Pete Gamlen

There Is No One Way to Do It

Even if there were, I'd be the last person to know what it is. I say that as someone who's been a musician in Seattle for more than 20 years, and made somewhere between some and all of my living from being one for most of that time.

In 1976, the musician Tony Moon drew a comic for the UK fanzine Sideburns showing how to play A, E, and G on a guitar. "This is a chord," he wrote, pointing to the A chord. "This is another," he wrote, pointing to the E chord. "This is a third," he wrote, pointing to the G chord.

Underneath them, he wrote: "Now form a band."

That formulation still hasn't been bested as a way to express just how little qualification anyone needs before they start making music, either as a solo artist or a group. It also came from a time when the means of production weren't as accessible as they are now. There's no reason an 18- or 19-year-old with access to a computer needs to be told you have the tools to form a band. You've known that your whole life.

Being a Seattle Musician

Whether or not you grew up here, chances are you've been inundated with the legends about bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, who started playing dive bars and became world famous rock stars. You might also be familiar with the artists that followed them onto the national stage, like Death Cab for Cutie/the Postal Service, Modest Mouse, and Macklemore. You may even have a taste for the groups that can still be found playing local clubs (though who knows for how long?) like Tacocat, Chastity Belt, and DoNormaal.

The main thing all these Seattle names have in common is how little they have in common—aesthetically, socially, politically, and otherwise. If you're wondering how to be a Seattle musician, one piece of advice: Stop worrying about what a Seattle musician is supposed to be like. Pick up your instrument. Make up some rhymes. Put a song on SoundCloud (if it still exists). Congratulations. You're a Seattle musician. Good luck finding a parking spot.

Not to suggest that certain boring orthodoxies of look and sound don't assert themselves from time to time. Not to say that a lot of what looks like success in local music may be predicated on counterfeit friendships, strategic alliances, and gatekeeper flattery. Not to argue that our vaunted community is immune to celebrating the mediocre, or that it has never elevated unclothed emperors to positions of power and glory.

And not to pretend that all of the above aren't trotted out as go-to excuses for bands that can't catch a break. Blaming the city, as if it were a single entity, is always a convenient rationalization when a bitter musician isn't ready to look within.

So, yeah. Another piece of advice: Don't do that. The struggling part isn't the preamble. The struggle is the whole story.

Do You Really Want to Do This?

One of the great and liberating precepts of punk, exemplified perfectly by Moon's drawing, is that anyone can do it. This is technically true. But as my late friend and bass player was fond of saying, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Making music is one of life's deepest sources of pleasure, even if you're terrible at it. In that sense, the democratization afforded by digital playing, recording, and distribution and the relatively low cost of instruments have been a great gateway for people to discover that affinity. Unfortunately, it has also led a lot of people to take the old punk maxim that anyone can do it a little too literally. I mean, yeah, anyone can do it. Technically. But almost everyone is guaranteed to suck.

A third word of advice: Sucking is part of the process. Maybe the most important part, neck and neck with doing it anyway. That's because, in spite of what you may have been told, the making of art—especially performing art—is a fundamentally selfish exercise. It posits that a thing you make, think, play, or sing is not only worthy of being made, thought, played, or sung, but shared. And in many cases—especially in the case of loud music—"shared" means imposed, inflicted, foisted.

We can flatter ourselves that we're offering listeners the gift of our song, that we're trying to add a little beauty to a cruel world, that we're speaking truth to power, that we're doing it for the kids, that we have to, that we mean it, maaan. But those are lies (even if and especially when we believe them). Making art is a selfish impulse.

Lucky thing for artists, too, because if it weren't, no art would ever get made.

Making art doesn't ennoble you. It doesn't entitle you to any special dispensations. It doesn't make you special. (Being great at it does kind of do all those things, but let's assume that you're not great at it.) Art isn't the answer. It won't save us from the hell Donald Trump and his supporters have already unleashed on the world. It won't save us from anything. But it might save you. And we all need to find ways to save ourselves from time to time, if only so that we're still around to help look after others.

