Backstage with Jade Nielsen

Moorhead’s Bluestem Center is a jewel, says homegrown impresario Jade Nielsen — perhaps the finest outdoor performing venue in the Midwest. (Photo/Russ Hanson; Bluestem photo/Repor Photography.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson
hansonnanc@gmail.com
Jade Nielsen knows the region’s concert venues by heart. Of all of them, he says, Moorhead’s Bluestem Center for the Arts may be the very best.
“Bluestem is a jewel,” says the bearded, baseball-capped businessman, who’s steered the Fargo-Moorhead concert scene for almost 30 years. “It’s one of the best outdoor venues in the Midwest. When an artist like Bonnie Raitt – who has played everywhere, all over – tells you she wants to come back here, you know you’ve got it going. It says a lot about the market, the venue and the fans. And we’re just getting going!”
His company, Jade Presents, is a familiar name among audiences for all kinds of events – contemporary and classic rock concerts, comedy, hip hop and even theatre. Jade’s event division stages expos like Roughrider Iron and Ink (a motorcycle and tattoo fest) and the Bacon & Beer Festival, both of them now replicated far in other cities. It sells tickets for Jade’s own and others’ events. Its subsidiary Nocturnal Resources employs 300 in cities all over the region to provide event staffing, stagehands and equipment for dates booked everywhere from the FargoDome and Red River Valley Fair to Grand Forks’ Alerus Center and Ralph Engelstad Arena and the Shooting Star Casino.
Real estate has entered the picture, too. After revamping and later selling a downtown storefront, he has invested in some 10 properties, including the Sanctuary Events Center and a brand-new deal to turn the old Moorhead American Legion on First Avenue North – most recently Usher’s House – into a similar events center. He owns a host of other properties near downtown, too, including his company’s quarters at 300 N. University Dr. and other former industrial sites in the vicinity He’s a partner in both The Hall at Fargo Brewing and a new restaurant going into the old Rosie’s Laundry, located on opposing corners at the intersection of University and Seventh Avenue. He recently acquired the Angels Ice Arena on Fifth Avenue, too: “Whenever I see a big free-span building like that, I get excited.”
Jade, now 48, says he’s always had the instincts of an entrepreneur. “I was always trying something. When I was 14 or 15, I had an aquarium cleaning business,” he reminisces. But music was an even bigger attraction. “I was hanging around the record store when the manager said, out of the blue, ‘I like your taste in music. Want to work here?’” he says. “The more I worked there, the more intrigued I got.” As he moved up, then briefly operated his own downtown record store, he put together his first show, a local band showcase at a short-lived club called Exit 99 on Fiechtner Drive.
The door opened further when a record promoter tapped him for help putting together a local gig for a band you’ve never heard of called Firehose. “They were trying to play every state, 50 dates in 50 nights,” Jade says. “I rented the basement of the Civic Auditorium. Oh, man – 9-foot ceilings, a stage just a foot off the floor. But it sold out all 1,000 tickets. I felt I’d won the lottery. I made $700 and thought, ‘I’m really onto something now.’”
He promoted his first shows at the Fargo Theatre – still a big part of his company – back in 1995 with Rev. Horton Heat and John Prine. A few years later, he found himself booking talent full-time for the then-new Prairie Knights Casino south of Bismarck, those connections; in addition to Prine, who became a friend, he grew personal as well as professional connections with Willie Nelson and B.B. King. He eventually booked a good share of King’s and Prine’s appearances around the country.
Back from Bismarck in 2004, he went full steam ahead into the concert booking and promotion business under the new banner of Jade Presents, starting with Harry Connick Jr. at the Fargo Civic. His bookings increased in range and frequency – 60 or 70 a year at Playmakers alone, which became the Hub, then the Venue; shows in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, and a staff that by 2008 had grown to nine full-timers. Calls poured in from managers looking for dates to fill between stops in better-known locales across the Midwest. He’d been working out of his house until his staff outgrew it; moved downtown; outgrew that spot; sold it, then bought his building on University.
The community’s appetite for all kinds of entertainment seems to have grown along with Jade Presents. What started as a contract for four or five shows a year at the Fargo Theatre has multiplied into dozens. Jade’s first two productions at Trollwood/Bluestem in 2009 – the Blenders and “Prairie Home Companion” – have grown to a full schedule this summer of 18, from the band Chicago May 10 to the “50th Anniversary of Peace and Love” Aug. 17 (think Woodstock, but don’t even whisper that trademarked name), and a musical based on the music of Queen, “We Will Rock You,” Sept. 11. What started as one entrepreneur with a single employee has grown to a team of 17 managing concerts and events.
There’s an art to arranging those dates. “You don’t want to compete with yourself – to steal ticket buyers away from one event to another,” Jade observes. He looks for the most diverse artists currently on tour, aiming to balance music genres and timing to appeal to the largest possible range of ages, tastes and audiences. This summer’s menu also encompasses comics like Steve Martin and Martin Short (June 7), contemporary favorites the Avett Brothers (May 16) and Incubus (Aug. 3), classic rockers the Turtles, Gary Puckett and the Cowsills (Aug. 22); and even “KIDZ BOP World Tour” (Aug. 21.
Though national booking agencies dominate the big-name market at the FargoDome and other very large locations, Jade says he and his team have found that having the local touch can make all the difference. “When all is said and done, we’re guests in their house. Everybody needs to do well – the talent, the venue and the audience as well as us.”
That doesn’t mean every event is a winner for all involved. “Each is almost like a stand-alone business. We have to pay the artist a certain amount, along with the venue, catering, sound and lighting, the stage crew,” he explains. “And the days of splitting the gate 50-50 with the artists are long gone. Some of the big names are asking for 95 percent. Some want more than 100 percent, leaving you to make your money on concessions and parking.
“The truth of the matter is that this business is incredibly risky. You can lose for all kinds of reasons – overpaying artists, pricing tickets too high, storms that force you to cancel.” He adds, “I’ve gotten better. I’m more careful and calculating than I used to be.” He estimates Jade Presents now breaks even or better on nine out of ten concerts today.
Twenty-nine years of staging concerts has taken a certain toll on Jade’s private life. For one thing, attending all the concerts on his calendar is no longer what he does for fun. “I do go to some things, but it’s not the same,” he admits. “It’s hard to separate the business side at my own shows and totally enjoy them. I’m always keeping an eye on what’s going on.” Instead, he focuses on more personal pursuits, including his motorcycles and his three young children still at home.
With contacts throughout the entertainment world, has he ever thought of going for the big time? “Sure, I’ve had quite a few opportunities to move, but they’re never been appealing. My goal is to help make this community a better place to live. That’s vitally important to me.”
For more information on Jade Presents’ upcoming dates, go to jadepresents.com

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