Rock concerts changed my life. More specifically, Jade Nielsen, the man behind the scenes of the concert market in Fargo, ND changed my life. He didn’t book the first show that I attended — Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie — but he certainly booked dozens of the ones that followed. I drove 2 and a half hours (i.e. 155 miles) from my small farm to the big city to see Shinedown, Disturbed, Seether, and many of my other favorite artists. These early concerts grew my interest in music and sent me down a path that led to my current career in the industry. So when I decided that I wanted to start a live music industry podcast, I already knew who I wanted my first guest to be.
Nielsen is the founder and president of Jade Presents, a North Dakota based concert and events promoter. Over the years, he has brought tons of national and emerging touring acts to Fargo, ND and the surrounding Midwest region, as well as launched a separate ticketing arm of his promotion company called Tickets300.
On episode 1 of the live music industry podcast, I ask him about how he got started in the concert business and what it took for him to take his career seriously, what he thinks about the consolidation of the business over the last decade and the giants companies that it has created like Live Nation and SFX Entertainment, and the different tactics he has tried out in recent years to sell more concert tickets.
An edited transcript of the first part of the podcast follows.
Kyle Bylin: To start out, I would like to have you talk about your company. How did you get started in concert promotion and when did become a serious pursuit?
Jade Nielsen: Well, I think like many of us in this business, we fall into it. When I started, which was back in the late 80s, I’m not aware of much schooling in that area. So for me, I just happened to be friends with a fair amount of local bands in this market where I grew up, which was Fargo, North Dakota, like you mentioned. I was working in retail, I loved music, I had always loved music, and I happened to walk into a locally owned record store — we know how where those are these days — but walked in and the manager at that point said, “Hey, I like your interest in music. Are you interested in working here?” At that point, I hadn’t thought at all about working in retail or working in the music industry, by any means. So I dove in, I took a part-time job. Like I said, I knew a fair amount of local bands. At some point, I was asked to put together a benefit event and raise some money. I had always been a bit of an entrepreneur — and, of course, loved music — and so the whole thing kind of came together fairly organically. I put together the benefit; it did well and for some bizarre reason I started getting some phone calls from some agents at that time.
Kyle Bylin: When did it start to sort of cross over that inflection point, where you sort of realized like, “This is a serious career that I can pursue and there might be a business that I can build myself.”
Jade Nielsen: To some degree, it took a while, because really at that point I hadn’t been thinking about it in that way. For the first 10 years I did this, I looked at this as a hobby, you know, I dabbled in it. It wasn’t lucrative enough to pay my bills consistently, especially not in this market. So that took some time to develop. I look back sometimes and think maybe if I really would’ve dove in; in five years, I could have been making some sort of living wage doing it. But I was certainly doing other things and preoccupied with family and other things. So it took me about 10 years to really take it seriously.
Kyle Bylin: North Dakota and the larger Midwest market that you promote in are unique markets, with their own unique challenges, such as harsh weather and limited venues. But you have continued to bring larger, mainstream acts and newer, emerging artists to the Fargo area despite these numerous challenges.
How have you managed to overcome these obstacles?
Jade Nielsen: We almost have to back up a moment because certainly I’m not the only one who is responsible for some of the activity in this market – and there’s a number of things that come into play, both a number of individuals and a number of venues, and so on. Back when I started – and you made some mention in the intro – about you coming to concerts that I did many, many years ago. At that point, we really operated with the very, very limited facilities we had available to us. Which certainly were not always ideal for the patron or for the artist at that point.
What we have seen develop in this market, thankfully, is as the market has become a little bit more sophisticated musically, venues have sort of came and gotten better and stronger as that is taken shape as well. I mean if you think about it when you were young and I was young in this region the idea of having a 22,000 capacity arena was crazy. But at some point the city decided to do the Fargo Dome, which of course since has hosted everybody from Garth Brooks to Metallica to Taylor Swift to the Rolling Stones — you name it.
Some of those things are driven by the community. There have been a few people locally that have been willing to put their foot forward and develop club facilities that certainly are good places for us to produce and continue to develop the market. But that’s all taken… Really, I have been doing this for 22 years. I mean a lot of that stuff didn’t really kick in until 10 or 12 years ago. And to some degree, I feel like that is part of the reason, too, why I considered this a hobby for a while, because until there were really suitable facilities to go into… You know, certainly that was the biggest limitation early on.
If you start getting into the weather… I mean the weather certainly can be a challenge. We have long winters and there are certainly some artists that don’t want to travel through here in the dead of the winter. One of the things that we’ve tried to do in that wintertime period is… We look at that as a time where we can be a little bit more creative. And those artists that we can talk into touring through this region in the winter have much, much less competition. And that’s something that I think has helped those winter shows. It’s certainly quieter once you get into December, January, and February; it’s certainly quieter in our office and in the region for live events. But those events that do play tend to do very well. People are eager to get out; they have a bit of what we all term “Cabin Fever.” No different than the heat in Las Vegas, let’s say. People are still going to go out. They are still going to be active. They are still looking for things to occupy their time and entertain them.
