Michelle Donovan: Nile Theater Concert Promoter and The Mantooth Group Founder

Michelle Donovan, concert promoter for Nile Theater and The Mantooth Group, photographed at Nile Theater in Mesa, by Nicki Escudero

Michelle Donovan, concert promoter for Nile Theater and The Mantooth Group founder, photographed at Nile Theater in Mesa, by Nicki Escudero

Michelle Donovan

Michelle Donovan is one of the strongest female presences in the local music scene. At only 31, the Tempe resident has been promoting local shows with the concert promotion company she helped found, The Mantooth Group, for nearly 10 years. The Mantooth Group has been leasing out the Nile Theater in Mesa for shows since 2010, giving people of all ages a venue to share in their passion for music. Donovan books hundreds of shows a year at not only the Nile, but also at local spots such as Yucca Tap Room and Pub Rock Live, while substitute teaching on the side. She’s currently working on renovations to the 100-year-old Nile basement, where shows also take place, and talked about where her love for rocking bands comes from, as well as five of her favorite things about living in the Valley.

What brought you to Arizona?

My parents got a job transfer when I was in junior high. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to Highland High School and got a history degree from Arizona State University.

Where did your passion for putting on shows come from?

During college, I worked at Marquee Theatre with Lucky Man Concerts and stayed there afterward — I was there for 6-and-a-half years as the marketing manager, and I booked shows. I took a little break after working there and took a public outreach job at the Hotel San Carlos, as well as doing graphic design. We opened up the Nile Theater in 2010 (after it closed in 2002.) I was working for another company called R Entertainment, booking entertainment for casinos. I went full-time with the Nile about a year-and-a-half go.

What is your first memory of being interested in music?

Probably in high school. I was working at a pizza place, and some of the people I worked with were in a band called Chindo Squad. We did a show at the pizza place, and a ton of people came, and I think that got me hooked. I started doing internships for some music marketing companies.

How did Mantooth Group come about?

A roommate and friend I had met at the Nile when I was little started booking tours for bands, such as Against All Authority. We started doing shows and have been doing it since about 2005.

How did you get involved in concert promotion?

I started doing small shows on my own and then got an internship with AMJ Concerts, which used to run the Nile. I liked to see you could put something together that would make a group of people so happy. You didn’t have to worry about whatever was going on at home or whatnot. The gratification of having even six kids there getting excited that the band was amazing and leaving completely fulfilled was great.

What made you want to lease out the Nile?

Mantooth Group was trying to open up a venue in Tempe next to Yucca Tap Room called 32 West, the address of the venue. We went through public hearings and got approved, and then they made it very difficult for us to open. They wanted us to have eight restrooms in the girls’ room, even though it was a 300-capacity venue. It was like, “OK, you approved us, but you really don’t want us to do it.” My former business partner saw a “For Lease” sign on the building, and we all grew up coming here, so we called on it, and the next day ended up meeting with the landlord. A week after that, we had the business license and were down here in the basement painting and ripping down walls.

What made you want to rent out the Nile?

I had reservations about owning a venue because of the amount of time it ties you down. There’s a lot of stress, because just because you book a show doesn’t mean you’re going to make money, and you still have to pay bills and your own bills and electricity and insurance. I was hesitant, but once you get into the flow of it and are able to provide a safe place for kids to come, and bands love performing here, it makes it worth it. I might not be able to go on vacation for more than 2 days at a time, but it’s my passion.

How would you characterize the Nile compared to other music venues in the Valley?

We say it’s like a rusty old ship. The building is very old and has a lot of character. You have to deal with its flaws because it’s a 100-year-old brick building. It gets hot. We don’t have a bar, which is one thing that sets us aside. We have a lot to work against because bands want to play at places with bars, and people want to come to places with bars. I think there was a place and time where the Nile was all the rage because it was home to DIY punk rock, and now I think those concertgoers are a little more fickle. There seems to be a lot of saturation in the Valley, so we’re an acquired taste, but we have a lot of heart and try to provide the most positive experience for people when they come here.

What’s the history of the building?

Originally it was a silent movie theater, and I believe it’s been a dress factory, a restaurant, a church. It was also a regular movie theater when talkies became popular. We found old popcorn boxes and handbills underneath the floorboards. It’s got a lot of history.

Do you ever consider installing a bar?

There’s an injunction on the building from its past dealings, but if we worked the city, I’m pretty sure we could get that removed. If Lo Fi Coffee (in the front room) ever decides they don’t want to be there, we might, but I don’t think we’d ever put it inside the building because I think it would change the venue for a lot of people.

