Question: what do Bassnectar, Hieroglyphics, and the String Cheese Incident have in common? Give up? Well aside from being some of the heaviest hitters in their respective genres of music, they also all happen to share representation at the same talent agency: Madison House.
Based right up the “Buffalo Highway” from Denver in the People’s Republic of Boulder (and I call it that with much affection, being a former resident), their story is an interesting one. But, it’s probably best for one of the partners to explain that, which he was nice enough to do over coffee and quiche earlier this month (if you spend time in Boulder, Caffe Sole on Broadway and Table Mesa comes highly recommended by both this author and this interview subject). Originally hailing from the Midwest, his love for music, knowledge of live production and marketing, and affinity for the outdoors eventually led him to Boulder and Madison House a little over ten years ago. He’s a businessman, an innovator, a huge proponent of the Colorado lifestyle that we all know and love...and most importantly: a genuinely nice guy. That can be a rare find these days, no matter the industry that you’re in. Meet Jake Schneider, Cultureheads.
Colorado Culture: So give me some background about your company.
Jake Schneider: Madison House was started in 1996 by Nadia Prescher and Mike Luba (now part of Madison House Presents) in Athens, Georgia. They started as a boutique startup agency, working with the likes of String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams, and Galactic to name a few. With that style of music (improvisational rock/jam music) being incorporated into so many music festivals nationwide, they figured it was time to move the headquarters to another market: either San Francisco or Boulder. Boulder ended up being the choice.
CC: When did you get brought on?
Jake: I got brought on in 2005. I was going to University of Iowa….and in Iowa City there are two main things to do: drink and go to shows (laughs). But while I was there I was the head of Scope Productions, a student-ran program through the university which books venues with upwards of 300+ capacity in the city.
Jake: Yeah, in Iowa City there really are no rooms above 450 capacity that aren’t university owned, and since I was in my position, I started there at 19 years old and ended up being the head talent buyer.
CC: What made you decide that you wanted to get into that side of the music business?
Jake: I grew up a music fan. At first it was mostly classic rock and punk, and as I got older I got really into hip hop. So I got to the point where I was promoting a lot of my own hip hop community events, and through that I really took notice of the fact that there were legitimate concerts coming through Iowa City. I saw flyers for shows everywhere, and really wanted to be more involved. So I applied for the position at Scope.
CC: How did you grow into the position?
Jake: When I interviewed, they liked that I knew music - I also had my own radio show on campus at the time - and could kind of recognize up and coming artists, so after about four years I found myself basically running the company.
CC: What all did that entail, and who were you working with in terms of artists?
Jake: Throwing a lot of shows. At that point we were doing about 30-40 paid shows per year with Scope, I remember one week we had 311, Umphrey’s McGee and Keller Williams in our 1,600 person ballroom….and then the next week we had John Mayer at the Carver Hawkeye Arena, which seats 16,000 people...and then the week after that it was Brooks & Dunn.
CC: Wow. Where’d you find time for class?
Jake: (laughs) That’s kind of the thing. It’s tough to get up for an 8 am class anyway, let alone when you don’t finish loading out an arena until 4 am. So my grades suffered a bit. It wasn’t just school and shows either. I was also working at a before and after school program for grade school kids….I love kids, and I’m one of six siblings so I kind of have to (laughs) - that was always my fallback if music didn’t work out too: teaching. I was also DJing at the time as well, so I had quite a bit on my plate. I’d be up working until 3-4 am, get home, and then be up serving kids breakfast at 6 am. It was crazy.
CC: What about when you geared up to graduate?
Jake: I was honestly flailing a little bit. I had applied for a bunch of different jobs, Madison House included. I knew that I really liked the Colorado lifestyle because I’m big into the outdoors: mountains, rivers, fishing, actually really into fly-fishing, so I knew that wherever I went the outdoors were going to be a factor along with the agency itself.
Jake: Because it’s so easy to get caught up in the agency “grind.” So for example, you’re in Los Angeles. You start in the mailroom, then you get moved up to someone’s desk who works in the literary office, and that’s the first of like four people’s desks that you get assigned to. Then maybe you sign someone but it’s territorial so everyone else is booking your band. Like you signed an act from the Bay Area, but they can only be booked by the agent from the south/southeast region or whatever. But with Madison House, they gave me the opportunity I was looking for. They basically said “Hey. We’re looking for someone to come in and shake up our roster a bit….add some flavor to it, and help it grow. The money won’t be great at first, but we’re gonna put your feet to the fire and have you help us build something. It won’t be easy living, but Boulder is a great place to live.”
CC: So even without the promise of big bucks, was it an easy decision?
