More live music and venues are popping up in Kelowna

Optimistic for music scene

While the COVID-19 pandemic struck a blow to working musicians across the globe, Kelowna's live music scene was already struggling prior to 2020. But with a number of new events and venues popping up in the city, fans of live music can be optimistic about the city's future.

The Central Okanagan Music Strategy was initiated in the fall of 2019 to identify and address some of the challenges with the local music scene, and the final report was released last November. A key takeaway from the survey was that the public wants more live shows, and new and improved venues for those shows is a top priority.

A number of Kelowna's live music venues, including The Habitat, Fernandos, Muninn's Post and Sapphire, have closed in recent years, leaving fewer places for local bands to play. And live shows of all sizes have been repeatedly cancelled, rescheduled, and cancelled again over the last couple years, as new waves of COVID-19 have come and gone.

But with the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, Mitch Carefoot and Kurt Jory of Thick as Thieves Entertainment have been one of the groups leading the live music charge locally, bringing out-of-town talent back to Kelowna stages. On short notice, they successfully hosted Denim on the Diamond last September, and in April, they brought the Arkells and Lights to Big White. They were also responsible for bringing Shakey Graves and Yukon Blonde to BNA Brewing this spring.

Carefoot says they've noticed a real thirst for live music in the community, after two long years of people staying away from each other, and he's optimistic about the future of live music in Kelowna.

“Denim, when we announced those [in 2021], it sold out in a couple days. AltiTunes, nearly 4,500 people showed up in the cold for Lights and Arkells,” Carefoot said.

This summer, Thick as Thieves is hosting Island Time in July, a one-day event at Kelowna's Island Stage in Waterfront Park, and they've expanded Denim on the Diamond to two days in September. Carefoot says both events have already sold between 60 and 70 per cent of tickets, and single-day tickets for Denim go on sale Friday.

“With Island Time, the uptick was quick and encouraging,” Carefoot said. “The Island Stage has one of the nicest lakes, and the nicest landscape, possibly in North America.”

Keloha Music Festival was held at the Island Stage for three years a decade ago, with the last event running in 2014. But the organizer said he never made a dime off the popular festival.

Carefoot says Thick as Thieves has been financially successful with Denim on the Diamond and their other ventures because they've focused on offering more of an experience, rather than larger – and more expensive – American headlining acts. He says they've also focused on partnering with other local businesses like vendors, breweries and wineries.

“We live in Kelowna and our vision is to enhance Kelowna and we put that first above anything else, even to this day,” he said.

Carefoot points to Red Bird Brewing and the not-yet-opened Revelry Food + Music Hub as examples of local companies who are investing in Kelowna's live music scene. Red Bird recently opened their expanded indoor and outdoor music stages, where they host several shows per week. Meanwhile, Revelry's owner Lee Simon, says he's looking at a 2023 opening for his music venue.

“We have groups in Kelowna that are just making the investments now,” Carefoot said. “The challenge was there were legacy business owners who didn't know how to make it make sense ... you have new people coming into town with their concepts that are building businesses around music and art, as oppose to finding ways to put music into a bar.”

Doc Willoughby's was another Kelowna pub that regularly hosted live music, but last year it was bought by Nixon Hospitality – the same owners as BNA and Skinny Duke's Glorious Emporium. The bar has been closed for several months as the Nixon's turn the long-time Kelowna staple into Bernie’s Supper Club, but Carefoot says they have big plans to host “some recognizable touring artists who win awards” at the renovated bar's new purpose-built stage in the fall.

He says the Island Stage, which will host Island Time on July 16, could become comparable to world-class venues like Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater and Washington's The Gorge if the right investments are made over the long term.

“There's the missing link of major touring artists coming to town that are passing over Kelowna and there are people working to bring them to town,” Carefoot says.

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