The future of live music in Sandpoint

How local venue owners are changing course amid COVID-19

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Lovers of live music in Sandpoint are in for a rough summer. Many of Sandpoint’s most high-profile events have already been canceled, including The Festival at Sandpoint, Lost in the ’50s and the Sandpoint Lions Club’s July 4 festivities. According to several local venue owners the outlook for other events and live music performances remains uncertain.

Under Gov. Brad Little’s four-phase reopening plan for Idaho, bars and nightclubs will be allowed to open Saturday, June 13, assuming the state meets all the requirements to enter Phase 4. But the reality of balancing crowds eager to return to normal versus respecting social distancing has many venue owners treading cautiously.

“We may do some music in late June, but it will probably be music from a solo act or a duo,” 219 Lounge owner Mel Dick told the Reader. “We’re probably not going to have a dance crowd.”

Dick said the capacity inside the 219 after it reopens will be about a third of what it was prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, figuring on no more than 30 patrons inside and maybe 60 outside in the beer garden.

“We’ll have tables and barstools in certain areas,” Dick said. “The tables will remain apart and can’t be moved, and there will only be a few barstools at the bar.”

There will likely be no walk-up bar service; rather, Dick envisions patrons ordering drinks directly from their tables.

For live music, Dick said the 219 will be more of a “listening concert” type environment, in the hopes that patrons will be content to sit and listen, enjoy their drinks and practice reasonable social distancing.

“If we can accomplish that, we’re going to try it,” he said.

The summer looks just as strange to navigate for Mattox Farm Productions owner and live music promoter Robb Talbott. He has had to cancel some big shows because of the coronavirus, including John Craigie, Fruition and Diggin’ Dirt. Talbott said he’s working on rebooking the canceled shows for mid- to late-summer and fall.

Talbott said one big obstacle to booking shows is the fact that touring bands are able to play in small cities like Sandpoint because they play larger festivals and venues that help pay for the tour costs. With many of those festivals being canceled, it’s not economically viable for bands to tour without anchor gigs in place.

“At first everyone was excited about getting dates back on the calendar,” Talbott told the Reader. “Now we’re just not sure when things are going to be available, and if people are even going to be out and able to spend money.”

Talbott said he’s looking into booking regional acts that aren’t so reliant on bigger venues on their tour schedule.

The issue with live music performances — especially with touring bands — is that the margins are already so tight, he added.

“If you have 10% of people reluctant to go out because they’re concerned about contracting the virus, and another 10% or 15% that don’t have the disposable income, there goes any chance of making any money, or breaking even,” Talbott said.

Meanwhile, he is working with sponsors to see if the Summer Series — an annual series of free concerts produced by Mattox Farm — will even take place.

“It’s outdoors and sponsor-driven, but we don’t know if it’s realistic,” he said. “I’ll be making the call on that in the next couple weeks.”

Talbott also books music for Eichardt’s Pub, which he said is hoping to get live music back in action in the summer, starting with solo acts and smaller performances.

“I think a full band with the intent to get people smashed together, dancing and partying, is not what large swaths of the community is looking for right now,” he said.

The Heartwood Center in Sandpoint hosts a wide variety of events, including many artists booked by Mattox Farm, as well as theater and community events. Venue owner Kathy Andruzak told the Reader that the center is working hard to open back up again.

“Everything was canceled from March 15 to the end of May,” Andruzak said.

The first gig back on the books was a play produced by Dorothy Prophet, of Cade Prophet Memorial Productions, but it was unfortunately canceled, so Andruzak isn’t sure when the venue will be open for events yet.

“We want to be open,” she said. “We’re a community events center. That’s what we’re there for.”

Andruzak said the Heartwood will institute extra cleaning protocols, space audience members apart and utilize more of the backstage area so performers don’t have to congregate in the dressing room.

Closing down the venue in spring was an especially hard blow, Andruzak said, because most of the venue’s community events occur during the months before summer. 

“Financially, it’s been a hardship,” she said. “We depend on those events. The Waldorf School usually has their eighth-grade play, the Homeschool Academy has their big performance that had to be canceled. We have a weekly group that comes in every Tuesday, but they haven’t been in the building since March 9. … Also, the Music Conservatory had to cancel their Spring Serenade and the Selkirk School had their big fundraiser for the year — that was also canceled, along with the Mattox Farm gigs. That’s a lot of revenue lost.”

Andruzak said they’ll sit down and develop a plan after the next phase of the reopening plan, which begins Saturday, May 16.

“We’ll figure out logistically how we’re going to make our facility work for the events coming in,” she said.

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