Save Seattle Music

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Seattle’s Music Scene Is Broken: Here’s How We Can Begin to Fix It

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The first Monday in May marks the Super Bowl of Fashion, aka the Met Gala. It’s hailed as the most expensive ticket in NYC—tickets to 2022’s gala reportedly cost $35,000 each—and while many believe the money is used to line Anna Wintour’s pockets, really all proceeds go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and the historical preservation of fashion as art and industry.  

Whether the event has you popping popcorn and watching closely to see which celebrities wear what—Cardi's miles-long train! Rihanna's nipples! Beyonce's elevator ride!—or elicits an eye roll while bemoaning capitalism probably depends on whether or not you regard fashion as “art.” People tend to shit on fashion for the same reasons they shit on disco—it’s queer, femme-centric, druggy, and it subverts the normative. 

The thing the Met Gala gets right is that it understands that if fashion as art is to continue to thrive, it needs to fund itself. The Met Gala is there to preserve the industry's history, and organizations like the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), fashion’s premier design council, take it a step further by offering cash scholarships to up-and-coming talent. Nordstrom alone contributes $1 million a year, and the CDFA promotes diversification with programs like its IMPACT fund to directly lift up new designers of color.  

Fashion understands new blood is the key to a thriving intersection of art and commerce; New York understands fashion is vital to the city’s identity.

So how does Seattle, where the arts—and music in particular—no longer elicit the desire to pack up and move here? How do we grow our scene? How do we return to being a viable music mecca? What do we have to offer young musicians in 2022?

When we refer to Seattle music, we often refer to it as “a scene.” But it's really an ecosystem. It requires a balanced set of circumstances in order to thrive—having access to housing, jobs, transit, affordable practice space, venues that can pay decent wages to both staff and artists, labels that will release the music, enough interested people to support the efforts, and devoted local media outlets and music critics to spread the word all play a factor in whether or not a musician can make it. 

For years musicians benefited from moving here to be part of the ecosystem. If a musician had moved here, in, say, 1996, after the proverbial “Gold Rush” in our post-grunge days, they would have found $350/month studio apartments, a plethora of service industry jobs, large houses for under $1,000 a month that came with built-in practice space, split rental on a rehearsal space for only a few hundred dollars a month, and enough active venues to fill a seven-nights-a-week live music calendar that went on for several pages in multiple local publications. 

Before you start photoshopping my face into that “Let’s get you back to the home, grandma” meme, consider that over the past 10 years alone rents in Seattle have gone up well over $1,000 for a standard unit, and a cost analysis by Filterbuy, using data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, found Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue have experienced the largest cost-of-living increase in the entire country.

This is why it might feel like, over the last five years especially, Seattle only seems to have a handful of active bands at any given time. That it seems like you see the same names opening for national acts and headlining our handful of venues is not your imagination. Seattle desperately needs new musical blood.

I chatted with a young femme musician/barkeep a few days ago who told me she hasn't played a show in seven years. She moved here to pursue music and has done nothing but chase rent since. This story is too common and will be our artistic doom.

We are getting some things right. Leaders in the creative community have stepped up to address the health and economic needs of local musicians through organizations like Black Fret and SMASH. Teen Tix is doing a great job training the next generation of music and arts writers; the Vera Project continues to create opportunities for young people who want to play or promote shows, and KEXP’s local music show Audioasis broadcasts Northwest bands to millions of listeners worldwide every week. The nonprofit sector has really stepped up to maintain the city’s culture.  

But where is everyone else? In a city with such a drastic class divide, where a subset of the population makes six figures (sometimes dually in a household), there are also people barely meeting the ridiculously obscene $70,000 poverty line. If you fall into the former category, are you willing to become a true patron of the arts? Because historically, throughout art history, that’s what it has taken. 

Tulsa, OK, for instance, has the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, which offers artists $150,000 over the course of three years—along with other housing and health stipends—to live and make art in Tulsa. If music supporters in Seattle were to establish a similar program and offer 10 musicians or bands who show great promise free housing for two years and, say, $40,000 cash, along with housing incentives for additional local talent, we would be back on the musical map in 10 years. 

How do we pull that off?

Maybe it’s a nonprofit that lets folks who can afford it take a massive write-off for donating their Airbnb, ADU, or rental property to a band or musician for a couple of years. Maybe it’s a huge, annual concert headlined by our biggest stars who benefitted from Seattle’s music scene at its peak. Maybe it’s an over-the-top party, a la the Met Gala, where we ask the donor class to put up or shut up in the prettiest way possible. Maybe it’s a combination of all three.

If the ghost of Kurt Cobain is no longer enough to lure musicians to the Pacific Northwest, maybe free or reduced-cost housing and renewed energy and appreciation for our music ecosystem would inspire more artists to make the move.

We have a wealth of service industry jobs that need to be filled. You may have noticed your local watering hole closing on Monday and Tuesday, or randomly posting they are down for the day due to a lack of staffing. There are musically talented kids making drinks and waiting tables in North Dakota right now, where the law dictates your employer can claim your tips against the very low minimum wage to not pay you directly. With some financial assistance, that person could be here making drinks for fine folks in Seattle with a $15 minimum (usually more guaranteed) plus tips in a city where the wealthy throwback $15 cocktails like tap water. The flexibility those jobs provide is key to making both art and food industries a success. 

We could literally fund moving talented but stranded POC, queer, and femme bands out of the south and midwest and help them make a home here. If we only nurture local talent, we can’t broaden local art. Living in Seattle your whole life gives you a specific perspective, but it’s narrow. A vibrant scene takes bold ideas, a new vision, and new blood.