Jake: At that point I had done enough shows with String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams, Michael Franti and Spearhead...so I already liked their roster. Funny story though: there was actually this one show - I lost money on it - but it was the coolest concept ever. It was called the Rope a Dope Music Seminar: basically 8 musicians playing in sequential order...like Lyrics Born rapping into a cellist, and then the cellist playing off of that into someone else. I loved the idea but we didn’t sell any tickets. So I had to ask my current partner Jesse Aratow for a reduction from the artists, which just isn’t something you do...it just isn’t. Another condition was that if I went through with it, then they’d just have to interview me in three months when I graduated. He kept his promise, and even though I had some offers from other companies - almost all for like ticket admin positions and things of that nature - I decided that Madison House was the right vibe for me, and I moved out to Colorado in June of 2005. I only packed what I could fit in my car, found a one-bedroom place, and made the jump. A lot of my friends, music or otherwise, decided to follow me too which was awesome. And from there I just started grinding and hustling.
CC: Who was the first act you signed?
Jake: Well they were kind of signed for me: Lotus. They started as a shared client, and remain so to this day, but it was a great way to get my foot in the door and also get them more gigs because they were still up and coming at the time. They also helped me realize how much linkage there is between electronic music and bands/live instrumentation. There were/are a lot of DJs and producers that had a following in the multi-genre festival world, and that realization led me to Bassnectar, which has worked out great. He’s a great guy, and was really one of the first electronic DJs/producers to be toured like a band.
CC: Didn’t SCI kind of put him on too?
Jake: Yes and no. He was friends with those guys, especially Michael Kang and Michael Travis from going to Burning Man...and they definitely provided him with some platforms to help him grow...he opened for them on tour a few times. But he was already playing a lot of rooms on his own, and the Burning Man/electronic worlds were starting to crossover a lot with the multi-genre festivals, so what we did was apply the live touring model that we used for bands like SCI to Bassnectar and other electronic acts.
CC: So regional touring?
Jake: Yeah. In those days a lot of DJs/Producers didn’t do that kind of thing. They weren’t out in Asheville, North Carolina one night….Athens, Georgia the next night….Tulsa, Oklahoma a few nights later. And to this day, those markets are still great for our clients because we don’t book them like a typical “EDM agency”: booking cross-country flights to bottle service clubs, you play from the DJ booth, go stay in your fancy hotel room, then hop on a plane to the next club tomorrow. The dates are strategically routed in a way that is sustainable for the artist, but also allows them to grow their fanbase.
CC: So that’s how you got your start, what’s your roster look like these days?
Jake: Pretty electronic heavy, although there are definitely bands on there. Hip hop too, Hieroglyphics is one. But the interesting thing is the rise in popularity of jam bands amongst the younger crowd…..I shouldn’t say “rise” because they never really fell off. But for example, we’ve got a band named Twiddle that the snowboard kids love, and they’re blowing up! Burton is behind them. Which is great, because that’s the way it used to be. It just really seems like a lot of music is thriving and co-existing very well right now, which makes me happy.
CC: What about the so-called EDM bubble? Do you see it bursting any time soon?
Jake: I think that the race to sign EDM artists is still there, it just isn’t as prevalent as it was. We’re at a point now where the cream is going to rise to the top, which is always the case, but even more so right now across all genres. We’re just closer to it living here, with Colorado being such a portal for music in general...I’d even argue that Denver/Boulder is one of the top 5 music markets in North America….in terms of tickets sold….the vibrancy of the scene….everything.
CC: So, in the vein of selling tickets...and I know you’re not a promoter anymore, but what would you consider crucial to a good fan experience at a show?
Jake: Keeping ticket prices reasonable is the first thing. Also, a lot of artists will try to “skip steps” too, so minimize that.
Jake: Well, oftentimes it’s two things. So let’s say you’ve got an artist who’s got some commercial draw: they’ve got an album, or a single, or have played a really big show at say the Fox Theatre...a 500 cap room. But then they decide to jump to a 4,000-person scale exhibition hall because they think it’s time. But a 4,000 person space is not going to look good half-full. So did management skip a step? Did they book the right room for the artist after that Fox show so that they can garner and develop the artist’s popularity? That’s something everyone needs to think about when they’re routing their artists, because at the end of the day, the fans want to feel like they’re part of something. And as a fan, if you’re in a 4,000 person room with only 1,500 people in there, you’re going to feel disconnected. Don’t get me wrong, 1,500 people can still be great….but putting the right artist in the right room in the right market is just as important for fans as it is for the artist. You also need to be wary of over-saturating certain markets, so fans aren’t having to pick between 5-7 similar artists per week to spend their money on...which sadly happens a lot. Another big thing is stressing the importance to fans of partying safely at these shows: hydrating for example. You know, Bassnectar has this whole program called the Ambassadors, they function a group of people who go out there...welcome you to the show and make you feel like a part of the community, but they also function as a safety team. Hydrating people, handing out water bottles. As an agent, we ask promoters all the time if they’re able to provide one water bottle for each ticket holder so people don’t have to pay the $7-$10 it costs just to get something to drink at some of these shows and festivals. Or we ask them to allow people to bring in Camelbaks.
CC: You guys have a festival coming up here with Vertex. What are your expectations for that?
Jake: I’ll be there as a fan, so I’ll mainly be enjoying the hell out of the local community, the environment, the Arkansas River...just all of the surroundings plus the music. It’s a great lineup with a lot of diverse talent, and it’s in an absolutely beautiful part of Colorado. I think most of the people in the Front Range, transplants at least, have never even been to Buena Vista.
