By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 29, 2015 at 9:02 AM

When Doug Johnson was hired as the BMO Harris Bradley Center's director of booking in March 2014, he brought with him years of concert experience.

Starting out on the production side, working sound and lights for touring bands, Johnson returned home to southeastern Wisconsin and began working in the production office at Summerfest. By the end of his tenure on Harbor Drive, Johnson had been at Summerfest for nearly 20 years.

Johnson's since lined up big gig after big gig at his new venue, including a string of three shows last week by unrivaled country megastar Garth Brooks, who returns to the road for the first time in years. At the same time, a concert by The Who was postponed, and the drive to build a replacement for the BC cleared its final hurdle.

So, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with Johnson and look at the past, present and future.

OnMilwaukee: Give us the Doug Johnson story. How did you get to where you are no

Doug Johnson: Way back when I was on the road doing major tours.

OnMilwaukee: How did that happen?

Johnson: I went to Pittsburgh way back in the early ‘80s. I'm from Racine and I know a friend who's working for Clair Brothers Audio in Pittsburgh. I go out there to get a job rigging lights, which I hated. I met a monitor engineer and he turned me on to monitor engineering and lights.

OnMilwaukee: So you’re working as a production guy.

Johnson: I'm a production guy. Did that for a long time, major arenas then I moved back to Milwaukee.

OnMilwaukee: What brought you back here?

Johnson: Family and I wanted to get back into the music business in Milwaukee. A mutual friend was working at Summerfest and he needed a place to stay. I had a house that I bought in Racine. He came up and lived with me. Two weeks later, he said, "Summerfest needs an office manager, why don't you apply?" I said, "Sure." I applied, got the job through Vic Thomas and Bob Babisch. I started working in the production office. My responsibilities grew to talent buying.

I appreciate Bob for mentoring me on the talent side. I started buying for Summerfest for over 17 years.

OnMilwaukee: What was the division of labor between Bob, Vic, Scott, you and David Silbaugh at Summerfest? What was your domain?

Johnson: My domain was booking headliners, ground-stage headliners. Bob, to his credit, let me book a couple headliners. I had a relationship with Ludacris way back when, a few others. Our main goal was the eight and 10 o'clock slots.

OnMilwaukee: Across all of the ground stages or did you have specific ground stages?

Johnson: Bob would handle the Classic Rock Stage or the BMO Harris Pavilion as we now call it. Scott and I did most of the grounds stage booking.

OnMilwaukee: When you started that position did you bring a lot of connections from those previous years being out on the road?

Johnson: The agent relationships helped me in this position but I'm more promoter based. I can get into that in a little bit. I was given William Morris work, Scott did CAA. The two largest agencies in the world, I handled William Morris. I got to know them at that time.

OnMilwaukee: That’s interesting. I'd never heard before that you guys were assigned agencies to work.

Johnson: It works better. Scott had been buying longer than I. Bob obviously has a master portfolio of contacts so we worked as a team. It was a great team effort. We’d throw ideas off each other.

OnMilwaukee: Do you have a favorite show that you booked at Summerfest, something that stands out?

Johnson: Imagine Dragons, three years ago or whatever it was.

OnMilwaukee: That summer that was insanely hot?

Johnson: Insanely hot and they had opened the gates. Everyone said, "Imagine Dragons caused you to open the gates early." And things like that. A lot of people don't realize Pretty Lights was on Harley and they had never played Wisconsin. In that area, it was packed. That was a good one. I had started buying them when they were a $250 band. I put them on at eight o'clock in front of AWOL Nation. They were a agency partner. That's how we developed them in the Milwaukee area, 250 bucks and then move on up.

OnMilwaukee: And you booked them in here.

Johnson: Imagine Dragons? We had them June 13 this year.

OnMilwaukee: That's got to be satisfying for you to have worked with a band when they were making $250 to when they're filling your 18,000-seat arena.

Johnson: Very fulfilling. You want to those contacts that last a lifetime. As long as they're coming to any performance and they're taken care of and we're all making money everybody's going to be happy. Those are successes. Obviously you want that relationship when they are a $200, $250 band. Those guys, to their credit, are the guys I met when I bought them for $250. Just the nicest, well-rounded kids around. I wish them all the luck, as well.

