Nick Checota, Logjam Presents and an Expanding Montana Entertainment Empire
Logjam Presents, an entertainment and music promotion company based in Missoula, Montana, features three distinct venues in Missoula: a restaurant and nightclub The Top Hat Lounge, the iconic Wilma Theater downtown and the 4,250-seat Kettlehouse Amphitheater in Bonner. In October 2018, Montana Press spoke with Nick Checota, a visionary entrepreneur in the western music scene and the founder of Logjam Presents.
Montana Press: In 2017, you reported over 100,000 tickets sold. What’s 2018 look like so far?
Nick Checota: We’re going to do about 180,000 this year, which is good. Pollstar, a main industry trade organization where everybody reports all their tickets, does these rankings based solely on tickets sold and obviously, organizations like Live Nation and AEG [Anschutz Entertainment Group] are always selling 25 million tickets or whatever they might do. For the first time, Logjam Presents broke into the top 100 promoters in the world based on ticket sales.
The Wilma and Top Hat are both in the top 100 clubs in the world in ticket sales and the amphitheater was ranked 43rd in the world in ticket sales. That’s just ticket sales, tickets sold. All of those ticket sales occurred in the Missoula market, which is just staggering that Missoula is supporting that level of music.
We just find it absolutely mind-boggling we can support this many events. We’re supporting as many events as you’re seeing in cities five times our size.
MP: In an interview last year, you reported $11 million in revenue. Was this for the entire production company?
NC: Last year that was the entire production and this year it’s going to be more in the $16 million range.
MP: Have you looked at other entertainment companies for ideas or models, or is Logjam Presents a unique entity?
NC: My background was consulting and before I became a real estate developer I worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers and was in Fortune 50 companies. I went into a lot of different environments so I have had that basis from which I look at companies.
I definitely look at Live Nation. They’re a public company. They have public filings, so you can get a lot of information. I look at their revenue models and how they’re structured. It doesn’t mean we imitate them, but we definitely look at them. They do some things very differently than us, as do, I’d say, all the big promoters.
This is a super-interesting industry right now. What’s happening is very aggressive. Very fast consolidation is occurring and you’re seeing organizations like Live Nation and AEG, Live Nation being a public company, just gobble up everybody. They just did another major acquisition last week, Emporium. So they’re buying companies very aggressively. You have these mega-promoters and then you have a small group of surviving independent promoters and we would be one of them.
MP: Do most of those smaller promoters have venues?
NC: No, and I think from that group, we vary a little bit in that we’re one of the only ones that I’m aware of that does everything in-house. I don’t contract a third-party vendor to come in and do bars. I don’t contract with a third-party security company, like CMS, to come in and do my event staff. We put all the employees on our payroll. They’re all Missoulians, so they know people in the community and it lets us control the overall experience.
I think that’s what makes us so different than Live Nation, in that Live Nation’s just buying tours and then they’re trying to route these tours through venues, some of which they own, some of which they don’t. The experience, by the way, for those shows is mediocre, in my opinion. Everything’s outsourced, no one lives in that community or really knows the community.
What makes us different is that we’ve invested more in our venues than is typical. We invested more in our sound system than is typical. We place a huge priority on service. If you go to one of our venues, you’ll see that very rarely is there a line at concession stands or at the bar. We really try to keep that to a minimum. Our event staff is more of a hospitality staff than a security staff.
It’s just a different approach, and it’s much more about the overall experience of the concertgoer than selling a ticket and getting fees. I think like so many things in this country, as they franchise and get bigger and take that model, you can see, I think, a deterioration in the level of quality of the experience.
MP: You said one of your biggest surprises has been the appetite for music in western Montana. Do you think this extends to the entire state?
NC: Yeah, I do, actually. We sell a lot of tickets on the eastern side of Montana.
MP: Now that you have a strong foothold in western Montana, what are the plans to expand to the rest of the state?
NC: I think Bozeman would be the first target. We have a venue under development and hope to have it under construction and open next fall. I think Bozeman’s a market that has some pent-up demand and doesn’t really have a venue that meets the needs of what we think the customers want there.
MP: How many people will the Bozeman venue seat?
NC: It’ll be the same size as the Wilma, 1,500. And from there, I think we’ll take a breath. We picked up the ballpark, so that’s still a western Montana venue. But from there, we’ll absorb that, get that launched and operating and then I think we’ll reassess. I’m not sure which direction we’ll go from there.
MP: The ballpark being the Osprey Park in Missoula? What are your plans for that facility?
NC: Yes. It’s our hope that we’ll do four to five shows a year there. The majority of the shows will be at the KettleHouse but four to five bigger shows there. So that’s a 10,000 capacity venue versus a 4,250 capacity which is KettleHouse. That lets us go after a different size of artist and that’s what our intent is.
MP: What is the process for booking music and what audience do you try to serve?
