Light up the marquee

Longtime promoter cautiously bringing shows back to the Senator

HIRIE on stage at the Senator Theatre in February 2020—one of the last JMax Productions shows before the pandemic shut down live music. (Photo by Ken Pordes)
Bring back the arts

This feature is a part of the Chico News & Review’s Bring Back the Arts campaign, an interview series featuring the leaders of Butte County arts and music venues discussing their efforts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The Q&As are published in the CN&R and broadcast during the Chico News & Review radio show, Thursdays, 5-5:30 p.m., on KZFR, 90.1FM.

Concerts have been Justin Maximov’s life ever since he came to Chico for college and started working the door at legendary downtown hole-in-the-wall venue Juanita’s. He got his booking break with Chico State’s AS Presents and has been putting on shows in Chico and at venues across the western states for 32 years.

In 1999, while booking shows at the now-defunct Brick Works club, he started JMax Productions and grew the scope of his live-music production company to include venues in Nevada, Oregon and California. In Chico, his main spot in recent years has been the Senator Theatre, where he’s hosted a constant stream of big-name touring rock, rap, metal, punk, indie and country acts—everyone from Modest Mouse to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

The marquee at the Senator Theatre was still blank as of June 24, but JMax Productions shows are scheduled to return to the downtown landmark starting in September. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

Last May, the theater’s iconic marquee went dark as COVID-19 shut down live music everywhere.

With California fully reopening, Maximov has cautiously started booking shows again, and if the Sept. 18 Fenix Flexin’ show goes off as planned, it will have been a year and a half between shows at the downtown theater. The CN&R caught up with Maximov recently to talk about the return of his business and the uncertainty that remains.

There’s a show on the Senator calendar for September. That’s amazing!

Yes, let’s hope so. First show back right now is Labor Day Weekend in Tahoe at the Hard Rock—it’s with Rebelution. Then we come back in Chico in September; that’s the plan right now.

Are you fully back to booking shows like normal?

To be honest, we’re kind of sitting back. We’re not trying to lead the charge here. We’re not Live Nation, we’re not Another Planet. I’m kind of sitting back and waiting to see how this plays out with everybody.

In the last month, it’s almost like things went hyperspeed, and it’s like, “Whoa!” [California’s economy fully] opening up June 15, it flipped a switch. We’re still kind of waiting. I even think September is a little bit aggressive for us. I would prefer to wait a little bit longer. [But] I felt like it was time, with college coming back, to test the waters. We’re not coming back 100 percent right now. I don’t want to put tens of thousands of dollars into plexiglass and PPE stuff and preventative measures, and then find out a week later that it wasn’t necessary.

I’m just trying to see where people are comfortable. We want people to be happy, we want people to be safe. I’m not trying to rush into this.

From left: Justin Maximov with Mike Thrasher and Sean Colin Major at the 2020 Pollstar live-entertainment conference. (Photo courtesy of Justin Maximov)

How excited are you about that first show back?

It’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait to see people in line for a show and then seeing the lights go down and the music start.

Our sound guy came in a month and a half ago and said, “Maybe I should just check out the system? It’s been like a year.” We turned down the lights, turned the system up, and it literally gave me goosebumps. I can’t wait.

It’s just there’s a lot going into it right now. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. There’s not a huge workforce out there; I’ve lost most of my employees. I don’t know how we’re going to staff it. We’ll figure it all out.

In California, there are extra stipulations for “mega events” (5,000 indoors, 10,000 outdoors). Do any of the venues you book fall under that?

Actually, in Tahoe we do, but in Tahoe I’m on the Nevada side. In California, though, they’re going back to 100 percent [capacity] with sporting events, so I don’t know. The reason I held off for awhile is because live concerts and sporting events were never in Gavin Newsom’s tiers, and now that we’re open … I can’t just sit and wait [for potential guidance].

Do the artists seem ready to return?

Yeah. A year ago, there were a lot of artists who seemed like they were very COVID-concerned. A lot of these events that we had scheduled for spring of 2020, summer of 2020, they postponed into the fall [of 2020] or spring of this year thinking it’s only going to be another three months or whatever. They [didn’t] want anyone touching their food, they [didn’t] want loaders. [Now,] the contracts with all the COVID restrictions, they’re pretty much gone.

Have people been buying tickets?

Yeah, like crazy. But we also get people—it’s a much smaller percentage—who say, “I’m not comfortable going to a show.”

We talked a year ago when things were closing down, and you said at the time that this was all new territory and you had no backup plan. What did you end up doing to survive?

To be honest, I wish I could go back in time and know that business was going to be down. I would have taken up a hobby, I would have gotten another degree, maybe gotten a real estate license or whatever.

For me, I always had this three-month window where I thought things were going to change. I had no clue that it was going to last for 18 months. I kept working with the mindset that I’m three months away from doing shows. So, every time we’d postpone shows, I’m booking more shows or changing the date from Tech N9ne in May of 2020 to Tech N9ne in October of 2020 to Tech N9ne in April of 2021 to Tech N9ne in October of 2021. We kept having to change fliers, change tickets, reissue tickets. We never stopped moving in that regard.

Frontman Jimmy Adkins during Jimmy Eat World’s Sept. 27, 2017, show at the Senator Theatre. (CN&R file photo)

I have [a friend] in the business who said, “You know, I’m going to open a food cart.” His food cart did so well, he actually opened a second food cart. He pivoted; I just kept thinking, we’re just a couple months away. I stayed the course and went into a lot of debt. At the same time, my yard looks really good.

Did you get any help from the Save Our Stages legislation and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program?

I checked tonight (June 23) and I’m still in the “submitted” stage; we’ve been in the submitted stage for like four weeks now. That money was [approved] back in November, and people, for the most part, haven’t received the money. As far as I have seen and been told, based on the number of applicants and the grant amount, there’s plenty of money. It would be really nice if they got that money out.

How are you feeling about the future of live music? Are you optimistic?

Absolutely. It’s all going to come back. We’ll figure out a way to make it work. What else am I going to do? I’m 52 years old, I have tattoos on my hands; I’m not going to go get a part-time job. This is what I do, this is what we do; we’ll figure it out. Once it starts back up, we’ll be right back where we were.

Upcoming shows on the JMax schedule include Fenix Flexin’ on Sept. 18, Tech N9ne on Oct. 9 and Colter Wall on Oct. 10. Visit Jmaxproductions.net for the full schedule and ticket information.

Senator Theatre
517 Main St.

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