What percentage of underagers attend your shows?

It depends on the show, but for shows that do need a bar, we’ll put them at Yucca Tap Room or Pub Rock Live. We get a lot of compliments from parents because we don’t have a bar, and our security staff is really personable with the kids. They care, and we go above and beyond as far as security. I think some kids feel safe and like this is their home.

What are your goals for the theater, and how is business going?

Business is a lot slower, and I think you can attribute that to a lot of new venues that have opened. Music and touring has changed a lot, even in the past 3 years. You have to find alternative programming some nights — we had a man pageant a few nights ago. I think once the light rail opens, there will be a lot more to do in downtown Mesa, but our goal is to make it through the construction and make as many improvements as we can. Even though we’re an old building and have certain limitations, make it as good and comfortable as we can so people want to come here.

What kinds of events are you open to hosting here?

We done everything from teen dance parties to a Mormon piano recital and a pet adoption. We’re open to doing anything, as long as it’s not sketchy.

What do you look for when you’re booking bands?

Bands that we ourselves would want to listen to or the kids who come here enjoy listening to. Also, if we’ve booked a band, and they’re not the nicest people, we won’t book them again. We want them to be nice and want to be here. There are a lot of bands on tour right now that shouldn’t be on tour right now, and a lot of apathy. These bands that no one has heard of need guarantees, and I remember going on tour with bands where you’d be stoked if there were 12 people. Now, you feel entitled with everything. Bands have agents that shouldn’t. There’s a whole process that’s been skipped over, and I think that’s the Internet’s fault.

Do you have any predictions for the music industry?

Not really. It’s very unpredictable.

What would make you not want to book a band again?

They come through, and they’re very rude or spouting off nonsense. I had a band, iwrestledabearonce, whose singer fell off the stage on her own accord, 1 foot, and tried to pick out kids in the crowd that she was accusing of knocking her down and beating her up, and then called them all “a bunch of faggots.” I’m not dealing with that, and that was a band I’d been booking for a long time. It’s disappointing. There’s not a need to cause more drama than should be. You fell off the stage — a guy did not knock you down maliciously. They’re your fans who paid to see you. Then to call them that name is not cool.

What’s your favorite band to book?

One that we’ve become really grateful for is Touché Amoré. They’re just really great guys who come through and put everything they have into the show. They’ve grown a ton and are doing huge things and are on big tours. They don’t treat us any differently when they come through.

Is there a most memorable show you’ve booked?

We did this festival called Within These Walls the last 2 years. The first year was probably the most memorable show. It took us 6 months to put together. It was 28 bands upstairs and downstairs, and all but five were national acts. We flew in six bands. That was amazing and really positive, and everyone had a great time. For some reason, last year, it all turned to rubbish because we had problems with offers on bands, but the first year was awesome.

How would you characterize the Valley’s music scene?

That’s also changed a lot. There are a lot of bands who will really put in a ton of effort into their shows, and then there are some that are like, “Well, I’ll come play a show, but I’m not going to tell any of my friends about it.” I do feel like we’ve grown a lot here, where bands who may have skipped the Valley years ago stop here now. Stateside Presents and Crescent Ballroom do the indie rock thing really well, and we have our niche, which is the hardcore/metal and pop bands. There’s enough to go around for everybody, and if you’re a music fan, you should count yourself lucky to live here, because there are enough venues and diversity where you could see something different every night of the week.

What are the biggest benefits and challenges to owning your own business?

The biggest benefits are that on nights we don’t have shows, I can sit at home and do work with my dog and my laptop. The challenges are, just because you book a show doesn’t mean you’re making money. We open our doors, and sometimes the product we paid for doesn’t bring enough people to pay for the money. Sometimes you get on a streak of losing money and then get one big show.

What keeps you passionate about promoting shows?

My staff and the kids who come. This does have meaning for people, even if people are running their mouths online, or there are not enough people at this show, or that band was rude and stole our hand cart. At the end of the day, there’s a need from this. My team here wouldn’t be the same without music or the Nile, and working here gets you more involved in the community and aware of political things. Music has a lot to say, and we’re providing a space for it.

Why should people see a show here?

It’s a great environment. We’ll always be friendly, and we try to put on really great shows with really great bands and really grew promoters. If you haven’t been here because it’s downtown Mesa, there is nothing to fear. There is a Subway. It’s only an 8-minute drive from Tempe. If you can go to downtown Phoenix from Tempe, we’re even closer.

How long do you plan on promoting shows?

I don’t know. I think there’s a time where you know you need to go, and you’re out of touch with the bands. You have to make sure you’re doing it for the right reason.

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