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SLO’s expanding entertainment industry

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Freemont marquee. Highsmith, Carol M.
Freemont marquee in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Photo by Carol Highsmith, M.

The entertainment industry has drastically changed over the last decade with the advent of social media, streaming services and the internet.

It would be an understatement to say that these new technologies have oversaturated the media landscape with increasing amounts of content. And just because we live in a relatively small town doesn’t mean that San Luis Obispo is immune to feeling these changes as well. 

SLO’s entertainment industry has seen a fairly rapid growth over the last decade with the addition of Vina Robles AmphitheaterHosting big name musical acts like Neil Young, Joe Bonamassa and Alice Cooper just in the last year, the amphitheater has been experiencing massive success since its construction. 

Glen Starkey has worked as an entertainment reporter in the area for decades. He’s currently the Music Editor at New Times in SLO, and an English lecturer at Cal Poly.

As a local music reporter, Starkey covers most big name local music shows. Whether it’s seeing Los Lobos at the Fremont, covering the Live Oak Music Festival every year or catching a show at the amphitheater, entertainment reporters like Starkey are always there to catch the action in person. 

There’s no question technology has completely changed the music and entertainment industries,” said Starkey, referring to disruptive technologies. “Major labels and movie studios used to have all the clout, but that power is waning. Now a relative nobody with some talent and technical savvy can become a social media star. I’m admittedly baffled at some of their fame.”

Despite having doubts about some of social media’s recent advances, Starkey sees an upside to its growing influence. 

“On the other hand, having access to social media and the technology to generate content has been a great equalizer for a lot of artists,” Starkey said. “The problem that remains is that access doesn’t equal success, and it’s very difficult for even talented performers to find a way to monetize what they do.” 

Starkey touches on the fact that online media convergence in the modern age has increased the bandwidth for artist success rates. It has also flooded the market with niche-genres that are increasingly difficult to categorize. Regardless of its drawbacks, labels, distributors and promoters are going to have to find a way to adapt to the changing marketplace if they want to compete with overnight virality. 

Dispatch at the Fremont, photo by Sawyer Thomas.
Dispatch performing music at the Fremont. Photo by Sawyer Thomas

Bruce Howard, founder of Otter Productions and the man responsible for bringing acts to the Fremont, says he has high hopes for the local music scene. But he also recognizes the limitations of living in a smaller city. 

“We have absolutely gotten bigger and bigger names over the years, because the market has become more mature,” Howard said, referencing the addition of the Vina Robles
Amphitheater. “It’s grown into a real event. And through a real marketplace, capped off with more and more big acts.

“The Mid-State Fair has always been there,” Howard continued. “But the Mid-State fair was its own anomaly, a standalone entity. And it’s owned by the state, so it was kind of a different function. But to answer your question, yes. We’ve absolutely gotten bigger and bigger names.” 

Having booked shows for decades in the area, Howard is no stranger to legendary artists paying a visit every now and then. Howard reflected on booking B.B. King at the Performing Arts Center.  

“A fan got to come backstage and hang out with B.B.,” Howard said. “This was during a time when iPods and smartphones were fairly new, and he was asking B.B. what was on his iPod.

“He had everything,” Howard continued. “He had country. He had rock. And he had classical. He listened to every musical genre because he’s an artist. The most successful musicians are always open to the next big thing.” 

Mid-State Fair Ticket Booth. Photo by Brian Matis.
Mid-State Fair ticket booth. Photo by Brian Matis

With a vast array of new genres and a budding selection of niche musical and comedy acts, SLO has been experiencing an influx of new styles of entertainment that have been flourishing because of advances in venue expansion and social media marketing.  

But despite the recent explosion in new types of performers, there are clear drawbacks that can affect a smaller city’s entertainment industry. Howard commented on capacity issues when it comes to booking big names.

“Promoters and ticket sellers want to fill seats,” Howard said. “And despite SLO’s uptick in notoriety regarding artist names, it still isn’t enough to convince companies like Live Nation to book names from the Billboard Hot 100’s List. Unless we build a couple four-lane highways, SLO will never have the population necessary to garner attention from some of the biggest promoters in the world.”

Regardless of capacity issues, it hasn’t stopped musicians, comedians, and podcasters, each of whom have created their own niche markets, from capitalizing on potential ticket sales in SLO County. Just in the last year we’ve seen big names in comedy like Marc Maron, Bert Kreischer and Jim Breuer perform in the area.

Whether you’re a booker like Howard, a reporter like Starkey, or just a regular person looking for a good show, it’s hard to ignore SLO’s rising notoriety in the entertainment industry. We’re seeing bigger acts all the time, and people are starting to take notice. 

For more information on upcoming concerts at both Vina Robles Amphitheater and the Fremont Theater in SLO, visit their websites.