NC: The process is you work with agents. Some bring shows to me. I go chase some shows. I just got back from a week trip to New York and Nashville to meet with a lot of the agents I work with. The prior week to that, I was in LA doing the same. So that’s the process. You work with agents that represent artists.
As far as the audience, I think historically if you look at the audience that was served in Missoula, the promoters in this community prior to us coming on the scene really focused on the college kids. What we quickly concluded was that’s an important audience. We definitely bring shows for the young college audience. But the reality of that audience is that it’s a very transient audience. It’s a young audience and it has limited financial means.
What we have really gravitated a lot of our shows towards is that really 30-to-70 year old audience, which is a big range, and there’s a lot of genres in that. We’ve found that they live and stay in western Montana. They have a little bit more disposable income. There are a lot of different genres within those groups that we can diversify, so we don’t burn out or exhaust one of the concert-going crowds. Things like Bob Weir and this summer, Blondie, and Béla Fleck. If you look at our lineup this summer, it ranges from very young-oriented audiences, like Greensky Bluegrass, to audiences that wanted to go see Blondie and Béla Fleck and Alice Cooper.
In the 19 shows we did there, we pretty much covered every genre. Maybe except for hip hop, which is something we want to definitely still bring more of to the community. But our objective is to be across almost every genre, and across a fairly big age demographic.
MP: At present how many people does Logjam Presents employ?
NC: We’re a little bit of a seasonal company. In the summer at the height, we employed about 208 employees. A lot of those obviously are part-time. That’s the whole conglomerate of the organization. So you have Logjam Presents, which is our promotional company and it promotes shows at all our venues, plus once in a while does shows at other venues. That organization has 13 full-time employees, and then about 150 part-time employees. That includes stagehands, event staff, extra bartenders at the KettleHouse, that kind of thing.
MP: Where do you get the majority of your employees?
NC: All Missoula, all Montana. Almost our entire full-time office staff that works for the promotion company Logjam Presents is out of the University [of Montana] entertainment management program.
MP: Are you a Montana resident?
NC: I am for sure. I live in Missoula, I have three kids in public schools and my wife’s from Great Falls.
MP: Do you get to go and enjoy some shows and their fruit of your labors?
NC: I probably go to 95 percent of the shows we do. So I probably go to over 250 shows a year. It’s still business at the shows if I go but I enjoy the music. Just, I’m working, so it’s not a party for me. It’s a job.
MP: How has Logjam Presents become integrated in the Missoula community since you bought The Top Hat back in 2011?
NC: I think it’s an important part of what our mission is as a business and who we are as a business that we donate quite a bit of our net profits back into Missoula. So this year alone, we’re donating, because of the KettleHouse Amphitheater, we’re able to donate $105,000 to Trout Unlimited in a restricted fund that can only be used for the preservation and conservation of the Blackfoot River.
We’re donating a half a million dollars to the Zootown Arts Community Center for their new facility downtown. We’ve already make that donation and they’ve purchased the building that they’re currently designing. We donated $50,000 to Spark, which is a Kennedy Center initiative for bringing arts back into the public school system.
We’ll end up donating almost $750,000 this year back to Missoula with a focus on arts programs, particularly around arts and youth, which is the Spark and the ZACC donations, and then a smaller portion, but still an important portion, around the livability in the community and the environmental aspects of Missoula.
MP: Can you give me a sense of where you see Logjam in Montana’s future cultural landscape?
NC: I’d like to think we’re a key part of the cultural landscape. We’re bringing a lot of music here, and we don’t just do music. We’ve helped Marc Moss launch and grow “Tell Us Something” to an event. The last one he did at the Wilma sold 850 tickets. So we do those kinds of events. We’re in a recently formed partnership with the University of Montana on their presidential lecture series and we brought David Brooks as the first speaker into the Wilma, which was a super cool event.
We sponsor the ballet every year. We sponsor the book festival, the Montana Book Festival, every year. So I think for us, we see ourselves as somebody that is, one, bringing a lot of arts but also trying to financially really just support the arts.
I’ve been coming to Missoula for 30 years because my wife’s sisters all lived here and I’ve now lived here for almost 10 years. As Missoula changes, I think, and western Montana changes and grows and gets developed, I think one of the key things to keeping the character and the uniqueness of the community is making sure that local arts are supported and that you have a vibrant and strong and successful local arts scene. By doing that, I think you keep the character of the local people that live here and you don’t have the fate that some of the resort towns, for instance, in Colorado, have had, where it’s just become almost a non-residential hole.
Overall, I think the big message, the big takeaway, is just the support of music that western Montana gives. We wouldn’t be here if people didn’t support it.
Find more information about Logjam Presents: https://logjampresents.com/
Listen to an in-depth interview with Nick Checota on Montana Public Radio: www.mtpr.org
Check out some past live shows at the venues: https://logjampresents.com/tag/recording/