The news broke at 3 p.m. on July 9. Minutes later, right on schedule, the social media naysayers were tweeting out their doubts. Richard King was selling The Blue Note, and our fair city’s beloved music venue was surely doomed.
The Blue Note’s new owners, Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie, will take possession of the theater and its sister venue Mojo’s in November, and they have reassuring words for the live music devotees of Columbia.
“Don be scared,” Gerding says. “Have faith. This is our industry and we’re certainly going to carry the torch of The Blue Note with a lot of pride.”
The Business Of Music
Gerding and Leslie back up their confidence with impressive credentials in the industry.
Gerding, a Columbia native, is a self-admitted music junkie. In his youth, he often could be found on the front row at concerts, mesmerized by the punk rock band du jour. He began imagining a life for himself in the music industry, but not as a musician. “Obviously I wanted to do something I was passionate about,” Gerding says. “I noticed there was a lot of business behind everything I was listening to.”
He followed his dream, first to a marketing degree at Mizzou, then to Los Angeles where he joined the Creative Artists Agency, a prestigious booking agency that handles major touring artists.
It was during his four years in LA that Gerding became acquainted with Leslie, a touring musician who shared Gerding’s dream for a different kind of creative outlet.
“We became roommates and best friends,” Gerding says, and eventually the duo decided to search the country for a music venue to call their own. That search initially brought them to Columbia for a discussion with Richard King about the possibility of buying The Blue Note. King wasn’t ready to let go of the business at that time, so Gerding and Leslie turned their attention to a historic theater in Madison, Wis.: the Majestic.
“That situation was a little bit different in that we were only buying real estate and not an existing business that was tied to it as well, like we have in Columbia,” Leslie says. “While everyone in that city [Madison] saw a transformation, all Matt and I saw was what happens when you open a music venue. Within that, Matt and I had to transform our business model, and that was something that happened through a bit of trial and error and finally just a ‘let’s see what happens if we do this’ approach. Those changes to our model ultimately worked beyond our wildest dreams and are what caused us to achieve a level of success that allowed us to undertake our expansion in Columbia.”
As the men built their business and reputation in Madison, a central tenet of their philosophy took shape: the artist is at the forefront of everything.
Leslie says his own experiences as a touring musician helped him understand the challenges of the profession. “Don’t get me wrong — touring the country was amazing, and an experience that I would never trade,” he says. “But I was single the entire time and had basically no responsibilities aside from that. The other guys in the band all had girlfriends and wives and the lifestyle was much harder on them. I think it’s important that everyone recognizes that it’s work. They have real expenses to get from show to show and to be able to stay on the road. We want to recognize that this isn’t a vacation for them and that a smiling face, clean dressing room and good meal go a long, long way. Simple things like spending the extra $5 to get the band their favorite beer or an extra five minutes prewiring the stage to make the crew have just a little bit of an easier day are difference makers.”
Gerding adds, “If you treat your artists well and create a great experience, they’ll go back and tell their agents.” And those agents, Gerding hopes, represent other bands who will start clamoring for a gig in Columbia.
A New Note
Gerding says the audiences at The Blue Note and Mojo’s can continue to expect great concerts from hot up-and-comers and local favorites, but they’ll also see some aesthetic improvements that will allow the venues to expand their offerings.
“We are going to put in all-new flooring, some new light fixtures,” Gerding says, “and we’re going to completely redo the artists’ dressing rooms.”
Gerding and Leslie plan to offer more of what they call “alternative programming” such as themed dance nights, and hope to rent the facilities out as wedding venues. “Having a venue that has incredible-looking floors, new light fixtures and looks fresh and clean helps boost that side of the business that we’re going to put some energy into.”
It isn’t an accident that Leslie and Gerding found themselves owning historic buildings. Both men appreciate the architecture and the “if walls could talk” vibe of a grand old theater. “We definitely wanted to find something that was a classic-type theater,” Gerding says. “When we found the Majestic, it sort of just spoke to us.” The Blue Note offers similar ambience, but the more humble Mojo’s is a bit of a departure for the pair.
“We weren’t originally discussing that with Richard, but we came to town and realized how much potential it has as a venue,” Gerding says. “It’s a great venue to build up the local music scene and that’s been a cornerstone of Mojo’s for a long time. We love Forrest Rose Park out there. We’ll continue what Mojo’s has been doing but we’ll do some remodeling — mostly aesthetic upgrades. We hope to utilize the park. It’s a great location for weddings and a summer cult-classic movie series. We’ve got a lot of creative ideas for how to use that space.”
Gerding has moved back to his hometown in preparation for his new role as Blue Note owner.
“I’ve always considered Columbia to be my home,” he says. “I love this town and to come back here now as a 36-year-old is certainly a different experience, but it’s still the same — same heart — and I’m still a huge Missouri Tiger fan. I love The Blue Note and the bars and restaurants and shops and the culture that is this town. It motivates me more to see what we can do to take The Blue Note and the outdoor events like Summerfest and everything that Richard does and inject new life into them.”
Gerding does recognize that the music industry is ever-evolving. Technology hasn’t just changed the way people access recorded music, it is also transforming live music venues like The Blue Note.
“Certainly little things have changed,” Gerding says, citing innovations such as print-at-home tickets and smartphone scanning. “It’s definitely changed from a production standpoint. A lot of artists put a lot of money and energy into the production of the show.” That production can include elaborate light displays and other special effects — “things that weren’t a big focus 10 or 15 years ago. With the fall of record sales, artists have found they can continue to make money with touring so there’s a renewed focus on how shows are produced.”
More To Come
Leslie and Gerding are confident their successful business formula will work here in Columbia and can work in other venues in other cities, too. They are already thinking about expanding their holdings … eventually.
“There is a balance that you have to hit in maintaining yourself as an indie club promoter and in doing a good job everywhere and it’s not just in some places,” Leslie says. “You have to maintain the gritty, do-whatever-it-takes mentality, and so much of that is dependent on having the right people, the right team, knowing when to push and knowing when to pull.”
These two music lovers are passionate about the music business and determined to prove to Columbia that they are the right people to carry on Richard King’s legacy at The Blue Note. At the same time, they hope to educate others about the entertainment value of live music.
“We encourage people to come out and experience live music,” Gerding says. “If it’s a band you haven’t heard of, take a chance. Get out and get away from your couch and your television. You might discover your new favorite band.”
One More Thing …
The best concert Matt Gerding has seen (so far) at The Blue Note:
“My Morning Jacket. I don’t know what year it was. It was the first time I’d ever seen them and I had been a long-time fan. I went with my brother Tim who lives here and is a local attorney. I was blown away.”
Does Scott Leslie still take the stage as a performer?
“Every blue moon I’ll get up there. I threaten it a lot more than it actually happens. But the sad truth is that my biggest audiences are the staff in our Madison office (who are unwilling participants), and then my wife and my dogs.