Revival: The State of Live Music in Spokane

The Bartlett offers not just an excellent music venue in a design-rich and incredibly inspiring atmosphere, but also an excellent café/bar open six days a week. (PHOTO: Brandon J. Vasquez via @bartlettspokane on Instagram)
The Bartlett offers not just an excellent music venue in a design-rich and incredibly inspiring atmosphere, but also an excellent café/bar open six days a week. (PHOTO: Brandon J. Vasquez via @bartlettspokane on Instagram.)

Who would have thought, a year or two ago, that for Spokane, still recovering from a deep economic crisis that hit many live music venues so hard that they closed entirely, 2013 and 2014 would be two of the biggest, most important years for live music in the city’s history? It’s been a year marked by triumphs (i.e. the opening of the Bartlett, landing Pearl Jam and Bon Jovi at the Spokane Arena) and setbacks (i.e. the closing of the Knitting Factory for reasons of public safety, unexpected delays in the opening of the Bartlett), but in the end, Spokane has learned a lot about itself and about its music scene.

We’ve learned that rock still rules. The Spokane Arena had a major coup last year when it landed Pearl Jam, maybe at the suggestion of the Inlander. Then it landed Bon Jovi (and then promptly initiated a brief tone-deaf but probably overblown name-change debacle). There was Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, but there was also Nine Inch Nails. There will be Tool. And Motley Crue. Really. Motley Crue. These high-profile bookings, especially of rock icons Bon Jovi, indicate that Spokane’s music scene is perhaps ready for something big. But there’s a good chance that it will be buoyed by Spokane’s strange-but-somehow-fitting love for arena rock.

We’ve learned that safety is important. Stabbings and other violence had become not commonplace, but perhaps not rare, before the Knitting Factory’s abrupt and somewhat controversial closure last spring. Police Chief Frank Straub ordered the facility closed until investigations could be made and agreements could be made with the venue’s owners to improve safety and police enforcement. Perhaps the types of acts which the Knitting Factory brings in is one of the culprits, but inadequate enforcement and police presence may have played a role as well. Similar events at The Hop later in the year caused another re-evaluation. Any ongoing conversation about the Spokane live music scene would simply be incomplete without a mention of these lingering challenges.

We’ve learned that all-ages venues matter. If nothing else, the outpouring of support for and the recent success of the Bartlett would seem to indicate that. The Bartlett is a meticulously-designed (and absolutely gorgeous) venue at 228 W Sprague near the vibrant and quickly-developing East End of downtown that has placed an emphasis on bringing in high-quality acts and utilizing its high-quality sound and acoustics system. But more than that, the venue bleeds Spokane in a very un-Spokane way, visually appearing as if it would be more fitting in Portland or Seattle, but in actuality exuding its own unique style and character. It is passionate, not cautious; a catalyst, not a one-time deal. It is an aspirational place that invites us to imagine what Spokane can be, but also to realize what it already is.

We’ve learned (or perhaps we hope to learn) that what’s dead is not always dead. Perhaps in response to the success of the Bartlett, a new group has taken the reigns at 171 S Washington and intends to reopen the Big Dipper, a primarily all-ages live music and events venue that closed during our last live music “crash.” While the venue recently reopened for events and other gatherings, it has yet to bring artists to its stage for live shows. As such, the owner has launched and Indiegogo campaign and hopes to raise $50,000 in order to recoup the costs of necessary fire sprinklers and safety improvements. (The state Legislature- and City-imposed fire sprinkler requirement, as you may recall, caused a couple of venues to close several years ago.) The Big Dipper is a Spokane landmark, and the success of this project is incredibly important to the our local music scene; we hope that it succeeds.

The upstart ventures of the Bartlett and the Big Dipper prove that Spokane live music does not need big investors to succeed. It just needs an incredible amount of passion and the support of the local community. Both the Bartlett and the Big Dipper have utilized Indiegogo in order to fund their openings, proving that crowdfunding can work. Even here.

Yes, even here. Even here, crowdfunding can work, and we hope to see that trend continue. In order to build a vibrant urban culture, live music is a must. Please support the Bartlett and the Big Dipper, and be sure to indicate your passion for our city and its local art scene. We can continue to make Spokane great; we just need to recognize that we all play a part in making a city in which we are proud to live. Music is a big part of that. It won’t be easy, but it’s true: we all build this.

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