CC: Well, I’ve got to be honest. I grew up here and I only just went to Buena Vista last year. We were passing through on the way down to Telluride.
Jake: Yeah, I mean I’d never been either until I went to Salida for the Gentlemen of the Road tour last year. It’s a really great town, so this is going to be a unique opportunity for fans to come out, see some great music and really soak in some culture. The river is right there: you can go whitewater rafting, fly-fishing, tubing, most people will already be camping. So for those who want to, they can make a really positive outdoor Colorado weekend out of the whole experience. At least that’s what I’m planning on doing.
CC: What’s the town’s take on all of it?
Jake: One of the best things that Madison House Presents does is community outreach. In a sense of interacting with the locals, the neighbors, the law enforcement….and it creates a very harmonious environment, one in which people want us to come back.
CC: Haha. So you’re not just the music people looking to invade their space?
Jake: Exactly. We’re not trying to take over a beautiful town like Buena Vista and blow it up like we just dropped some festival bomb or something. That’s not the idea at all. And I know there is a ton of stuff happening behind the scenes to ensure that doesn’t happen. Last year when we went to Salida for the Gentlemen of the Road tour for example, we were welcomed with open arms. It was great. So many store owners hung British flags from their windows - because of Mumford and Sons - and the whole town/community really embraced it. So that’s what we’re aiming to have Vertex be.
CC: Sounds fantastic. That being said, I know it’s not always smooth sailing in the music business. What has been the aspect of it that you’ve found to be the most challenging, and how have you overcome that challenge?
Jake: One of the toughest things that I went through, and our company went through, was being branded as this weed-smoking-jam-band only agency. When artists are looking for representation, they want someone to represent them in a world full of artists who they themselves aspire to be. There are all kinds of people in this business doing big things, but at the end of the day it’s all about the agent/agency’s relationships with promoters as well as other agents. That’s what grows an artist. Being based out of Boulder, and representing a lot of artists in the jam band genre, for a while there we got stigmatized...almost to the point that it was insurmountable. That was tough for me when I first started because I was only going after hip hop acts. I worked the underground hip hop scene for forever. But there ended up being a crossover...like Trey Hardson from The Pharcyde showing up on the Galactic album (From the Corner to the Block). That actually worked to our benefit, but we still had to work hard to develop acts from other realms. Like Keys n Krates for example. They come from a party rock/jazz background, and they’re doing amazing things. We’ve come a long way, and that stigma still gets applied to this day to an extent, but we embrace it. Sure, we’re based in Boulder. We’re not in Los Angeles. But you know what? That means I’m not out partying at Avalon until whatever time and then going into work at noon. I’m fishing Boulder Creek on a weekday, and catching my first rainbow trout two hours before I go into the office instead. And that different lifestyle is one of a lot of amazing things about our company and our location. We’ve also got Red Rocks here. No one else has that. It has also gotten to the point now where Denver and Boulder are not only awesome music hubs, but business hubs as well. And we’ve evolved along with the locale. We work with people in enough places and have enough agents now where we represent so many different types of artists and facets of music. Indie, electronic, jam bands, hip hop...we do it the right way and we do it fun. This is Colorado, fun is a way of life here. It took a while, but we’re at the point where the diversity of our roster speaks for itself. We’re established and growing, possibly looking to acquire a few other agencies, and then opening new offices. I’ll be staying here, of course!
CC: What does culture mean to you? In general and as it applies to Colorado.
Jake: Oh man (laughs). I feel like I’m in school right now. I could be wrong by I always viewed culture as the “temperature” or vibe of a certain place. But in terms of Colorado: it’s so unique and diverse...and I love it for that. You have so many different dynamics of people, places, and music co-existing. It’s the 2nd fastest growing state in the country in terms of people moving here, so the culture is constantly evolving. The places and neighborhoods where people go are changing. Look at the RiNo area. So many bars, clubs, restaurants, and music venues are popping up. And it’s not going to stop any time soon. Even in Boulder. The culture here used to revolve around downtown. Not so anymore. There’s so much more to do in South Boulder, or even East Boulder. That used to be nothing but warehouses. Now you’ve got places to go. There’s always something to do. Let alone the fact that culture here has always been synonymous with the outdoors: knowing and getting around in the mountains. Whether it’s hiking, camping and fishing during the summer, skiing and snowboarding during the winter. It’s all of these options that leads to us enjoying a culture here that’s a bit more “well-adjusted” compared to other places. Everyone here seems to be just looking to get along with everyone else. Oh also, you could also throw all of that out and still define culture here just by outdoor music. Red Rocks is a culture in and of itself. And along with that comes privilege. Not entitlement, but privilege. Almost bubble-like privilege. I know sometimes I take it for granted: “Oh….I don’t know if I want to go to Red Rocks tonight….” But then I’ll leave the state for a few weeks, come back, and I can’t help but marvel at just how good we have it here.