OnMilwaukee: Anybody you booked thinking they're going to be the next big thing?

Johnson: Hopefully you have more positive bookings than negative but a couple early on like Gary Clark. We had him on the rock stage and it was year too early. The man is supremely talented.

OnMilwaukee: It took time.

Johnson: Yeah, it takes time.

OnMilwaukee: How did you get here? Tell me how you came across the river.

Johnson: Scott and I are doing Pursuit Live. We have some independent colleges we're doing. We're booking Summerfest. I got the call that somebody was looking for me, so I reached out. It's a very intriguing position. There's not a lot of booking director positions in Milwaukee so it was very intriguing to me. I lead a team here. We have a great team that we collaborate on a lot of things. I believe the team. I think we've done some good things in the year and a half I've been here.

It's a very exciting time. It's been exciting regardless of the new building or not.

OnMilwaukee: How does it look in terms of what you've done before in terms of booking? Are there different challenges here? Are there things that make it a little easier here?

Johnson: Summerfest is a soft ticket play. It's $20 to get in and see 90 bands a day. Here we're a hard ticket play where we need to make money. Not saying the soft ticket doesn't have to make money but our emphasis is selling tickets.

OnMilwaukee: Yours is directly tied to a single artist. You have to get people who want to pay x amount to see this band.

Johnson: Absolutely, at Summerfest the only hard ticket play is in the amphitheater. You have six, seven headliners you can go see. This one is one performer. You're either going to see him or not. It's like Garth Brooks. We're doing three shows. We're excited about that. We're excited that Garth chose to do arenas.

We're excited that Garth looking at Milwaukee and the BMO Harris Bradley Center and saying, "I want to go back there. They treated me great." Those are commitments over time that we do. The biggest difference was Summerfest was agent-based. You go right to the agent.

OnMilwaukee: You are the promoter in a sense.

Johnson: Yeah, we are the promoter. In a sense, I have the ability to buy our own shows but a lot of it is promoter based. You have a partner in regards to most of these shows.

OnMilwaukee: Like Live Nation.

Johnson: Live Nation, AEG, Outback or Louis Messina group. That's the biggest difference and there's a little more complicated workings.

OnMilwaukee: Is it just because there's a middle man?

Johnson: There's a middle man. Trying to get acts to Milwaukee, just like everybody else, we have to promote Milwaukee. When an act comes into an arena, they want to make money. My main chief concerns are St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Columbus because they may only be playing seven shows in the Midwest.

That's what the routing dictates now. Chicago's going to get a day or two. Minneapolis is going to get a day. Why pick Milwaukee over Columbus? I have to prove every time they come in here that they're going to sell some tickets.

OnMilwaukee: You have to be confident that they are going to sell some tickets because it doesn't benefit you either to push something that won’t work, because you have a reputation, right?

Johnson: Correct and, how can I put it? We need good positive history in the market.

OnMilwaukee: U2's touring and you want U2. But if you don't think you can sell a U2 show when you've got five nights in Chicago, it doesn't help you any. You might have the prestige of having booked U2 in here, but that backfires on you, doesn't it, if it doesn’t work?

Johnson: Exactly. Yeah, how are we going to set up the arena? For an example, for Garth Brooks we set it up: 17, 18,000. That's how big his stage show is. It's done well. We'll sell out all three shows. He's got to be happy. We're happy. We're going to have a great weekend coming up here.

OnMilwaukee: Let's talk about that a little bit. When you booked the show does he come to you and say "I want to do three shows" or does he come to you and say, "Let's do a show or two and I'll save a night."

Johnson: We'll map it out. We'll map out two or three shows and see if it goes longer or shorter. The way outsell went, three shows was the way it sold so that's what we got. I think they're satisfied. We're certainly satisfied. You do the math. That's a lot of tickets.

Garth, again, we're so pleased that he chose an arena show because he can do stadiums if he wants. He's doing these arena plays and he's picking his poison. He said, "Hey, man. I like the BMO Harris Bradley Center and I want to go back." We're very fortunate to have him back.

