The Man Behind Seattle's Electronic-Music Mecca
Sean Horton on Decibel Festival's Devastating First Decade
Photo Kelly O / Shot at new location of Wall of Sound Records
Long before he became head of the Seattle-based Decibel Festival, Sean Horton endured two winters working 20 hours a day on fishing boats in Alaska. That seems relatively easy compared to the monstrous quantity of tasks he tackles these days. Besides running Decibel—one of the world's best electronic-music/digital-arts events—with a staff of more than 200 volunteers, including audio and video/lighting techs, Horton serves as director of music strategy and senior music supervisor for PlayNetwork. Oh, and he DJs and produces his own electronic music. And he receives more than 500 e-mails a day, most of which demand a reply. And he's married. Sleep is overrated, anyway.
Horton's workaholism has helped make Decibel—celebrating its 10th anniversary this year—an essential stop on the global music-fest circuit, and in the last decade, annual attendance has grown from 2,500 to 25,000. This year's lineup bursts with diversity and excellence on international, national, and local levels—there's a lot of something for almost everybody. For every Moby, Lorde, and Zedd, there's an Actress, Raime, and Ben Klock. You want legends? Check out Juan Atkins, Green Velvet, the Orb, and Peter Hook. Young Eastside newbies and aging, staunch avant-gardists can unite for five days and enjoy a surfeit of acts (more than 150, in fact) in 12 downtown, Capitol Hill, and Queen Anne venues. After-hours parties (often generators of dB's greatest thrills), educational conferences, and even yoga sessions round out the program.
No one—including Horton himself, he admits—could've predicted in that first meeting at Barça that Decibel would blossom so magnificently. Like most fests, it started as a DIY grassroots labor of love. Unlike most, it's grown to a million-dollar-plus affair while staying true to Horton's rigorous vision of quality electronic music in multiple styles.
But with exceptional growth comes subtle differences in scheduling. In 2004, Decibel would not have booked Moby or New Order's bassist. Perhaps Horton has felt the need to snare more popular acts as Decibel has moved to bigger venues and extended to five days?
"Believe it or not, it really hasn't changed much since the inception," Horton says. "From year one, I have been curating the festival based on personal taste and experience with all facets of electronic music, spanning techno, house, dub, modern bass, hiphop, ambient, electropop, downtempo, and all points in between. I've always made a concerted effort to tell a story with the programming. Whether that story is the history of Detroit techno, or the evolution of dub, or the emergence of bass-oriented production, I use the festival showcases as an opportunity to entertain as well as educate attendees. Though the venues have grown in both number and size, my integrity and commitment as curator has never swayed and never will."
Horton has noticed Decibel crowds skewing younger in recent years, aided partially by the inclusion of all-ages shows. "I remember my own musical upbringing in Detroit in the '80s and '90s," he recalls, "migrating from hiphop to metal to industrial to techno to ambient to more experimental forms of music. The youth of today is going through a similar musical transformation, and like all of us, they need to start somewhere. There are artists that I've selected over the past decade that cater to that culture (e.g., Deadmau5, Diplo, Justice, the Glitch Mob, Zedd, Flosstradamus, etc.). We've always had some outreach to emerging trends, typically years before they're popular with mainstream audiences. I'm proud to have been ahead of the curve on many of these selections, while offering an opportunity for attendees to experience an eclectic program of music they wouldn't normally be exposed to. Decibel has always been about discovery."
One might think that the rise of "EDM" in America has been advantageous to Decibel's drawing power, but Horton refutes this notion. "The blanket term 'EDM' is not only hurting Decibel, it's hurting electronic music as a whole. [As with] 'rave' and 'electronica,' I loathe terms that make an effort to label something as vast and longstanding as electronic dance music or electronic music.
"The main issue that I have is that it's far easier to exploit a subculture once it has a given label, and that is exactly what is happening right now with EDM and the fashion and drug culture associated with it," Horton continues. "I have always positioned Decibel as grassroots, intimate, eclectic, and live—with an emphasis on visual art and education. Decibel is the antithesis of [what EDM] has become in recent years (impersonal, formulaic, excessive, homogeneous, drug-fueled). My sincerest hope is that all the blatant 'EDM marketing' targeting largely inexperienced mainstream audiences loses momentum. When it all collapses, Decibel will once again be there, extending an alternative experience focused on quality underground music in all its forms."
When asked what his fondest memories of Decibel's first decade are, Horton confesses how tough it is to choose, but he starts with one of my most awestruck Decibel experiences: Amon Tobin's ISAM Live US debut at the sold-out Paramount Theatre in 2011. "I remember having to go on stage before Amon's set to make some announcement and hearing that wave of cheers after welcoming everyone to the 8th annual Decibel Festival. I still get chills thinking about it.
"I'd also put Speedy J's blistering techno set to close out the 2006 program as an incredibly memorable performance, particularly because I had zero expectations and Jochem [Paap] had the Neumos crowd reeling. After his set, Jochem got on the mic to declare, 'This is the best festival in the world,' and all I could do was weep. Those closing parties have always been incredibly emotional and inevitably wind up being my favorite events each year.
"My fondest memory, however, has to be getting married at the 2009 program. It was such a beautifully surreal experience having friends, family, and artists all file into the Asian Art Museum—home of our OPTICAL 3 event directly after—and then migrate out to a beautiful September day at Volunteer Park to celebrate with 2,000 other festival attendees who had gathered for the dB in the Park event. Diana and I really couldn't have asked for a better way to celebrate our love. The fact that we met at Decibel made it all the more endearing."
We have to balance all that heart-melting greatness with some Decibel lows. There've been a few. Horton begins with last year's OPTICAL fiasco at Broadway Performance Hall. "We had simply overestimated the venue's ability to house the event. Plagued with technical issues, we had to push everything back over an hour, and I finally made the executive call to cut friend and Decibel collaborator Rafael Anton Irisarri's band Orcas from the lineup, which broke my heart. In the end, Nils Frahm performed one of the most memorable sets of the entire festival, but it was still incredibly embarrassing.
"Another low point has to be the legendary Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flür, whose horrifically bad DJ set in 2007 cleared the venue. At one point, his effects processor got unplugged and let out a deafening shriek that lasted several minutes. People honestly thought the fire alarm was going off. [The Flür set] reiterated the importance of curating only artists that you've actually seen perform before. I'm pleased to say that with nearly 900 artists from more than 30 countries booked over the past decade, there's really only a handful of real disappointments."
With this landmark occasion, it's time to wonder: Can Decibel go on indefinitely or does Horton envision an end? (He claims to have lost more than $250,000 throwing Decibel events since 2004. Ow.) "The family that Decibel has spawned will live on, regardless of whether Decibel continues. I've already gotten more out of the festival than I would've ever imagined. I hope that it will continue, but I know my limitations as a human being. I'm getting older, and the workaholic lifestyle continues to take its toll. I also know the limitations of a team that has constantly given everything they have simply to see it happen again and again and again.
"Ultimately, the success of Decibel lies in the Seattle community, which is who I built it for in the first place. The more that people support the events we produce year-round and the festival, the more chance it has of surviving. One thing is for certain: The next two weeks will determine our future, and I've never been more confident in the festival program."