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A year in live music: Eugene’s concert scene booms

Picture this. Tyler, the Creator; Brockhampton; Foo Fighters; Elton John; The Shins. No, this isn’t the lineup for an quirky music festival in LA or Seattle. If you opened up the Emerald’s calendar in the last year, you might have found these in our in listings. Each of these artists played Eugene in 2017.

Let’s face it. Eugene isn’t LA or Seattle or Portland when it comes to a robust music scene. But in the last year, this smaller scene thrived in a way it hasn’t before, according to those involved with the town’s wide-range of venues.

Eugene’s music scene is growing because it offers intimate performance venues and a chance for artists to interact with audiences in a way they might not be able to in nearby West Coast cities. Those who book shows here also are collaborating to improve the market.

Sam Beam sings and plays classical guitar. Iron & Wine performs at McDonald Theatre on Oct. 19, 2017. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

“I think we are at maximum capacity,” said Kesey Enterprises press manager Doug Fuchs, referring to the scene. Senior Associate Athletic Director in Facilities, Events and Operations at Matthew Knight Arena Mike Duncan agrees.

Duncan booked shows and managed events at Matthew Knight Arena since it was built in 2009. A University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications graduate, Duncan worked in sports information in Sacramento and eventually found himself drawn to booking arena shows through connections from his first job. Now, he brings audiences to the venue  — but not just for sports. He books concerts including large household names, both new and old.

In 2017, audiences at Matthew Knight Arena witnessed star talents ranging from Elton John to the Foo Fighters, as well as an aging Jimmy Buffett and what’s left of Journey. But Eugene’s year in concerts wasn’t  just comprised of arena rock shows. Venues throughout town, including the 1,100 capacity McDonald Theatre and metal band favorite, the Cuthbert Amphitheater, also brought acts such as hip-hop flower boy Tyler, the Creator, and Slayer to eager audiences.

Matthew Knight is the largest indoor venue in Eugene, seating 12,000 people at maximum capacity. But even then, Portland’s Moda Center is much bigger at a 19,980 capacity — often drawing artists to play there for more financial gain. Duncan says that even when artists play both markets, Matthew Knight tends to offer a more intimate experience for audiences and bands alike.

This intimate experience may be Eugene’s bread and butter, according to both Duncan and Fuchs. Audiences are able to see artists grow from playing smaller venues such as  Sam Bond’s Garage in the Whitaker to WOW Hall or the McDonald, eventually landing at big venues like Matt Knight or the Hult Center if they can muster the following.

And though most concert booking relies on networking and personal relationships, Duncan says he thinks artists notice places they’d play again, especially when it comes to venues like the ones in Eugene. Elton John, who played Matthew Knight in 2011 and returned in March 2017, could be one of those acts.

According to Duncan, Elton John’s concert was Eugene’s largest show of 2017 with just over 12,000 in attendance. Gulf-Western singer Jimmy Buffet (10,038) and prolific rock band the Foo Fighters (8,875), rounded out the top three largest attended concerts hosted by the arena in 2017. Duncan also noted that 1980s rock group Journey, comedian Daniel Tosh and the Trans Siberian Orchestra were among its most popular shows last year.  

But more often than not, artists will play both Portland and Eugene, especially when it comes to medium or large-sized venues such as McDonald and WOW Hall. While these venues may have different functions — WOW Hall is also a community center — they tend to draw artists who play similar caliber venues two-hours to the north.

An audience in Eugene was regaled by Tyler, the Creator at the comparatively small McDonald Theatre before Portland gets to hear him later this month at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The McDonald Theatre is about 1 percent the size of the near 12,000 capacity Memorial Coliseum.

Fuchs said hip-hop and EDM are two burgeoning touring genres in Eugene, especially at the McDonald Theatre. The Macklemore concert in October sold out in six minutes. Tickets for Snoop Dog’s show at the Cuthbert sold out in around the same time, according to Fuchs.

Joshua Finch, the programming manager at WOW Hall, said one of the most exciting shows of the year was up-and-coming hip-hop group Brockhampton. Finch, who started his position at WOW Hall in August, worked the day of the show, and talked to Kevin Abstract, a member of the group while setting the stage. Abstract said that the group had been playing shows to three people at the beginning of their tour.

“We have a tendency to get folks who are on their way up, when they really blow up, or on the tour when they blow up,” Finch said. “Or they have plateaued a bit and are on their way down.”

​​​​Brockhampton sells out the WOW Hall in Eugene, Ore. on Sept. 29, 2017. (Phillip Quinn/DailyEmerald)

 The Brockhampton show at WOW Hall sold out. The venue’s standing capacity is 600 people. Emerald A&C associate editor Zach Price reviewed the show, writing: “An emotional moment came towards the end of the night with the band’s playing of  “BUMP.” As the song went on, people pulled their significant others close, friends could be seen throwing arms around each other’s shoulders and the entire crowd joined the band in celebration.”

“These days, music is more than music,” Fuchs said, referring to visual spectacles including lights and pyrotechnics that often accompany shows at the McDonald Theater. Fuchs said touring artists are surprised by the size of the venue’s stage and its ability to fit everything from stage backdrops to lights.

In 2017, the McDonald Theatre had one of its best years yet, selling out more shows than it had in years, including indie-rock group The Shins and indie-folk troubadour Iron and Wine. Fuchs says he attributes this to a good economy — it was harder to book shows during the recession — and that allows smaller bands to take more risks.

“We’re starting to get a lot more new music and a lot more promoters interested in putting their own programming at our venue — both because of the vibrant economy in Oregon and how well music is doing in Eugene,” he said.

Fuchs also noted that venues backed by larger promoters consistently sell-out — meaning it’s not a marker for success for the venue as much as it is for the artist. But the McDonald is in a unique place where bands of a certain caliber can play to a more intimate audience — with clear acoustics and production values to match, according to Fuchs.

Still, because the population is smaller, the market and concert turnouts are, too.

“We have to be really careful in how we craft these proposals, knowing that odds are we aren’t going to sell out every show, but that we may come close,” Fuchs said. ‘You can’t book to sell out.”

While this may mean some struggles for venues trying to book shows — Finch aims to be more mindful when booking artists for WOW Hall in the next year — audiences benefit from smaller, more intimate shows with their favorite artists.

“Really the only genuine shortcomings I’m seeing are based on the size of the town itself,” he said. More and more artists are coming through Eugene, sometimes too many for the population size.

But as the draw for major touring artists continues to grow, those who put on concerts are working together and expanding their reach. Finch is in communication with bookers at Hi-Fi Music Hall to avoid scheduling conflicts.

At Matthew Knight, Duncan will look to bring in  high concert attendance with performances from more big-name acts in 2018. Concerts from legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana and country superstars Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are expected to garner large crowds and high ticket sales for the venue in the coming year.

“I guess what I’m looking forward to more than anything is to further those relationships and work better as a booking community, rather than just a bunch of isolated venues,” Finch said. “The more stuff that comes through town as a whole, the better it is for everybody.”

James Mercer of The Shins sings to the crowd at McDonald Theatre in Eugene, Ore. on Sept. 25, 2017. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

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Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies is the senior A&C editor at the Emerald. A former editor at the youth-run music blog Garage Music News, her written work has been featured in City Pages in Minneapolis, Eugene Weekly and Sirius XM's music blog. She's one of many Minnesotan transplants in Oregon.

Send her tips and questions at [email protected] or check out her work at