The Sound is on! The new $17 million Del Mar concert venue seeks to expand San Diego concert market

Del Mar, CA - January 12: The Sound on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023 in Del Mar, CA.
The Sound’s 1,900 capacity makes it larger than such competing San Diego concert venues as House of Blues and Observatory North Park.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 1,900-capacity venue will open with Ziggy Marley shows Feb. 3 and 4, followed by Jason Mraz, The Flaming Lips, Big Gigantic and more


It is purely coincidental that reggae-music star Ziggy Marley will perform the Feb. 3 and 4 opening concerts at the new Del Mar venue The Sound, just before the 65th annual edition of the Grammy Awards is held on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.

But Marley, who did a stadium concert here at Petco Park in 2021, is an eight-time Grammy winner. And if the growing buzz about The Sound proves merited, the soon-to-open $17 million venue at the Del Mar Fairgrounds could prove to be a winner in its own right.

The 1,900-capacity venue will be run by Belly Up Entertainment, the booking and marketing division of the Belly Up concert venue

Nov. 8, 2022

The 9,500-square-foot new venue has a capacity of 1,900, an all-ages admission policy, a state-of-the-art VUE Audiotechnik sound system, multiple bars and bathrooms, a large lobby and more.

The Sound occupies the former site of Del Mar’s Surfside Race Place off-track betting facility. The Sound is owned by the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds.

The venue will be booked and managed for at least the next 10 years by Belly Up Entertainment, which owns and operates the 600-capacity Belly Up music club in nearby Solana Beach. The Sound, which is located adjacent to the fairgrounds’ horse arena, is also available for outside promoters to rent.

Jan. 12, 2023 Del Mar, CA. The main lobby and bar area of The Sound.
The Sound’s main lobby includes one of the venue’s five bars.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


“I did a walk-through of The Sound and really liked what I saw,” said Matt Swanson, Jason Mraz’s tour manager. Mraz’s upcoming March 18 concert at The Sound sold out in a near-instant and is his only scheduled show in the area prior to his May 6 Snapdragon Stadium concert with Jimmy Buffett.

Swanson’s enthusiasm is shared by Karlos Paez, the guitarist and co-founder of the award-winning band B-Side Players and by Tim Mays, the co-owner of the intimate San Diego music venues the Casbah and the Soda Bar. Mays did a DJ set at The Sound as part of the private Jan. 12 performance there by B-Side Players.

“The sound at The Sound is amazing! It will be a great place for bigger acts to play in San Diego in a venue that has a 1,900 capacity but still feels intimate,” said Paez, whose band performs its first public show of the year tomorrow at the Music Box in Little Italy. The Music Box is also booked by Belly Up Entertainment. Mays agreed with Paez about the sound at The Sound.

“It was really good in all areas of the room,” Mays said. “The various levels of the venue for the audience allow a great concert-going experience from pretty much anywhere in the venue.

“The stage, sound system, backstage artist amenities, green rooms and production offices will be greatly appreciated, from both a promoter and artist perspective. I have a Sylvan Esso show booked at The Sound on Sept. 1 and look forward to doing others.”

The Sound on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023 in Del Mar, CA.
The front entrance to The Sound faces the main parking lot at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Flexible capacity

Mays and Swanson are concert industry veterans. Both like the layout of The Sound, which has 250 permanent seats in its balcony and 125 seats to both sides of the standing-room area on the main floor. The venue has five bars, one in the balcony and four on the main floor. It will also offer finger-food options.

The venue’s capacity for completely seated shows is 800. Its freeway-close location, just off Interstate 5, is an added bonus. So is the fact that there are no nearby residents, which suggests that even very high-decibel concerts shouldn’t result in any noise complaints. And the six sets of bathrooms downstairs and four upstairs should make for quick in and outs.

“A venue of this size is what San Diego has really been lacking,” Swanson said. “The younger crowd has Soma to go to for concerts, and — from there — House of Blues or Observatory North Park. So, I think The Sound is perfect for San Diego. We really need a venue like this.”