The Only Dependable Reward

I mention all of the above not to discourage you from embarking on a life as a Seattle musician. (Though if you're already discouraged now, you definitely shouldn't try to be one.) I mention it because the only dependable reward available to people who make music is the joy that comes from making it. Everything else—attention, acclaim, connection, money, collaboration, sex—comes down to luck, timing, talent, and other vicissitudes that aren't yours to control.

But you can control how much time you're willing to spend making music and how hard you're willing to work in the service of the joy it brings you. That joy is limitless, ecstatic, and life-affirming in a way that leads people to make crazy choices like dropping out of school, quitting their jobs, and devoting themselves to the often thankless, occasionally appalling, and frankly absurd life of a Seattle musician.


I apologize that this little screed has been short on practical advice, but then, I've seen approximately 279,000 articles about how to book shows, how to go on tour, how to cajole people into listening to your music and even manipulate them into buying it. You probably have, too—and if not, google that shit. The important information isn't available from articles like this. The source of the truly valuable learning about being a musician comes from seeking it out, by overcoming your shyness and meeting people, from striking up friendships, trying, failing, trying again.

It's never been easier to get a club booker's e-mail address or find their Facebook page. It's never been easier to order custom T-shirts and other merch. And it's never been easier to make your work available online. You probably know more about that than I do.

Practical Advice

But just so you don't go home empty-handed, here are a few concrete suggestions:

• Embrace poverty. Though some people make a lot of money playing music, most people never make a nickel. In between those two poles, the amounts you're likely to get paid will add up to a loss. If you can offset some expenses with the money you make from playing shows and selling T-shirts and records, you are already a great American success story. Only a fool would get into playing music to make money in 2017. You may as well get into slot machines. (Also: Learn to be direct and frank about the money you owe and are owed.)

• Share the spotlight. The world is full of assholes who want to take all the credit for group efforts and whose appetite for attention is so big that it insists no one else get their own share. Don't be one, and don't work with them if you can help it.

• Be considerate. It's not hard to hold the door for another band loading their gear behind you. It's not hard to say please and thank you. And it goes a lot further than you'd think given the music scene's dense population of neurotic, self-obsessed infants.

• Be punctual. This one is hard, because it means you'll spend a lot of time alone waiting for all your late-ass bandmates, but so very worth it.

• Learn to communicate directly. Seattle is a bastion of passive-aggressive behavior. If you know how to say what you want, need, expect, and are willing to give—rather than calculating the most effective means of manipulating an unreasonable collaborator or associate—you'll save yourself a lot of misery.

• Practice outside of practice. You can always be better at what you're trying to do.

• Wear earplugs at shows. You'll be sorry if you don't.

• Corollary: Turn down at practice. It's true there's a sweet spot for volume below which rock 'n' roll doesn't quite soar (assuming that's what you're playing), but chances are excellent that you are already WAY louder than that.

• Never leave ANY gear in your van or car. Ever, ever, ever, even for 10 minutes while you run in to buy beer. You may as well paint a bull's-eye on your windshield.

• Don't be a "brand." Much of the discourse surrounding music in 2017 is about maximizing your business potential. At least 99 percent of it is bullshit. Yes, it's a business, but it's mainly a business for people who are selling alcohol while bands are onstage. There may come a time when it's worth your while to focus on things like money and marketing, but it'll be easy to know when that time comes because you'll be making some money and you'll have a "market." In the meantime, focus on writing and performing songs.

• Men: Don't be a creep. It's a real problem, even in the supposedly enlightened province of Seattle. And the onus is on men to behave like adults without needing to be told what consent is.

• Women: Don't be deterred by creeps. There's a strong network of amazing women in powerful positions in every element of Seattle music—on stage and off. They've had to fight through gnarly, horrible stuff to get there, but we all benefit from their presence and influence. That doesn't mean they don't still have to fight. It just means there are more people fighting with them to make public spaces safer and more equitable.

• Drummers: Unlatch the strainer on your snare while another band is playing. Seriously, how fucking hard is it?

• Opening bands: You don't have time for one more song. Openers should play for 25 to 30 minutes MAX. Middle bands for 40 to 45 minutes. Headliners can play forever.

• Thank the sound engineer. Even when they suck. You're going to be running into them again.