The sidewalks used to roll up in downtown Boise on weeknights.
When Ivy Merrell and Rachel Couch first entered Boise’s music scene in the early 2000s, things were a lot quieter. The musicians were as dedicated as ever, but there were fewer fans, fewer bands and fewer places to play. Boise and its musicians were riding 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 Seattle and Portland’s shadow.
Things are different now when Merrell, Couch and fellow bandmate Angela Heileson take the stage as the French Tips, a garage rock outfit infused with elements of “disco damaged dance-punk.” They’re seeing pent-up demand for live music after nearly two years of pandemic-fueled unease and a new infusion of sounds and styles from a wave of musicians on the come up.
“Sundays were like crickets downtown,” Merrell said by phone from the first night of the French Tips’ latest tour. “There’s a much more vibrant city life and music here than was booked over the last 20 years. It’s always been a really tight-knit community of musicians who play in town, but there are so many more incredible bands playing than there were 20 years ago.”
The Treasure Valley still may not 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 resulted in a live music boom. Venues big and small across the region are selling more tickets than ever and the 2022 concert season had blockbuster national acts from every genre, from country to a variety of Spanish language artists and EDM.
Growing crowds, diversifying tastes
Boise might be one of the most isolated state capitals in the United States, but at least we’re on the way somewhere.
Now that the Treasure Valley’s population boomed dramatically, our market has become a more attractive place for acts to stop halfway between large west coast metro areas like Portland and Seattle on the way to Mountain West powerhouses like Denver and Salt Lake City. This is the reason you see so many of Boise’s larger concerts happening on weeknights is because it’s a stopping point between large weekend appearances either to our east or to the west.
Andrew Luther, general manager at the Ford Idaho Center, said national concert promoter Live Nation has gotten “very aggressive” in Boise to capitalize on the growing demand for concerts here our area didn’t have even a few years ago. This has resulted in new shows that would have never booked the Treasure Valley until recently, like a rap show from the group Suicide Boys that brought in an audience of 9,000 or national electronic music acts like Odesza and Rufus Du Soul. Spanish-language artists in several genres, like norteño band Los Tigres de La Norte and singer-songwriter Pancho Barraza, have also hit the stage.
These new shows have also added to the Ford Idaho Center’s typical blockbuster agenda of sell-out acts like country stars Morgan Wallen and Kenny Chesney. This year, the Ford Idaho Center booked 35 shows with an attendance just over 200,000. This is up from 2019 when it booked 18 shows and sold 86,000 tickets.
And it’s not just ticket sales that are up. He said merchandise sales and other spending from concertgoers is also on the rise.
“I think if the pandemic taught people anything, it’s experiences are what kind of craft your life versus just having a toy or something,” Luther said. “It’s doing cool things and having those memories from that. It sounds sappy, but sometimes merch is that thing you have so you can remember back on the experience you had.”
Are high costs forcing concertgoers to pick and choose?
Concert goers are going to more shows than ever after years stuck inside on the couch, but the artists are also hitting the road in higher numbers.
Touring is one of the biggest sources of income for music artists and the nearly two years of pandemic restrictions and health concerns hit the music community hard. Now that vaccines are widely available and most Americans have stopped quarantining, musicians toured more than ever before in 2022 to try and make up for lost time.
But, as rent, groceries and other expenses in Boise have gone up, so have ticket prices. Danny Glazier, a senior talent buyer at the Knitting Factory and works on bookings at smaller club The Olympic and the Botanical Garden, said concerts at smaller venues that used to cost roughly $20 are now hovering at $27.50. Shows at the medium-sized venue The Knitting Factory are now over $30 each with tickets to see larger acts at Outlaw Field put on by partner C Moore Concerts now range from $40 to $75 each. Big arena shows typically run even more.
This new live music ecosystem gives fans more choices than ever, but it’s another wallet squeeze Boiseans didn’t used to have.
“You’ve got this interesting problem where we have all the shows in the world, but the big question is are people spending the same that they would or are they picking and choosing?” Glazier said. “You’re trying to pick the shows you’re going to go to and there’s 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 Factory had a record season. Glazier said his staff had to put in extra hours to keep up with everything booked at the Knitting Factory during the month of August. And across the whole summer, the Idaho Botanical Garden booked over two dozen shows for the first time. This included major sellouts, like rock band Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Americana trio The Avett Brothers and Australian EDM powerhouse Flume.
Small, but mighty
Nobody browses the Duck Club Presents website expecting to see superstar acts.
Instead, the concert promoter (of Treefort Music Fest fame) focuses on smaller indie acts and mostly books shows in small clubs around Boise, like the 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 creates some buzz because attendees will see a band as part of the larger lineup at the music festival and want to see that same band play a solo show a few months later when they’re on tour.
Eric Gilbert, CEO of Duck Club Presents, said the majority of ticket buyers for his company’s shows are music super fans who closely monitor low-profile artists on the rise or who play music themselves.
“There was a time in Boise where shows were a ghost town and bands would scratch us off their list,” he said. “As long as people are showing up, these bands want to keep coming. Their first time to Boise is playing Treefort so they get an initial boost from that and then come back around. There’s a growing audience too, so there are more people out who want to explore what new bands are coming up.”
For example, in 2019 Duck Club booked 180 shows and sold 17,000 tickets. So far in 2022, the promoter booked 147 shows with three and a half months left in the year and sold over 23,000 tickets. Plus, the company added a smaller, more locally-focused music festival for September called Flipside Fest in Garden City.
Duck Club has booked some more well-known acts in the indie scene this year, like female-fronted pop-punk group Beach Bunny (which sold out the El Korah Shrine with hundreds of teenage fans even on prom night) and the Wild Hearts tour featuring singer-songwriter powerhouses Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and Julien Baker. But, even despite these big names, Gilbert said his aim 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 linked to the musical ecosystem. Merrell said indie bands like The French Tips, which are a frequent flier on the Duck Club circuit, won’t be able to get off the ground in Boise unless artists can afford to live here and create here.
“One of the challenging things with how expensive it is to live in Boise is people who make art for a living won’t have the ability to live near downtown or where there are shows,” she said. “In Boise, it used to be that you could rent a house with your friends and play music in the basement and that’s not easy to do anymore.”