Kyle Bylin: What are some of the ways that you are able to be more creative the winter months?
Jade Nielsen: Well, one of the things that we do is we target some specific genres that don't require large tours with multiple trucks and buses and so on. Because obviously to travel by ground can be a little bit more challenging, so we will get a little bit more aggressive and do more comedy during that time period, which in many cases are comics that are flying in for one nighters. Same thing for hip-hop; a lot of hip-hop act still do fly in weekends and so on. So we will give a weekend here or there to a comic or a hip-hop act or singer-songwriter, whatever it may be, where they might not be doing a bus tour. It's a little bit quieter time of year, but they will fly in and do a couple of markets in our region, including this one. It's like anything else. It's a matter of creating content in those slower time periods. You oftentimes hear arenas talk about that, where at least in my region, they are trying to create content for their communities – and it's no different from us. So we just look at it a little bit differently – sometimes, we have to dive in and be a little bit more creative and do some theatrical shows or something along those lines – that might not be our normal business per se, or at least not music business per se. But it's still a time where we can sell tickets and entertain. Also, I've got a staff of 13 here that I need to keep busy year-round, so it helps and it's vital that we stay creative and tackle stuff along those lines in the winter.
Kyle Bylin: You're almost like a curator in those regards as you're creating that programming that’s going to keep people interested – both during the cold season and the warm season. And another one of those challenges, as I understand, is that it took you years of experience and networking before you were able to call these agencies and book these national acts year-round. But your success bred success and people took notice that you are able to produce the results, and they began taking you more seriously. Can you talk about how your conversations with these talent agencies have evolved over the years as you've produced better results?
Jade Nielsen: Sure, you know, that's interesting because I feel that is the biggest challenge that we have. And even after 22 years of doing this – that's still the challenge. There are agents that certainly don't consider the Dakotas or Montana or Wyoming legitimate markets for their acts to play. And some of them may very well be right, but I think a lot of them are wrong. What we have seen in these markets is that they have come a long, long way from even when I started until now.
As you know, the economy in this region has been very strong – stronger now than it probably ever has been. But it’s certainly stronger – you know, certainly, stayed strong and steady through that supposed recession period where a lot of the larger markets and coast markets were suffering. But the conversation itself with the agents I'm not sure has changed that much. I feel to some degree that I'm a salesperson for this region, and certainly a salesperson for this market in particular. There are always going to be certain agents that don't consider these viable markets.
And, let's face it, the touring business has changed over the years, where most acts, especially as they age, they want to play less markets and make more money. Therefore, there may not be a place for a Fargo, North Dakota within that tour. But at the same time, you've got new acts that want to play everywhere and new, young agents as well that are willing to send a developing act to markets like Fargo or Des Moines or Billings, Montana, for that matter. So it really depends on the act. It depends on the agent. Certainly, in this day and age, I get many calls from the same agents regularly that want to send their tours through and play this market. And it's taken a lot of hard work and proving myself, but equally proving that the market is worth it – worth the time and worth the effort in order for that to take place.
Kyle Bylin: I remember when I was growing up and going to shows – I believe I was at a Shinedown concert; it would've been 2005 or 2006, in the dead of winter. And I believe the singer said something along the lines of, "We were at our record label in Los Angeles and the executives were telling us rock is dead, no one cares about your music anymore.” And then you have a few thousand people in 30 below weather in all black and devil horns showing up for Shinedown in North Dakota. That seemed to blow the band away.
Jade Nielsen: I think there are a couple of things to that. When you had mentioned some of those earlier shows that you went to – and I vividly remember many of them — you know, these markets and Fargo, North Dakota in particular have always been a rock market; it really has been a strong rock market. Even when your radio friendly rock bands aren't selling as many tickets in major markets this is one of those markets that generally speaking that you can count on. I think that's still the case today. I mean, it's funny, right now, tomorrow actually I have a Rob Zombie and Korn show in Bismarck, North Dakota. What I have been told is that it's the best-selling date on the tour. It's interesting – that show is not playing here, for a couple of reasons – but it's interesting to see that happen. I mean, that's a market of 60,000 people. But they are hungry, they are eager, and they have the money to go out and spend $40 on a concert ticket. So there are a lot of reasons why that works and might not work in a larger market – that has thousands or hundreds of rock bands playing that market within the course of the year. There are more options and to some degree that plays to our favor. But you're right. Let's face it: people have said that rock is dead many of times and in some cases I think they are looking at certain markets and saying that but that's certainly not the case everywhere.
(Photo Credit: Ben Adamson on Flickr)