In this current era of social distancing, we’re learning just how important it is to hold tight to things that keep us happy. One major source of happiness to so many people is enjoying live music—an activity that currently can’t take place in the usual ways. As the industry and our local venues face huge challenges, the Downtown Bellingham Partnership is stepping up to help keep the arts alive, by moving its popular summertime Downtown Sounds concert series online.

Popular Downtown Sounds band, Polecat, performing at the Wild Buffalo in 2016. Photo credit: Kenneth Kearney Photography

Partnership Events Director Lindsey Payne Johnstone has been busy these last few months making sure the 15-year-old tradition survives into the future. She started her career at the Partnership as an intern in 2008, the final year that Downtown Sounds took place in the alley between the Wild Buffalo and Mindport. “The following year was the event’s five year anniversary, and it was getting really crowded in the alley,” she recalls, “so our executive director at the time had the idea to move it out onto Bay Street. I started handling the lineup and working with all of our event partners to expand the footprint, and it just kept growing.”

If you’ve attended a Downtown Sounds in recent years, you know the street swarms with people happily dancing and mingling to an array of fantastic music. This year, the usual tradition simply wasn’t an option.

As the reality of the impacts of the pandemic continued to unfold, concerns began to crow around Downtown Sounds. “Once we realized Downtown Sounds would not be happening in its physical form, we started to visualize what a live-stream version could look like,” Johnstone says. “We knew we had to create something impactful.”

One of the larger venues in town, The Shakedown will host two musical acts during the virtual concert series. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

Closing down concerts was not only a blow to music lovers, but also to the venues that present the shows. “Our community loves music—look at the amount of people who come out for Downtown Sounds every week, year after year,” says Johnstone. Bellingham’s music venues are the backbone of that, and were the first industry to close—and will likely be the last to open. “It became very clear that we could support our musicians and do something fun for our community, but also support the downtown music venues we all know and love.”

This year, bands will play at three local venues behind closed doors and all performances will be broadcast live. On August 12thPetty or Not will play at The Wild Buffalo, and on August 19thDryland will share the stage at The Shakedown with rapper Mostafa, backed by a live band. Finally, on August 26thHot Damn Scandal will perform at Boundary Bay Brewery. All shows will air at 7:00 p.m. and be broadcasted over Comcast channels 321 (HD) and 10 (SD), and online at cob.org/btvlive. Even though there won’t be a live audience present during the concerts, we highly encourage everyone to tune in and turn up from their phones, laptops, televisions and other devices to enjoy the shows and support the venues. 

Cozy scene from Boundary Bay’s outdoor garden before the pandemic. Photo courtesy: Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

Each performance is a fundraiser for the venues and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, helping ensure many more years of Downtown Sounds. “Instead of enjoying a beer the way you would if you were in the beer garden, consider donating that money to our venue fund,” says Johnstone. “After the series concludes, we’ll disburse those donations to the music venues.”

There are also plans to involve downtown businesses in this year’s reimagined musical celebrations. “We will encourage restaurants to offer Downtown Sounds food and drink specials like they normally would on these Wednesdays,” Johnstone says. “This virtual event is intended to support downtown businesses in addition to venues, and we urge people to partake by enjoying expanded outdoor patios and delivery and curbside offerings.”

You’ll find these cones outside of businesses that are now open, and you’ll soon be able to wear the BStrong logo on a shirt of your own. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

The concerts aren’t the only thing going virtual this year. The Downtown Sounds merchandise that is typically sold at each concert will be available for purchase online at downtownbellingham.com starting Wednesday, August 5th. The Partnership is also unveiling a new line of its “BStrong” campaign products, which will be sold during Downtown Sounds. The “BStrong” campaign launched after COVID-19 shut down many local businesses. “You’ll see B Strong Stickers on the green cones that show that businesses are open, and the BStrong banner over Holly Street,” Johnstone says. “We’ll be selling BStrong t-shirts will during the series, as well.” Revenue from merch sales goes towards the Partnership’s efforts to create a vibrant downtown.

Two other partnerships have made all of this possible. 

WECU was our premiere sponsor last year, and signed on to be our big sponsor again this summer. They’re committing on a level that’s extremely supportive, and we’re grateful for their ongoing commitment, to help us do a virtual Downtown Sounds,” Johnstone says. 

The normally crowded outdoor venue will be silent this year, but keep an eye out for opportunities to watch and listen in the neighborhood. Photo courtesy: Downtown Bellingham Partnership

And none of this would be possible without the help of BTV, Bellingham’s local television station. “Our budget is minimal this year. Typically, the money made from beer garden sales is used to support the production of Downtown Sounds. Since we’re not making that money, we had to look for alternative ways to make a virtual concert happen, and BTV turned out to be a great fit.”

All of this year’s bands are Bellingham-based, and instead of Johnstone picking the lineup, as she normally does, she asked each venue to invite popular bands they know and love. “I think it’s really sweet that the venues we’re working with are also really involved,” says Johnstone. “For example, Craig Jewell owns the Wild Buffalo, and his band, Petty Or Not, which has performed at Downtown Sounds in the past, will be performing. We also are excited to have local acts at Downtown Sounds we’ve never had before! City Council member and co-owner of The Shakedown, Hollie Huthman, will be playing with her band Dryland. The hyper-local goal that we’re trying to accomplish is my favorite part of this so far.” 

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