• Feature

Madison Theater - A Chat with Ian Bolender

The region has no shortage of venues. Between Cincinnati, Covington, and Newport, we’ve a surplus of choices when it comes to how, when, and where we see live music. Each venue has a story, its own personality, and a place in the history of our mutual experiences with music. 

I was able to chat with Ian Bolender, Programming & Marketing Coordinator at Nederlander Entertainment, and the person responsible for bringing so many memorable shows to Madison Theater. He talks about the venue’s history, as well as his own history booking shows, and gives us some great insight into what it’s like to work with one of the most unique spaces in the area. 

Let’s start with a little bit of background. Can you tell our readers a bit about the history of Madison Theater and how Nederlander got involved in booking shows there?

Sure, The Madison Theater originally opened as a movie theater back in 1912 (Originally called Lyric Theater, and then the L.B. Wilson Theater). The building was set to be torn down in the 1980’s until Esther Johnson stepped in to save it. She spent over three million dollars to restore the building before opening as a music venue in 2001. Since then, it has been largely a mom & pop operation with a few outside promoters doing shows from time to time (including us). Mostly, it’s been a team of highly dedicated family members & close friends that have kept this place in shape. In 2015, Esther unveiled Madison Live - a 300 cap venue adjacent to the Madison Theater with a rooftop bar that has a capacity of 400. Both spaces are connected to the Madison Theater, allowing people to freely flow between the three spaces + the balcony. 

Nederlander Entertainment has been putting shows into the building for as long as I’ve worked for them (since about 2007). An opportunity came up this past April for us to take on daily operation, management, and programming for the building. We have spent the past two months making some much needed improvements to the facility & you should begin seeing more frequent shows in all three rooms by the Fall.

How did you get started booking shows? How long have you been booking for Madison Theater? 

I guess I’ve been booking shows for about 18 years now. Like many of my colleagues around the city, I started by booking shows for my band back in High School. In College I started booking national shows on my own in a venue named RadioDown. I spent several years learning from other people & growing as a promoter while I bounced around between booking shows at RadioDown, The Mad Hatter, The Southgate House, and then eventually for Nederlander Entertainment. There, I’ve booked The Madison Theater and 20th Century Theatre pretty consistently. We also own and operate U.S. Bank Arena & the Cincinnati Cyclones. I’ve always had a bug to work on Festivals, and in 2009-2011 we had the opportunity to work with JK McNight on Louisville’s Forecastle Festival. We also programmed the first three years of Bunbury, One Year of Buckle Up, and two years of Ubahn. We work with 3CDC to program Fountain Square each summer in addition to booking random events at The Taft Theatre, Aronoff Center, Miami University, and a few venues in Louisville, KY.

Every venue in the city/area seems like they have a bit of niche, if not a certain reputation and types of shows they’ll have - with Madison Theater, I think it’s successfully avoided pigeonholing itself like that. What’s been the mentality when putting shows together for the space? What makes for a memorable show at Madison Theater?

Each venue definitely has its own identity. I think the personality of the buyer comes through. You can’t help but book bands that you like, so your personal preferences tend to shine through. In the past, The Madison Theater was booked by so many different people it never really had the opportunity to form an identity. I guess we will see what the future holds for that space.

In a city - be it Cincinnati, Covington, or any of the surrounding areas - there’s only so much market share, only so many people, and only so much money to go around. Do you find it challenging at all to offer a unique set of shows?

Our goal is to increase the number of people willing to spend their evening at a show. Focusing on market share is short-sighted & will force you to overpay, lose money, and ultimately go out of business. Our competition is a night at the movies, a Reds game, or a night at home with Netflix… Not each other. This business is all about convincing someone where to spend their time - which is so much more valuable than money. I’m friends with most of the people that book events in other buildings around town. We steer clear of certain artists on purpose & try our best to not let agencies pit us against each other. There are enough shows to go around. At the end of the day we all have very unique rooms & agents will decide what is best for their artists.

On that same note, what makes a good show to you? What makes you pay attention to a band and look into how to bring them back to same space?

I have a habit of watching people watch the show. When people aren’t looking at their phone or leaving to go to the bar it’s a very good sign that something special is happening. That’s why I love going to festivals so much… I get to learn a lot about where these artists are at in a short period of time. Sometimes it takes a few tours for bands to get it right... Having good songs is just the beginning. 

Can you tell us a bit about some of your favorite shows at Madison Theater? What about your all-time favorite show, no matter the location?

It’s always fun to look back at some of the artists we have booked over the years. The Black Keys, Bassnectar, and Passion Pit come to mind. Some of my most fond memories are from the original RadioDown. I had no idea what I was doing, looking back. My wife (girlfriend at the time) would run the door & I’d be running around acting like a stagehand, security, and promoter all at once. The artists were always good to us & I remember having a great conversation with Glenn Phillips after a show about why the hell I was going down this road. We did My Chemical Romance, The Format (Nate from Fun), Henry Rollins, and Kyle Gass from Tenacious D to name a few.. all prior to learning how to do it properly. 

Is there anything you can tell us about what’s coming up at Madison Theater this summer and fall? Anything you’re stoked on?

I’m really excited about our Lizzo show! She’s selling out comparable rooms in major markets 2-3 nights in a row. Our partners at KISS really pulled off a miracle with that one. Courtney Barnett should be cool. We’ve been working on bringing her to the market for a long time. LOTS of shows in the works that I can’t mention just yet. We’re having a really good time booking this room.

Sincere thanks to Ian for taking the time to answer my questions and being so thoughtful in his answers. We hope to see you at one of the many awesome shows happening at Madison Theater this summer!