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A&E >  Entertainment

The show must go on: ‘Spokane is starved for more hip hop and pop artists’

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 27, 2020

If you build it, they will come. That’s basically what Matt Meyer says. The director of entertainment at the Spokane Arena and the First Interstate Center for the Arts recently had a revelatory conversation with a booking agent.

Meyer told the agent about how he is scouting for a 3,000-capacity, general-admission venue.

“If you’re working on that, I have some recording artists for you,” the agent said.

Bands will come, and so will the fans whenever the pandemic ends. Even though concerts are on hold due to the novel coronavirus, the music industry is planning for when events return.

That’s hardly a surprise since the concert business was booming around the world, generating nearly $29 billion in revenue in 2019, according to statista.com.

The focus for the global industry is how to recover and proceed. That’s so in Spokane, as well.

Will routing improve for Spokane and enable more concerts to be slated for the Lilac City? Will the potential aforementioned new venue, which bridges the gap for general-admission shows between the 1,400-capacity Knitting Factory and the 12,700 for a GA event at Spokane Arena, become a reality? Will local promoters be able to serve the burgeoning population?

Meyer is focused on each of those questions and optimistic about the future. Before new venues can spring up, more shows routed toward Spokane is a necessity.

The potential good news for routing is that there is a bridge being built toward Minneapolis. The Elm, a 1,500-capacity, general-admission club, was recently constructed in Bozeman.

The Drift, a $100 million project slated to include a 6,000-capacity, state-of-the-art music venue, restaurants, condominiums, a hotel and a spa in Missoula, was given the go-ahead, but the local music owners, Nick and Robin Checota, bailed in August due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. When normalcy returns, perhaps another stab at a new venue in Missoula could be in the works.

“That would solidify routing in the Northwest,” Meyer said. “There’s already an amphitheater in Missoula (Kettle House Amphitheater). If more venues go up in Montana, well then there is a reason to travel from Minneapolis through the Dakotas on the way to Montana and then on to Spokane.”

According to Meyer, more shows are being routed through Boise and Canada, which could potentially reach Spokane. With the additional venues in the Big Sky State, more recording artists might drive east to Spokane from Seattle. A burgeoning base of fans also is in the mix.

“Spokane has been growing quite a bit over the last few years, and then there is the massive influx in North Idaho,” Meyer said. “It would be great to accommodate these people.”

Meyer believes another venue would help entertain the increased populace.

“We could really use a venue for people to dance and jump around that can hold a few thousand people,” Meyer said. “Spokane is starved for more hip hop and pop artists. … A lot of those recording artists are too big to play a 1,500-capacity venue, but they don’t have the catalog of songs to play an arena. It would be great if we had a venue that could host something in between.

If a new venue to attract midlevel recording artists is added to the landscape, Meyer believes it will give Spokane an economic boost.

“Such a venue will draw fans from around the area to those within hours of Spokane,” he said. “Those fans will go to restaurants and bars and pay tax dollars at the venue purchasing alcohol, food and merchandise. It also makes the city a more lively place.”

Kevin Twohig, who managed venues in Spokane, such as the Opera House and the Coliseum, back to the Expo in 1974, doesn’t believe Spokane needs a GA venue, and he wonders if such a project could be financed.

“I can’t see anything like new venue construction happening right now,” Twohig said while calling from his Medical Lake home. “I’m not a big fan of the general-admission venues anyway. It’s difficult to provide guest service.

“I can’t imagine anyone investing in something so expensive, particularly at this point. And we have some nice venues. Spokane has made great strides. I remember when there was no concert scene here at all.”

Twohig, who retired as the CEO of the Spokane Public Facilities District in 2018, oversaw structures such as the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, the Spokane Convention Center Exhibit Hall and the INB Performing Arts Center.

Twohig understands progress and why the city would like to take the next step, but he recalls what it was like when recording artists didn’t route through Spokane.

“I remember when people in the music industry didn’t know where Spokane was,” Twohig said. “I remember when nobody thought about coming here, but acts started coming in when we had the Expo.”

The International Exposition attracted more than 5.5 million people 46 years ago. John Denver, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were some of the heavy-hitters who performed.

“Mike Kobluk had a lot to do with it,” Twohig said. “He did a great job.”

Kobluk, Expo ’74’s director of visual and performing arts and a member of the Spokane vocal act the Chad Mitchell Trio during the ’60s, used his connections to draw talent to town. Kobluk and Twohig worked together to book acts.

Ardent Spokane music fan Ken Hughey believes the bookings were on the conservative side. “The shows were catered toward the blue hairs,” Hughey said. “It was a safer crowd. It was difficult for me since I came to Spokane from Los Angeles during the ’70s, and I saw so many great shows in L.A.

“Neil Young didn’t perform here until 1989. They didn’t want punks here. They were more concerned with people who might get up and dance and possibly poke a hole in a seat at the Opera House. They were fearful of the type of audience that came in.”

Twohig admits that bookers were cognizant of potential destruction.

“I remember when punk started, and there were some people (in the industry) who were concerned about incidents in venues.”

A number of promoters across the country also were wary of hip hop when acts such as Run-DMC and Public Enemy broke during the ’80s. But a generation later, those fears are almost nonexistent.

The year 2020 would have been a strong year for concerts in Spokane. Wilco, Sleater-Kinney, the Flaming Lips and Cher were some of the shows that are postponed due to the pandemic.

There were a pair of bands who would have headlined the Spokane Arena who were commercial monsters during the ’90s that would have made their Spokane debut. Meyer is not at liberty to say who those acts are, but he can say the future is bright.

“We’re making progress,” Meyer said. “There’s talk of an outdoor venue downtown. There’s talk of bringing a soccer team to Spokane. The town is getting bigger, and there’s a need for entertainment here, and we’re going to provide it. When we get past this pandemic, we’ll be moving forward. We’re putting the pieces in play now for when the doors reopen.

Hosting more events in Spokane goes much deeper than economics, according to Meyer.

“It’s about the city being more lively. When I was growing up in Spokane (20 years ago), Spokane was known as a great place to raise a family, but it was an older town. It was difficult to keep young people here. I think that if we can expand the entertainment scene, Spokane can only benefit.”

Ed Condran can be reached at (509) 459-5440 or at edc@spokesman.com.

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