Save Seattle Music

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We Spoke to Musicians, Talent-Buyers, Club Owners, and Leaders in the Music Community to Find Out What Happens Next

Just weeks before they were set to hit the road, Animal Collective, the beloved experimental pop outfit with a successful 22-year career under their belt, announced they were canceling their 11-date European tour. The venues were booked; tickets had been sold.

Their statement, posted on social media, was a frank indictment of the state of being a touring artist today. “From inflation, to currency devaluation, to bloated shipping and transportation costs, and much much more, we simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could. We have always been the kind of people to persevere through the difficult times and get on stage unless our health prevented it. We are choosing not to take the risk to our mental and physical health with the economic reality of what that tour would have been.”

They aren’t the only well-established artists to bow out of booked tours and shows. Santigold and Ringo Starr canceled the remainder of their tours—82-year-old Starr contracted COVID for the second time and Santigold cited economic hardship, mental health concerns, and general exhaustion. 

Arlo Parks, Wet Leg, Justin Bieber, and Bauhaus canceled their tours as well. Their reasons are a slurry of illness—both mental and physical—and economic impossibilities, and underlying it all is the continued decline of tour ticket sales, the rising costs of travel and gas, and the opacity of how to find balance in a touring landscape that seems so foreign after a two-year pandemic has left everyone inside and outside the music industry floundering. 

There is a hopeful note here. Prioritizing mental and physical health over performance and business signals a kind of sea change in how we allow one another to care for ourselves. It is promising that we can put this conversation out in the open when hustle culture has blocked these off-ramps for so many years. But the artists mentioned above are, for the most part, artists with resources. They have the support of a label, a manager, an accountant—someone who can crunch the numbers and help figure out the next step. But what about smaller artists, specifically local artists who are trying to prioritize mental or physical health while creating and nurturing their art and the art of our city? If Santigold or Justin Bieber are struggling, even with the support of a professional team, what resources are there for everyone else?

The biggest one in Seattle is SMASH, Seattle Musicians to Sustainable Healthcare, a nonprofit that “helps Seattle's low- and limited-income working musicians stay healthy by providing access to free and low-cost medical, dental, and mental health services, plus support for navigating the complicated and frustrating healthcare system.” Beyond providing access, SMASH helps artists make sense of healthcare’s complex systems. 

They’ve been working to meet the increased need in the wake of COVID-19, and all its rippling effects, and mental health care and addiction services have moved to the forefront. Executive Director Denise Burnside told The Stranger, “We are working on launching an addiction resource program, but if any musicians are in need of support we can connect them to a rehab facility and funding to cover most, if not all, of the costs.”

Backline is a national nonprofit that connects “music industry professionals” to mental health resources specifically, expanding their care beyond the mic, and a lesser-known local resource is SeaMar, a sliding-scale community health center that works with low-income people regardless of profession. 

Bri Bloemendaal, who releases music as Divorce Care, recently dove into finding insurance coverage as an artist. “Thriving or even merely surviving as an artist in a capitalist culture is not an easy undertaking—finding resources to give you even the slightest bit of lift or support is scarce and it’s honestly hard to even know where to start without a corporation behind you, fueling and funding those resources.”

She was able to find care under SMASH, saying, “I simply feel less alone and less anxious about not being able to afford or obtain even the most basic health and wellness needs for myself as an artist.”

It is wonderful that there are more resources available for artists in our city than in most others. However, it is a piecemeal solution. Applying for grants, navigating a health care system without standard insurance (or even with it), all the while managing day-to-day life, is essentially a full-time job. There is also no guarantee that the available resources will be applicable to every artist who could benefit from them, making each step in the right direction a chance to be pushed two steps back. 

Organizations also face the same issues so many other artists and bands face—it's hard to get information out there when everyone's newsfeeds are already overly saturated. Their messaging doesn't always reach the people who need it most.

Local musician Bryan John Appleby said, “I don't have much of an idea what kind of resources exist locally to support musicians other than the informal support of friends or the often degrading, strings-attached patronage of the city's wealthy.”

Some support is also temporary. There was an influx of relief funding for artists during COVID, and it was incredible to watch as people ran to help as the world shut down. Thanks to organizations like Seattle Artist Relief Fund and Artist Trust, musicians and other artists were able to cover rent and expenses despite the fact their main source of income was obliterated. However, many of those grants aren’t specifically for the expenses of a working artist. And several other grants are dependent on crisis and philanthropy, which afford little lasting dignity. 

In canceling tours, playing fewer shows, and being vocal about the endless obstacles with little relief in sight, musicians are telling us they’re not all okay. And we need to listen. If we’re going to have a real conversation about the sustainability of the music industry, now is the time to have it. 

Jeremy Buller, a local musician who has toured with Sondre Lerche, Jeremy Enigk, and Chris Staples, among others, spoke to the post-lockdown tour cancellations: “If there was a world where easier access to mental health care was available, maybe this collective trauma wouldn’t have amounted to such a shock. Maybe we would be better equipped to navigate it.”

While the pandemic isn’t over, the attention span of the money-giving public has waned. Tour ticket sales are shockingly down, with every size of venue taking massive hits to attendance. Production costs have gone up. Album production is delayed. It’s a crisis, but one of accessibility, of how much we prioritize health. Of whose responsibility it is to fix, and if it’s sustainable to have this long-delayed focus on mental and physical health have its only solutions in mutual aid and nonprofits while our cities, states, and federal governments do nothing. 

But if we are on our own, we’ll need the music to keep us going. Taking care of our arts scene is taking care of us all.