austin Music People showed that the city reaped a whopping $1.8 billion in 2014 from live music activity. Madison’s number likely resides in a more modest ballpark, but the point remains: A booming music scene boosts the economy.
The economic impact is what intrigues Sperling most about the Sylvee. He’s been around long enough to remember what the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood looked like when the Barrymore was a porn palace, not a multipurpose concert venue. Twenty-five years later, the area surrounding the Barrymore is full of restaurants and small businesses. In much the same way, restaurants and bars proliferated on and around a once-seedy King Street after the Majestic became established as a music venue. It’s not hard to imagine the Sylvee having a similar effect on East Wash, especially because some of the pieces, like restaurants and coffee shops, are already in place.
Both Goldstone and Evers mention the possibility of symbiotic booking — of having, for instance, an artist finish up a concert at Breese Stevens and play an after-party gig at the Sylvee or the High Noon. “Being part of a live music district has been a good thing for venues in other cities, so it seems like it would be a positive development for the High Noon,” says Dethmers. “Ideally, it would mean that more people would be drawn to the area on any given night, and stop into the High Noon regardless of what band is playing.”
In the end, the impact of the Sylvee on the scene might come down to the fans. As both the Majestic’s Gerding and the Barrymore’s Sperling point out, venues are part of the equation — but so is a dependable fanbase. Sperling notes that music fandom often tends to be a zero-sum game — as in, there’s typically a finite audience (with finite discretionary dollars) willing to come out and pay to see shows. Whether the shows Frank Productions books into the Sylvee increase that audience or merely redirect it to East Washington Avenue remains the million — maybe even multimillion — -dollar question.
“We’re not assuming we’re going to take all their business,” says Goldstone about the impact the new venue will have on concerts at the Orpheum. “What we’ll be doing is bringing in new business. Will both businesses at some point have to readjust their focuses? That’s how it always goes.”
However it ends up playing out, the possibility of more live music seems awfully appealing to music lovers who’ve been waiting a long, long time for the city to take the leap and realize its potential. Madison may never overtake Milwaukee or Austin, but the possibility of staking its place on the map of Midwestern music destinations suddenly feels a lot more real.