The sidewalks were rolling in downtown Boise on weeknights.
When Ivy Merrill and Rachel Couch first hit the Boise music scene in the early 2000s, things were much quieter. Musicians were as dedicated as ever, but there were fewer fans, fewer bands, and fewer places to play. Boise and its musicians led the influence and success of indie rock legends Built to Spill and other rock outfits coming out of the Pacific Northwest, but Idaho was still largely a musical backwater living in the shadow of Seattle and Portland.
Things are different now when Merrill, Couch and bandmate Angela Heileson take the stage as French Tips, a garage rock outfit infused with elements of “disco-damaged dance-punk.” They’re seeing relentless demand for live music after nearly two years of pandemic-fueled restlessness and a new infusion of sounds and styles from a wave of up-and-coming musicians.
“Sundays were like crickets downtown,” Merrill said by phone from the first night of the French Tips’ latest tour. “There’s a lot more vibrant city life and music here than there has been in the past 20 years. It’s always been a very tight-knit community of musicians playing in the city, but there are so many more incredible bands playing than there were 20 years ago.”
The Treasure Valley may not yet be Austin or Nashville when it comes to music, but the influx of new people coming to the area in recent years and the growth of the music community through events like Treefort Music Fest has led to a boom in live music. Venues large and small across the region are selling more tickets than ever, and the 2022 concert season has seen blockbuster national acts from every genre, from country to various Hispanic artists and EDM.
Growing the crowds, diversifying the tastes
Boise may be one of the most isolated state capitals in the United States, but at least we’re on our way somewhere.
Now that the population of the Treasure Valley has grown dramatically, our market has become a more attractive place to stop halfway between major west coast metro areas like Portland and Seattle on the way to the Mountain powers West, such as Denver and Salt Lake City. The reason you see so many of Boise’s biggest concerts on weeknights is because it’s a stopover point between big weekend acts either east or west.
Andrew Luther, general manager at the Ford Idaho Center, said national concert promoter Live Nation has become “very aggressive” in Boise to take advantage of the growing demand for concerts here that our region didn’t even have a few years ago. This led to new shows that would never have closed the Treasure Valley until recently, such as a rap show by the group Suicide Boys that drew an audience of 9,000 or national electronic music acts such as Odesza and Rufus Du Soul. Hispanic artists in various genres, such as the norteño band Los Tigres de La Norte and singer-songwriter Pancho Barraza, have also taken the stage.
These new shows have also added to the Ford Idaho Center’s regular schedule of sold-out acts such as country stars Morgan Wallen and Kenny Chesney. This year, the Ford Idaho Center booked 35 shows with just over 200,000 in attendance. This is up from 2019 when he booked 18 shows and sold 86,000 tickets.
And it’s not just ticket sales that are increasing. He said merchandise sales and other spending by concertgoers are also on the rise.
“I think if the pandemic has taught people anything, experiences are what kind of craft your life is instead of just having a toy or something,” Luther said. “It’s about doing cool things and having those memories from it. It sounds corny, but sometimes the commercial is what you have, so you remember the experience you had.”
Are high costs forcing viewers to choose?
Concertgoers are going to more shows than ever after years of being stuck on the couch, but artists are also hitting the road in greater numbers.
Touring is one of the biggest sources of income for music artists, and nearly two years of pandemic restrictions and health concerns have hit the music community hard. Now that vaccines are widely available and most Americans have stopped quarantining, the musicians toured more than ever in 2022 to try to make up for lost time.
But as rent, groceries and other expenses in Boise have risen, so have ticket prices. Danny Glazier, a senior talent buyer at the Knitting Factory who works in booking at smaller clubs The Olympic and the Botanical Garden, said concerts at smaller venues that used to cost about $20 are now in the $27.50 range. Shows at the mid-sized venue The Knitting Factory now top $30 each with tickets to see larger shows at Outlaw Field hosted by partner C Moore Concerts now ranging from $40 to $75 each. Big arena shows usually run even longer.
This new live music ecosystem gives fans more options than ever before, but it’s another wallet Boiseans haven’t had.
“You have this interesting problem where we have all the shows in the world, but the big question is, are people spending what they would or are they choosing?” Glazer said. “You’re trying to pick which shows to go to and there are 8 I want to go to but I can’t afford all 8.”
Like the Ford Idaho Center, the Idaho Botanical Garden and the Knitting Industry had a record season. Glazier said his staff had to put in extra hours to keep up with what was booked at the Knitting Factory during the month of August. And throughout the summer, the Idaho Botanical Garden closed more than a dozen shows for the first time. This included blockbusters such as rock band Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Americana trio The Avett Brothers and Australian EDM powerhouse Flume.
Small, but mighty
No one browses the Duck Club Presents website expecting to see superstar actors.
Instead, the concert promoter (of Treefort Music Fest fame) focuses on smaller indie shows and mostly book shows at small clubs around Boise like Neurolux, The Shredder and the Visual Arts Collective in Garden City. Treefort Music Fest, which specializes in up-and-coming artists from a variety of artists, also helps build buzz because attendees will see a band as part of the larger lineup at the music festival and want to see the same band play a solo show a few months later when he is on tour.
Eric Gilbert, CEO of Duck Club Presents, said the majority of ticket buyers for his company’s shows are music superfans who closely follow low-profile rising artists or who play music themselves.
“There was a time in Boise where concerts were a ghost town and bands would cross us off their roster,” he said. “As long as people show up, these bands want to keep coming. Their first time in Boise is to play Treefort so they can get an initial boost from that and then come back. There’s also a growing audience, so there’s more people wanting to explore what new bands are coming through.”
For example, in 2019 Duck Club booked 180 shows and sold 17,000 tickets. So far in 2022, the promoter has booked 147 shows with three and a half months to go until the end of the year and sold over 23,000 tickets. In addition, the company added a smaller, more locally focused music festival for September called Flipside Fest in Garden City.
Duck Club has booked some more big-name acts on the indie scene this year, including all-female pop-punk group Beach Bunny (who sold out El Korah Shrine with hundreds of teenage fans even on prom night) and the Wild Hearts tour. and songwriters Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and Julien Baker. But even with those big names, Gilbert said his goal is to continue to foster a scene where smaller bands have an audience in Boise.
Like most things in the Treasure Valley though, housing is intrinsically tied to the music ecosystem. Merrill said independent bands like The French Tips, who frequent the Duck Club circuit, won’t be able to get off the ground in Boise unless the artists can afford to live here and create here.
“One of the hard things about how expensive it is to live in Boise is that people who make art for a living won’t have the ability to live near downtown or where the shows are,” he said. “In Boise, you used to rent a house with your friends and play music in the basement, and that’s not easy to do anymore.”