OnMilwaukee: Let's talk about The Who date. The day you get the phone call or the email that says Roger Daltrey is sick and the tour is postponed ... what does that mean for you? What was that day like?

Johnson: We have a promoter partner involved. They called and said, "We're going to have to cancel this. He's got a severe infection." My first question is, when are we going to reschedule? When you cancel a show like that, The Who fans, since this is their 50th anniversary and probably their last tour; they're going to hang on. They're not going to come in (for refunds). We didn't have a lot of refunds so they're waiting for a (new concert) date.

OnMilwaukee: That's coming at some point?

Johnson: Yeah. We will reschedule that date in spring. I can tell you it's spring. Don't know the date yet. I should know shortly.

You always ask the question "Are you rescheduling it?" That's my first question. The day didn't get terrible because they said they were going to reschedule it. You don't want to ever cancel a date but those guys have been doing this a long, long time.

OnMilwaukee: If he's sick, he's sick. It's not like they’re canceling or rescheduling because he's got a Bahamas vacation or something.

Johnson: Exactly. He’s sick. That’s the fun part of this whole thing. You never know. Every day is going to be different. Every day is going to be the same. It's just how you handle it. Obviously we're looking forward to a great WHO show in spring.

OnMilwaukee: Do you have a personal wish list?

Johnson: I do. I keep a personal wish list. I do have the ability to go after shows. We've lost some good shows regionally because someone's paying too much for the act or paying over and we just can't do that here. We're a business. When people pay over that, you just have to go, "We'll get them next time around." I do keep a 30 bands that I want to book into this.

I'm always working that list. Not saying I'm not working a list of 60 but those are our prime targets.

OnMilwaukee: What's your personal number one? What's your dream gig whether or not it's reality or not?

Johnson: To get in here?

OnMilwaukee: Yeah. What's the one you'd be most thrilled of standing on the side of the stage watching?

Johnson:The Ramones. Too bad that wouldn't happen.

OnMilwaukee: Or it could only happen in a half-baked way.

Johnson: Exactly and we don't want that. I'd want the whole thing.

OnMilwaukee: A band whose members are alive. Something that's theoretically doable.

Johnson: I would say McCartney. McCartney would be great. If you look at his touring history recently he's going into third tier markets, third rung markets and he's liking it. Like Akron, Ohio. We keep offers out there in front of agents letting them know we are interested. Hopefully I get that phone call saying, "Hey, let's talk about this." We're digging and mining. Never say never. That's what we do around here.

OnMilwaukee: Since we're talking about the future, what's the future look like in terms of logistics for you? Has it already been discussed whether or not this whole operation moves there? Are you going to be doing what you do here at the new place? Or is that not clear yet?

Johnson: I think the commitment they put into this is huge. Before those questions are answered there's other things we've got to do. I'd put a shovel in the ground. That's what they have to do. I think that will come in time. Right now, I'm booking three months out. I'll book three months to two years out.

OnMilwaukee: The Who was announced way more than three months out, right?

Johnson:  Yes, right.

OnMilwaukee: That was a year.

Johnson:  It was a year in advance.

OnMilwaukee: At some point you have to start saying I don't have a venue to book unless they've told you you're booking that venue.

Johnson: Exactly. What I can say is I think there's more questions. There's different things before I'm told what's going on. What I do is keep my head down. I keep booking. If I get questions for three years out, we talk about it. We do our thing. Right now I'm booking two years out. We're still going to be here in another two years. My job is to put shows in this building. I'm sure and I don't know when but there will be conversation about who may be going over and who may not. I don't know.

I don't worry about that. I worry about putting shows on the books. I think we've had great success. They had great success before I came here. I think we have great success after we came here. We've had some great gigs. Pearl Jam, that was great. That was a fun one to do. That was because of relationship. Fleetwood Mac, another great gig. Ariana Grande, we started at a 6,500 cap house. It was lower bowl show. We anticipated we'd go upstairs. First day in, we flipped the switch (on ticket sales) and we started going up on the sides (of the seating bowl). We have a certain procedure.

We do that with up and coming acts. Talk about Imagine Dragons, Ariana Grande, we're figuring 7,000 tickets. It ended up being 12,000.

