Rock, down the block 

Missoula vs. Bozeman: battle for the bands

How many times has this happened to you? You’re thumbing through the Independent and you come across a big, splashy ad for Montana’s only Tom Petty (or Dylan or Los Lobos or Susanne Vega) date. You’re all set to order a pair of eighth-row-center seats when the fine print arrests you—the show’s in Bozeman. Until recently, the only solution was to gas up the Outback for a three-hour drive. But this summer leave the wagon in the carport, because Missoula’s working hard to be crowned concert king of Montana.

Tom Garnsey, owner of the Bozeman-based Vootie Promotions, has a lot to do with Missoula pulling in national acts this summer, and he exhibits mock outrage at the idea that the grass is greener in Bozeman.

“What are you talking about? You’re getting Bela Fleck, REM, Wilco and Widespread Panic, all in the next three months,” says Garnsey. “I get the same thing in Bozeman. ‘How come Missoula gets all the good shows?’ And I’m sort of baffled by it.”

Yet Garnsey admits that there are reasons for artists such as Petty and Los Lobos to make Bozeman their sole Montana tour date.

First of all, he says, Bozeman has a history of offering better, more supportive rock radio.

“[KGBA] is great, but it’s not as established as KGLT,” he says of Bozeman’s college station. Garnsey adds that KMMS “The Moose,” a Triple-A format station that began in the mid-’80s, around the same time as Vootie, has supported his shows from the beginning.

“They embraced everything we brought to town, no matter how quirky or how bizarre,” says Garnsey. “That’s something that’s lacking in Missoula.”

But ASUM’s UM Productions and KBGA are hoping to change that, says UM Productions Director Marcus Duckwitz. This year, Duckwitz is working with KBGA on the station’s annual birthday bash and ramping up an effort to promote more off-campus shows. UM Productions maintained a low profile during the Adams Center renovations, but plans on coming back in force this year.

Even with high hopes and a renovation under its belt, it’s tough for the Adams Center to compete with Bozeman’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse and its additional 3,000 seats. If bands just want a date to tide them over from Fargo to Boise, they’re more likely to go with Bozeman because they can make more money on the extra seats.

But Missoulians shouldn’t take it personally, says Garnsey.

“I don’t think you’re being slighted by either artists or promoters. Bands aren’t sitting around saying, ‘Let’s not do Missoula.’”

Often artists don’t even make a conscious choice about which town to play. Rather, they are looking for the town that fits best with their tour route. The REM show is scheduled for Missoula solely because it was closer to the West Coast than Bozeman. With dates on the coast on both the Friday and the Monday of Labor Day weekend, the band needed to get far away enough from the coastal markets in the interim, but not so far that it would take two days to get back. The result is REM’s only Montana date, and the smallest show of the tour. Maybe this should remind us how lucky we actually are, says Garnsey. We need to remember that other than Missoula and Bozeman, there aren’t many Montana towns that name acts will play at all, he says.

“Missoula is a fresh market for live music,” says Esther Shepherd of Boise-based Bravo, which, along with Vootie, brings most national acts to Missoula.

Like Garnsey, Shepherd sees momentum building for the town. Half a decade ago, when Bravo first began bringing shows to Missoula, it never would have considered Missoula to be receptive to Cleveland hip-hop, says Shepherd. But when Bravo promoted Bone Thugs-n-Harmony here last month, the first show sold out so quickly the company had to add a second. It’s this kind of reception that convinces Bravo to do more and more—like the Outdoor Summer Concert Series with Chris Isaac and the Neville Brothers.

Both Garnsey and Shepherd agree that not having a big production company based in Missoula hurts the town’s concert offerings. Vootie prefers to do shows in Bozeman because it’s the company’s home base, and Bravo will book bands where it’s most convenient. The closest thing Missoula has to a Vootie or Bravo is Thomas Hunt’s Mountains Meet Space (MMS)—the promoter behind the annual BarnBurners Halloween shindigs and April’s Spearhead show.

Hunt got into promoting shows the same way Bill Graham did—through a love for the Grateful Dead. His initial impetus wasn’t making money, but bringing jam bands, electronica and hip hop to town.

“We’re more interested in providing a more well-rounded musical experience for college students when they come to school here,” says Hunt. “Yeah we want to make money, but it’s more than that.”

Garnsey, who has worked with MMS (later this summer MMS will promote Burning Spear’s Missoula show, while Vootie promotes Spear in Bozeman), says that with some luck and hard work, MMS could become Missoula’s premier promo-ter, delivering shows the bigger Bravo won’t.

“They seem the closest to Vootie because they love music,” he says. “They are doing it first and foremost for the music. I mean you’ve got to make a profit, but the motivation behind it isn’t all profit, it’s music.”

Yet Garnsey worries that Vootie, MMS and Bravo are giving Missoula, and Montana in general, too much of a good thing.

“The month of August is absurd in Montana,” he says. “For the populations that these communities have, the amount of entertainment music-wise is absurd. And there are things that will just die on the vine because we can’t support it.”

That thought scares him. With more promoters moving into the business, resulting in more total shows, ticket sales to individual shows may decline, encouraging bands to avoid Montana. But there is nothing Garnsey can do about that. He says he just hopes to keep his hand in it and hold on.

In the meantime, Missoulians should take advantage of what we’re getting—the best summer for live music in years.

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