The large wooden desk in the historic brick building in the North Loop is no longer cluttered. The current occupant can actually find the business cards of her predecessor — so old that there’s no area code listed for the phone number — neatly stacked in an artsy holder.
The new boss isn’t the same as the old boss.
“Sue could run her business on a cocktail napkin, and the back of an envelope was her bookkeeping system,” Patricia McLean said of the late Sue McLean, the pioneering Twin Cities concert promoter best known for booking stars at the Minnesota Zoo and the Basilica Block Party.
“She could calculate a plan on the phone on the fly. She was very old-school. She really believed goodwill would bring goodwill. A true hippie.”
Patricia McLean is not a hippie. She’s more button-down, businesslike and risk-averse than her Aunt Sue. Sue died five years ago this week at age 63 after a third battle with cancer, leaving McLean in charge.
The 50-something newcomer, who used to sell laboratory diagnostic equipment, had six months of training under Sue’s wing. Patricia McLean long has been a music fan (her favorite is Van Morrison, also one of Sue’s) but she didn’t know the music business. Her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth is in sports medicine (she was an athletic trainer), and her graduate degree in training and development is from the University of St. Thomas.
“Our family knew what Sue did generally. The funeral was shocking to see so many people and what an impact she had in the industry and she was somewhat of a local celebrity,” said McLean, daughter of Sue’s lone surviving sibling, a retired Elk River High School football coach. “She was the cool aunt who could get us tickets.”
Sue McLean & Associates (known as SMA) is thriving, the CEO proudly reports.
Since 2011, when SMA presented 130 shows and did $3.7 million worth of business, shows have decreased but revenue has risen 22 percent, McLean said.
Nowadays the SMA CEO can expound on the challenges of the radio world for a concert promoter, but she’d rather rhapsodize about Jason Isbell headlining the Basilica Block Party this summer. And Brandi Carlile, whom Sue booked at the Varsity Theater years ago, coming back — wait, she can’t announce details just yet. She’s learned the tricks of the trade.
With the help of SMA President Kimberly Gottschalk, Sue’s right-hand woman for close to 20 years, Patricia McLean has steered the company in new directions. “Sue left us with her loyal, valued relationships with agents, artists and the local industry,” she said.
“And surprisingly they gave us a chance because of who Sue was,” Gottschalk said in a joint interview.
“Kimberly knows the music,” McLean said. “What I brought is some new, fresh ideas on how to make models work financially.”
For example, SMA is booking more corporate and private events, which is less sexy but less risky. The company is trying to collaborate with festivals and municipalities, as it did with the Special Olympics and the city-owned Hilde amphitheater in Plymouth.
Since taking over, McLean was most surprised by the profit margins in the concert business. “I thought they were way bigger,” she said.
Change in concert scene
In five years, the landscape for Twin Cities area concert promoters has changed significantly.
First Avenue has expanded its empire to include the Turf Club and Palace Theatre in St. Paul, plus it regularly books shows at the Fine Line, Cabooze plaza and Surly Brewing. Mystic Lake and Treasure Island casinos have become more ambitious about their music presentations, as has the Ordway. The Myth is now run by New York-based Knitting Factory. Live Nation, the world’s largest promoter, has broadened its presence in the Twin Cities, taking over the Varsity Theater and the Armory in Minneapolis, among other spots.
SMA — always a niche promoter specializing in modest-sized concerts featuring mostly blues, singer-songwriter and Americana acts — doesn’t have the deep pockets to compete.
“We stay in our lane,” said McLean, noting that SMA has booked the Minnesota Zoo for 26 years and the Basilica Block Party for 24 summers — contracts she had to renegotiate.
It’s a much admired and coveted lane. “There were a lot of buyers circling,” she said. Despite offers, she’s adamant about not selling the company.
However, last year, SMA lost its longtime talent buyer and short-time marketing staffer to the new Twin Cities office of always aggressive Live Nation.
SMA proudly remains a female-run business with five full-time women on staff and about 100 contractors, some of whom are men. Recent hires include talent buyer Grace Hall, who had worked at the Cedar Cultural Center, and box-office manager Shellae Mueller, who had been at the Dakota Jazz Club.
How often do McLean and Gottschalk ask themselves: What would Sue do?
“A lot,” the redheads responded in unison.
“We bring that up nearly every day,” Gottschalk said.
For instance, when severe weather threatens outdoor shows, SMA staffers think back to Jack Johnson’s concert in the rain in Somerset, Wis., in 2008. The show went on. However, two summers ago, the Neko Case/k.d. lang/Laura Veirs gig at the zoo got called off at intermission during a severe storm because Sue would have been concerned about the safety of performers and concertgoers.
SMA is technically owned by a trust for Sue’s 17-year-old daughter, Lilly. She’ll work at the zoo concerts this summer.
“She calls it her mom’s music,” said McLean, who is Lilly’s legal guardian. “She likes hip-hop and rap.”
The youngster was a fixture for years backstage at concerts. In fact, when Lilly and McLean went to St. Catherine University last month to accept the Minnesota Music Champion award from the Minnesota Music Coalition for Sue, the teen reminisced about hanging out there.
McLean recalled: “She said: ‘Oh, I remember many times sleeping in this room while my mom was settling [the night’s receipts with the act]. That’s the couch I used to sleep on.’ ”
The green room at the O’Shaughnessy auditorium is decorated with photos of stars Sue presented at St. Kate’s — Joan Baez, Fiona Apple, Etta James, Tracy Chapman and Emmylou Harris, among others. Sue helped launch St. Kate’s Women of Substance series in 1995; it continues with speakers, dance and other arts mixed with music, although SMA is no longer a principal participant.
“Sue was extremely visionary about what she wanted to do; her approach was quick, and she was a pretty big risk-taker, too,” said Kathleen Spehar, director of the O’Shaughnessy. “Now with SMA, it’s more deliberate and more intentional.”
No shrines to Sue
In the SMA offices above Bunker’s Bar in Minneapolis, there are no shrines to Sue but plenty of signs of her: splashy magazine articles, the shiny Minnesota Music Champion’s wrestling-like belt and a pair of muddy platform shoes she wore back in her hippie days.
Patricia McLean has stored most of SMA’s memorabilia, although she did give Sue’s autographed Derek Trucks guitar to her own musician son, who is in college.
The CEO is not necessarily thinking of passing the business on to him or Lilly just yet.
“In five years, I see us having established series, going more into the corporate, lower-risk business, continuing with Music in the Zoo, booking the Basilica Block Party and looking also at partnerships.”
In other words, still thriving 10 years after.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719