OnMilwaukee: In a case like that, they know there's this potential extra sale beyond what's expected. Is the guarantee to the artist tied to the box office? Do you pay her more if she sells 12,000 tickets versus 7,000?

Johnson: Whether it's here at or anywhere else, there's different deals. Generally there's a guarantee versus a percentage. If Jimmy Buffet says, "If you want me to play at your place this is what I want."

OnMilwaukee: But presumably Ariana Grande and Imagine Dragons aren't in that position. Buffett you know he's going to sell your place out so you're speaking from almost a known outcome. It's these unknown ones that I'm interested in where you think they're going to sell seven but they could sell five or they could sell 12.

Johnson: It comes down to research.

OnMilwaukee: Do they have the power to dictate that at all or not as much?

Johnson: Not as much. There's incentives that are put into an agreement. That's one of my favorite things, getting in on the ground floor and seeing if that act is going to take off. There's been a couple that didn't take off. I don't really remember those. I remember the Imagine Dragons of the world where it's like, "Wow. That worked out." We had a phenomenal relationship with the agent. It worked out well coming through here.

Building a band, there's something to be said to be a part of that. If it's just Milwaukee in the whole scheme of the world, it's a lot of fun.

OnMilwaukee: The whole business is relationships, isn’t it? It's not in your interest to turn the screws too hard the same as it's not in the interest of the agent or promoter to turn the screws too hard with you. Really you guys all need each other, don't you?

Johnson: We need each other. But there are agents who put screws to you. They're still in business and God bless them every day. You'll pick up the phone and you could hold it two feet away from your ear and let them go until he's done or she's done. Then you pick the phone back up and say, hey, to get back with it. It's a whole different world.

OnMilwaukee: Is there anything you can tell us about without getting yourself in trouble that's coming up?

Johnson: I really can't. I'd love to. I'll tell you this. I think we're working some really great shows in our fiscal and June 30. I'm working a lot of pretty neat shows for the spring. Our 2016-17, fall 2016 looks pretty good.

OnMilwaukee: The theoretical final year perhaps?

Johnson: Yeah, theoretical again.

Johnson: Peter Feigin said we're going to push it and try to get in 2017. Those things are all relative. I'm pretty focused on when people call me up and ask a question. Let me expound on that a little. There's good positive, we work with the Bucks hand in hand with all kinds of things.

I think that relationship is good from my point of view. I'm not a day to day guy with those guys. I give them ideas on some game day stuff and do that. Just like Bob still books the Admirals. They like Bob and there you go. It's a neat position to be in. For me, what I was doing with Summerfest and Scott but this is a great opportunity to come in and be a different part of a team.

OnMilwaukee: One last question, is Yellow Phone Music Conference still happening? I haven't heard anything yet about this year.

Johnson: This year we cancelled. It would've been September. There was a couple of reasons but we didn't want to put it on because of time constraints. We had a look and our time allocation wasn't there. We didn't want to put on a half-baked show.

Scott's over at Summerfest. David's doing is Summerfest and his stuff. By the time we blinked, there were commitments that had to be taken care of. The timing of the whole thing was whack.

OnMilwaukee: The line has not been disconnected?

Johnson: No. It's still ringing. I love Yellow Phone. It's a labor of love. We will have some new partners coming on. I think that's good. I think we can expound it more than we were. We want to take a jump up obviously. It takes time and money.

OnMilwaukee: Did it do better than you thought it would? Did it exceed your expectations?

Johnson: I'm pretty hard on ourselves so I think it did what I thought it was going to do. The first year was great. All four years have been great. I think it was good but I'm pretty hard on ourselves so I never say I'm satisfied.

OnMilwaukee: You're not done.

Johnson: No, I'm never satisfied with that. If we had 15,000 buying badges to a music conference in Milwaukee, maybe around that I'd be satisfied. It's the Kaizen principle; keep improving. That's how I look at this. It's continuous improvement.

Am I happy we got Pearl Jam, you bet, but I can't rest on that. We've got to keep digging. I think the Bradley Center's a phenomenal venue. The history of this place is amazing when you start going through it. It's been a vital place. We're going to continue to do that until they tell me, "What are we going to do here? Where are we going?"

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.