The headlines haven’t been kind.
This weekend’s Sasquatch! Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre — trimmed from four days to three — took two months to sell out, after last year’s event sold out in 90 minutes.
The new Sasquatch! July Fourth weekend spree was abruptly canceled this spring, and producer Live Nation, which owns the Gorge, was forced to pay substantial cancellation fees to artists, a heavy blow.
And that followed persistent complaints from the nearby Quincy Valley Medical Center about more than $300,000 in unpaid bills and nearly $200,000 in excessive overtime associated with treating concertgoers last year. (One 21-year-old Des Moines man died at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee, after attending the Gorge’s Paradiso Festival.)
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It might appear Washington’s spectacular, internationally famous concert destination east of the mountains is in trouble.
But for people close to the ground, those headlines are the dark side of what is generally a very bright story: 2014 is turning out to be a banner year, not only for the Gorge, but for the concert industry at large.
“We just came off the best year we’ve ever had, locally and throughout the company,” said concert producer Jeff Trisler, president of Live Nation Northwest and a 28-year veteran of Gorge’s 29-year-old operation.
Indeed, for the 2014 season, Watershed, the three-day country music festival, has already sold out and the Dave Matthews Band show (with Brandi Carlile opening) is on track to sell more than 50,000 tickets, Trisler said.
The two-day KUBE Summer Jam is flexing its muscles, having just added rap star Kendrick Lamar.
Matthews, as well as other Gorge acts — Arcade Fire, Bruno Mars, Aerosmith, Jack Johnson and Linkin Park — all made Rolling Stone’s list of “Summer 2014’s 40 Hottest Tours” and are expected to sell briskly. (Johnson has thus far sold more than 10,000 tickets.)
To prepare for possible fan overindulgence, Rep. Matt Manweller, of the 13th Legislative District, has introduced legislation that would add a $1 fee to each concert ticket to help pay for fire and emergency medical services at venues in rural areas.
Oh, and that problem with Sasquatch!?
Trisler thinks ticket sales for the Memorial Day weekend festival were slowed by the second festival that was later canceled.
“If people have a choice, then some of them are going to choose the (second option),” he said. “But not enough of them did and it slowed down the entire process.”
Adam Zacks, who books the Sasquatch talent, was more direct: Don’t mess with the Fourth of July, he said, “and all the traditions that go with it.”
Trisler also noted that last year’s quick sellout of Sasquatch! in about 90 minutes was “an anomaly.”
“Typically, it sells out a month or two in advance of the show, which it has done again this year,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter if you sell out in two minutes or it takes two months.”
The Gorge’s success is in step with the rest of the country.
According to Pollstar, the concert-industry magazine, business this year has shown “double-digit growth, despite the lingering economic malaise.”
The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine reports that festivals now dominate the music industry, with more than 60 scheduled this year in the U.S.
This summer’s Gorge roster reflects the festival trend, with Sasquatch! (May 23-25); KUBE Summer Jam (June 6-7); Watershed (Aug. 1-3); the electronic dance music Paradiso Festival (June 27-28); and the annual, sold-out concert series by the Dave Matthews Band on Labor Day weekend (Aug. 29-Sept. 1).
The industry’s good fortune means busy days and nights for Gorge general manager Danny Wilde.
Sitting at his desk in a comfortably furnished trailer, where on a cloudy day this past April he had the electric heaters turned up and his widescreen TV tuned to BBC America, Wilde and his Labrador appeared to be the only creatures stirring on the Gorge’s vast expanse of terrain.
But on concert weekends, the venue becomes the biggest city in Grant County, exceeding the population of nearby Moses Lake. (Capacity is currently 22,000 for the amphitheater and 27,500 for festivals, where three or four stages are located throughout the grounds.)
To accommodate weekend concertgoers, the Gorge offers multitiered camping facilities with varying amenities and levels of privacy and security, from “glamping” (glamorous camping) to standard campsites. There are 7,800 permitted campsites
“At the end of the day, I can sit on this deck and look out at 25,000 people and a great band on stage and feel a really good vibe at the venue,” said Wilde, in a slight English accent that betrayed his background as one-time guitarist in the English punk band Menticide. “You can’t beat it. It’s a very satisfying feeling.”
A top amphitheater
Opened in the mid-1980s by Dr. Vince Bryan and his wife, Carol, of adjacent Cave B Estate Winery, and later sold to what became Live Nation, the Gorge has been named the nation’s top amphitheater by both Pollstar and Billboard.
“The Gorge has a natural beauty that sets it apart,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief at Pollstar. “Red Rocks Amphitheatre (in Colorado) is probably the only other venue that has that kind of scenery.”
The Gorge was also ranked No. 10 in ticket sales in Pollstar’s Top 100 amphitheater venues for 2013, with ticket sales of 357,436. (Red Rocks is No. 1, at 590,700.)
“The Gorge is on a lot of people’s bucket list now,” Wilde said.
As the sun began to peek through the clouds last April, Wilde proudly showed off the expanse of the venue, riding in his SUV. The vehicle bounced across the large meadow that concertgoers — many of them first-timers — cross on their way to the amphitheater, then lurched to a stop at the crest overlooking the amphitheater’s enormous terraced bowl, stage and territorial view.
“This is what we call the ‘Oh, my God’ spot,” Wilde said. “That’s what people say when they see it for the first time.”
Before him stretched sagebrush, dormant vineyards and rugged basalt cliffs that drop hundreds of feet to the wide, slow-moving Columbia River.
“I never get tired of this view,” he said.
Gene Stout: firstname.lastname@example.org