Music on Main: Growing despite conflict

by Brook Gardner-Durbin

Music on Main will kick off its 15th year on June 25, when the Bozeman-born group. The Clintons will play an hour-and-a-half set from a stage at the heart of downtown. Every Thursday until mid-August, another group will take the stage from 7 to 8:30 p.m. to play for thousands of merrymakers as they enjoy the evening sun, food offerings from local restaurants and the block-party atmosphere.

Like many evening gatherings of friends, as the sun fades and the music plays, the drinks will flow. With crowds numbering in the thousands and profits fluctuating, however, some residents and businesses believe the event has gotten out of hand.

The back story

Music on Main began in 2000, tucked away in an alley. Attendance was low in the beginning — often only a few dozen people attended — but the potential for growth was clear. When the Downtown Bozeman Association (DBA) started managing the event the next year, it was moved to South Bozeman Avenue and continued to grow. Attendance started to multiply, expanding from tens of people to multiple hundreds. In 2007, with crowds estimated to reach as many as 2,000, the annual event was moved to its current home: squarely in the center of downtown between Rouse Avenue and Black Avenue. The event is now important enough to shut down Main Street.

Ellie Staley, the program director of the DBA, is in charge of choosing the bands to play every year. After bands register on the DBA’s website for consideration, she and the DBA board of directors, made up of eight downtown business owners, listen to samples of the applicants to select promising acts.

Staley also draws on her past working relationships to find good acts for Music on Main. “I have great relationships with booking agents and band managers — I’ve worked for downtown for ten years,” she said. “So if I develop a good relationship with a band, and I think they do a good job and their representation is nice to work with, I’ll reach out to see what other bands they represent.”

While many of the musicians are Bozeman favorites — this year’s lineup begins with The Clintons and ends with Cure for the Common — Music on Main complements its lineup with acts from around Montana and the country. Randy McAllister, a Texas-based singer-songwriter, will be performing on July 2 and The Bus Driver Tour, performing July 16, divides its time between Livingston, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Other acts this year fall include Jameson and the Sordid Seeds from Whitefish and John Roberts, a music professor at MSU-Billings.

More than music

The event is not just a quiet concert, however. Ron Gompertz, the owner of Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot, described Music on Main not as a concert which sold alcohol but as “alcohol-centric, with music,” and “one big bar.”

This stems from the city’s “open container waiver” for Music on Main, which suspends the usual ban on any open containers of alcohol. According to the Bozeman Code of Ordinances, it is “unlawful for any person to engage in public drinking, public display or exhibition of open alcoholic beverages (open container) within the city limits.” Violation of this ordinance is a misdemeanor which can result in a $100-$500 fine and up to six months in jail. The court can also order anyone convicted to pay the “costs of prosecution or imprisonment, or both, as part of the sentence.”

Gompertz became the public face of opposition to Music on Main last year when he approached the Downtown Bozeman Association with his concerns about the open container waiver. He believes the event has become more focused on alcohol and a bigger party with every passing year, and that this is getting away from the initial spirit of the event. He worries that it is too easy for underage drinkers to acquire alcohol, that the event is contributing to drunk driving and that public drunkenness is pushing away some potential attendees.

“We don’t see the families, we don’t see the kids [anymore],” Gompertz said. He is considering closing Wild Joe’s early this summer during Music on Main days to avoid the issues, which include drunken patrons, people urinating on lawns and decreased business. He believes “a majority” of his business neighbors feel similarly.

Staley disagrees. “I think we take massive precautions,” she said. “We’re pretty on it when it comes to security, working with the police department and just recognizing that with growth and bigger crowds comes the potential for bigger issues.”

This is not the first time concerns over Music on Main and the consequences of public drinking have been raised. In response to complaints from homeowners in the areas surrounding Music on Main, in 2011 the Bozeman Police Department gathered city representatives, sponsors and event beverage servers for a meeting, seeking to secure funding for additional officers in the hours following Music on Main.

The businesses agreed to fund additional patrols, splitting the approximately $4,000 annual costs between the “after-hours” establishments (businesses open between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.).

In 2014, in response to Gompertz and others’ concerns, the DBA sent a survey to its members, city commissioners, other city representatives and event sponsors. According to the survey, more than 50 percent of businesses reported their sales were either average or better than average on Music on Main nights, while only 15 percent believed the event hurt their business.

One in ten respondents, however, reported chronic and “unusual issues they believed to be related to Music on Main events.”

Gompertz said he believes many businesses do not wish to speak out publicly on such a controversial issue and risk either making enemies with other businesses or potentially alienating customers that enjoy the event. Only 24 percent of the DBA’s polls were completed and returned.

Currently, the DBA has no further plans to address alcohol-related issues at Music on Main.

Alcohol aside, Gompertz was quick to stress that he never wanted to have the event cancelled entirely. “We love Music on Main; we love music,” he said, but added that “we would like to see the drinking done more responsibly.”

Music on Main Summer 2015 schedule:

June 25 – The Clintons

July 2 – Randy McAllister

July 9 – Whitewater Ramble

July 16 – Bus Driver Tour

July 23 – Kris Clone Band

July 30 – John Roberts y Pan Blanco

Aug. 6 – Jameson and the Sordid Seeds

Aug. 13 – Cure for the Common