The Sound on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023 in Del Mar, CA. The
The balcony at The Sound overlooks the stage and dance floor below.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mays, who has put on concerts in nearly every venue in San Diego County, agreed.

“The Sound bridges a gap in San Diego between Observatory North Park, House of Blues and Soma,” he said. “I think that it will help bring more acts to San Diego.”

That is precisely the aim of Chris Goldsmith, the president of Belly Up Entertainment and a multi-Grammy Award-winning album producer. He grew up in North County where his father and stepmother operated the Old Time Café, one of San Diego most intimate and beloved acoustic-music venues.

“The goal at The Sound is to book as many shows as we can, all the time,” said Goldsmith. He stressed, however, that this is not his immediate goal.

“We were late getting started and didn’t know until November when we’d be opening. From this fall on, we’ll be more consistent in the number of shows we do. It will take about three years until we get to the optimum number and we’re aiming for eight to 10 shows a month at The Sound.

“We’re looking to do lots of musical genres, which will entail working with a lot of different promoters. We’ll also do private events and corporate shows. On any given night we’re open, we’ll be employing 40 to 50 people to staff the venue.”

The Sound on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023 in Del Mar, CA, lighted staircase
This lit staircase at The Sound will enable crew members and staff to quickly access the backstage area of the venue.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Enter, and exit, KAABOO

The late start in getting The Sound open is due to a variety of factors.

The Belly Up was awarded the contract to operate the new venue four years ago by the 22nd District Agricultural Association.

That decision was loudly protested by the producers of KAABOO Del Mar, the annual three-day music festival that debuted at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 2015. KAABOO’s producers objected so vociferously — including intimations they would move the festival elsewhere — that the agricultural association rescinded its contract with the Belly Up and announced it would book the venue itself.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to construction delays and the cost for building The Sound gradually grew from the originally announced $13 million to $17 million. KAABOO, meanwhile, announced after its 2019 edition that it had entered a multiyear partnership with the San Diego Padres and would move the event to Petco Park in 2020.

But the pandemic led to the postponement of KAABOO in 2020 and again in 2021. The dormant festival has yet to resume. It is now the subject of litigation in at least two states between the Padres and the producers of KAABOO, whose present ownership is unclear.

Last February fairgrounds officials re-advertised the management contract for The Sound and selected the Belly Up.

“Then there was a waiting period to make sure there would be no more challenges,” Goldsmith said.

The new deal will see the Belly Up pay the agricultural district a minimum guaranteed per-live entertainment event fee of $7,500 or 10 percent of the gross ticket sales, whichever is greater, as well as a $2.50 per ticket facility fee. For the financially challenged fairgrounds, having a new source of steady revenue should be welcome. Likewise, having a new venue designed specifically for live-music events should be welcomed by area concertgoers.

“It will be a really good thing for the fans and the musicians who play at The Sound,” said B-Side Players’ guitarist Paez. “The fact the venue is on the Del Mar Fairgrounds is amazing for us San Diegans.”

For Goldsmith and the Belly Up, The Sound represents a welcome opportunity to present more music, year-round.

Bands and solo artists whose tours may have skipped San Diego in the past, due to a lack of a suitably sized and equipped venue will now have a new option. And the speed with which both of Ziggy Marley’s opening concerts sold out at the new venue marks an auspicious beginning.

“He’s playing here on the birthday weekend of his father, Bob Marley,” Goldsmith noted. “Ziggy is the perfect guy to open the room.”

Coming to The Sound

Feb. 3 & 4: Ziggy Marley, with Ginger Roots and the Protectors
(sold out)

Feb. 11: Steve Aoki, $65 to $115

Feb. 25: Big Gigantic, $34.50 to $63.50

March 6: The Flaming Lips (sold out)

April 7: Colin Hay, with Lazlo Bane (seated show), on sale today at 10 a.m., $71 to $103

March 18: Jason Mraz with his Superband and special guest Gregory Page (sold out)

Sept. 1: Sylvan Esso, $42 to $75

Where: The Sound, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar. General parking is $10