Live music venues were among the most deeply disrupted businesses when the Covid-19 pandemic began three years ago. Most endured shutdowns of a year or more; some nightclubs didn’t survive, while others were saved by federal rescue packages. But a surprise development in San Diego as pandemic closures eased has been an abundance of larger concert venues, with more on the way.
Snapdragon Stadium, which opened last fall for San Diego State athletics and other sports events, made its concert debut on May 6 with Jimmy Buffett and Jason Mraz. In Del Mar, a new midsized concert hall called The Sound opened in February with a Ziggy Marley performance. On the UC San Diego campus, the Epstein Family Amphitheater opened last fall with a capacity of 2,650. Downtown, Petco Park has ramped up concert offerings in the last year at its adjoining Gallagher Square outdoor park, and just announced $20 million in upgrades coming to the space for next year. The 10,000 capacity Rady Shell opened in the summer of 2021, just on the other side of pandemic closures, and quickly became a marquee regional attraction.
And there’s more to come. A potential game-changer is a replacement for Pechanga Arena as part of the extensive Midway Rising redevelopment, which will also include low-income housing and other amenities. That plan still has some regulatory hurdles to clear — as does a proposed revamping of waterfront destination Seaport Village, with a music venue among the options being discussed for the 14-acre tract.
The proposed replacement for Pechanga, which is 55 years old, has the potential to increase the draw of major touring acts who add a San Diego show to their obligatory Los Angeles tour stop.
“That’s definitely one of the many motivating factors,” said Shelby Jordan II of Legends Project Development, a partner in the Midway Rising endeavor along with Encinitas developer Zephyr and Chelsea Investment Corp. of Carlsbad.
Jordan said the Midway Rising team is still working on the exact site location for the new arena, but he stressed that the plan is to build it from the ground up. Pechanga Arena, which has more than a dozen concerts on the books for the remainder of 2023 — including Bruce Springsteen on Dec. 2 — will continue to operate in the meantime. Also still operating in the district is the all-ages haven SOMA, with both a 2,350-capacity main room and a 500-capacity side stage; its fate amid the redevelopment is less clear.
“Our goal is to leave the existing building in place while we build the new one alongside it,” Jordan said. “Pechanga Arena still does tremendous business, and we don’t want to disrupt that. We don’t want to lose the momentum in the market.”
Pechanga is home to several minor-league sports teams, including hockey’s San Diego Gulls, indoor football’s San Diego Strike Force, soccer’s San Diego Sockers and lacrosse’s San Diego Seals, around which it schedules concerts. Likewise, the 35,000-capacity Snapdragon Stadium also is primarily a sports venue, interspersed with concerts.
Those included this month’s Re:SET concert series, held at the stadium’s western-adjacent Thrive Park with headliners LCD Soundsystem, boygenius and Steve Lacy. Big concerts coming to Snapdragon this fall include Coldplay Sept. 27-28 and P!nk with Brandi Carlile on Oct. 3.
Sports and music have long intermingled at Petco Park, of course, with major artists such as the Rolling Stones and Elton John playing the Padres’ home field in 2005 and 2022 respectively. This summer brings a couple more, with controversial country act Morgan Wallen July 14-15 and local reggae-rockers Slightly Stoopid plus Sublime With Rome on July 16.
But a newer Petco feature is regular concerts at Gallagher Square, the city-block-sized park on the stadium grounds that hosted shows last year with acts ranging from country band Midland and electronica duo Bob Moses. Notable shows booked there for this summer include Jimmy Eat World with Manchester Orchestra (July 21), Darius Rucker (Aug. 25), and the Pixies with Modest Mouse (Sept. 16).
Farther north, a prime new spot is The Sound, a partnership between longstanding Encinitas nightclub the Belly Up and the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Renovated from a 35-year-old building that formerly housed off-track betting at the fair, the two-tiered venue already has presented around a dozen shows. Many more are coming this summer and fall after a June 7-July 4 break for the San Diego County Fair, including Cowboy Junkies (July 23), Sylvan Esso (Sept. 1), and the Psychedelic Furs with Squeeze (Oct. 9)
With a capacity of 1,900, The Sound can accommodate more concertgoers than Humphrey’s by the Bay (1,400) and North Park Observatory (1,300), but it’s more intimate than arenas and outdoor amphitheaters. Fairgrounds CEO Carlene Moore and Belly Up president Chris Goldsmith both said hitting the sweet spot between smaller and larger existing venues was a key factor for the new venue.
The Belly Up, a fixture in Solana Beach since the mid-1970s, is one of America’s premier nightclubs, with a pedigree that sometimes lures artists capable of playing much larger venues. An example: Lyle Lovett has often performed at Humphrey’s on previous tour stops, but he’s opting for two nights at the Belly Up this summer (July 3-4).
Goldsmith explained that the club’s management already had begun booking occasional shows at venues such as Humphrey’s and the Observatory. Now they’re also able to present acts with bigger draws at The Sound.
Moore acknowledged that the Belly Up’s esteemed reputation, along with its ties to artists capable of filling a larger venue, made them an ideal partner.
“They know and understand the market, especially in North County,” she said. “They needed a little bit a little bit bigger space, and we’re here to serve.”
About 10 minutes south, UCSD’s Epstein Family Theatre opened in October 2022 with a couple of concerts that included indie faves Death Cab for Cutie and Yo La Tengo. With 2,650 seats, it’s also potentially an important new midsized venue. Eclectic songwriter Ben Harper headlines a Doors of Change “Concert of Hope” on Sept. 3, but other music bookings so far have been scarce. The venue’s June calendar features student dance events and a Tuesday farmers market, plus a couple of classical-music performances.
Speaking of classical: The San Diego Symphony will move back into the recently renovated Copley Symphony Hall with a Nov. 4 grand-opening concert. While the 2,250-capacity room in the Jacobs Music Center — which originally opened in 1929 as the Fox Theatre — was getting its $125 million upgrade, the Symphony performed many concerts at the waterfront’s striking new Rady Shell, which opened in 2021.
With a capacity of 10,000, the Shell has become an attractive venue for popular music artists as well. This month’s offerings include Cake (June 20) and the San Diego Smooth Jazz Festival (June 24-25). July highlights include two collaborations between pop artists and the Symphony, with Cypress Hill on July 25 and Guster on July 29.
Rady Shell competes for the bigger acts with long-established venues such as Chula Vista’s 20,000-capacity North Island Credit Union Amphitheater, a Live Nation-operated outdoor venue with summer shows including Fall Out Boy (July 1) and Rod Stewart with Cheap Trick (Aug. 5). And in addition to Snapdragon Stadium, SDSU boasts two other prominent large venues, the indoor Viejas Arena (12,000 capacity) and the 4,600-seat Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre. Summer bookings at Viejas include Bryan Adams with Joan Jett (July 26) and Beck with Phoenix and Japanese Breakfast (Aug. 8). The CCCU lineup includes Barenaked Ladies with Semisonic and Del Amitri (June 22) plus My Morning Jacket with M. Ward (Aug. 22).