Last year's inaugural Decibel Festival made Seattle a radiant node on the global electronic-music radar. Despite tactical errors common to neophyte organizers, Decibel's dedicated crew conjured an experience of historic proportions—and, maybe more importantly, learned from their mistakes. They approach this year's edition of Decibel with crusader-like confidence and optimism. Technology director Paul Edwards, sponsorship coordinator Kristina Childers, creative director Jerry Abstract, and director/curator Sean Horton are upbeat about their mission: to expose the world to the Northwest's thriving electronic-music scene and to introduce festivalgoers to the inner workings of audio-visual production and technology. Their endeavor is noble and important—and apropos in high-tech Seattle.
Buoyed by the strong turnout for German techno star Monolake at a recent Decibel benefit show, Horton and company reel off reasons why this year's extravaganza fills them with hope: greater number of passes sold; improved website content; ads in prominent electronic-music magazines (and in The Stranger, which is one of many sponsors); two sound systems donated by KV2 ("Light years ahead of anything else out there," claims Horton); increased support from KEXP; more effective promoting at the MUTEK and Fuse-In Detroit fests; word-of-mouth boosting from Germany's Markus Nikolai; more emphasis on visual art (overseen by Leo "KillingFrenzy" Mayberry, winner of the recent Opticlash battle); an installation by Digital Kitchen; and, as Edwards notes, a lineup that's "incredible. Last year was great; this is ridiculous."
Unsurprisingly, Horton—who's booked both years' bills—agrees. "I would've never have thought we'd be able to pull together these acts with practically no money and all of us working full-time. With only volunteers, we're pulling together a festival that stands with MUTEK, Sonar, and Fuse-In Detroit as far as talent we're bringing out."
Jon Berry, who runs the Montreal-based PR/management company Regenerate Industries and handles Akufen and Deadbeat (both of whom play September 24), praises Decibel's "tireless effort and ongoing support for not only playing a massive role in bringing international recognition to the Northwest's electronic-music community over recent years, but by helping make Seattle a mandatory stopping point for international touring DJs/acts to visit. Decibel has done one hell of a job picking the cream of the crop out there."
This isn't baseless hype. Decibel has gone to great lengths to assemble several world-class showcases, encompassing techno, microhouse, electro-pop, ambient, experimental, IDM, and more. Most of the non-local artists aren't touring, so coaxing Fennesz from Austria; Aeroc from Spain; Styrofoam from Belgium; Akufen, Deadbeat, and J. Hunsberger from eastern Canada; and Isolée, Apparat, and Thomas Fehlmann from Germany isn't cheap. But snagging these artists exemplifies Decibel's tenacity and hunger for quality electronic music. (See Data Breaker, page 52, for a survey of highlights.)
As delectable as the musical menu looks, though, Decibel henceforth plans to expand beyond sound to embrace visual art, gear seminars, and panel discussions on topics relevant to digital-media artists. The organizers have devised an edifying, entertaining four-day program to engage your ears, eyes, and minds—all for $50 for a full-event pass (individual show prices vary), which can maybe get you and your date a decent dinner downtown.
"Decibel aims to produce an enlightening experience for Seattle's music and media community, not some larger regular 'club night,'" says Abstract, who's also playing as part of the Shitkatapult/Detroit Underground showcase September 23. "Club nights are great in the sense that there's always something there holding the torch, but Decibel aims to be greater, with rare music, different types of visuals, and interesting education."
Abstract expects Decibel 2005 to draw better than last year's fest. "I expect the city, potential sponsors, and press to pay more attention to us; to take seriously what we can add to the greater good of Seattle."
While it's spiffy that Decibel's lured several elite musicians to Seattle, which increases the odds of non-Seattleites attending, another benefit is the strengthening of bonds within the local music scene. "It's amazing how many different groups of people have come together," Horton enthuses. "Fourthcity, Sensory Effect, Basskamp, Decibel, Krakt, Shameless—there are like a dozen groups within Seattle that are all working together. Decibel is largely a catalyst for that."
One segment of that scene that won't be very involved with Decibel is under agers. One of Decibel's blunders in 2004 was holding all-ages shows for techno heads in spaces that didn't serve alcohol. Those sets—as phenomenal as they were—drew the poorest crowds. While reducing its all-ages agenda, Decibel has slated Broadway Performance Hall (all ages, but serving beer and wine) to host the more rarefied musical showcases and extravagant visual spectacles. Horton envisions BPH to be Decibel's hub, where clinics, panel discussions, experimental/ambient concerts, and visual art will cohere into a mind-expanding banquet for the senses.
Another factor in Decibel 2005's favor is the substantial participation of KEXP. Horton and I scorned the powerful station last year about its indifference to quality electronic music, but a meeting between Horton and program director John Richards mollified ill feelings, and KEXP is now a sponsor.
"They plug [Decibel] five times a day," Horton beams. "We're doing a live broadcast of Expansions Sunday night [September 25] at the Baltic with [KEXP DJs] Riz and Kyle playing live. KEXP is sponsoring the Styrofoam/Her Space Holiday show. Jerry, Caro, and I are going to be on Audioasis September 17 to do an interview. They're playing stuff they weren't touching a couple of years ago. I give KEXP credit for listening to the local community."
All indicators point to this year's Decibel being even more revelatory than 2004's. Biggest props perhaps should go to the volunteer most responsible for manifesting Decibel's greatness: Jerry Abstract. "I have dedicated my time, efforts, sweat, and sanity to it," he explains. "I even nearly lost my day job to it. I've created Decibel's brand identity, all the graphical aspects, got Digital Kitchen to work with us, found the after-hours space, and promoted the hell out of Decibel (and Seattle) to peeps in Detroit, Chicago, Berlin, and Portland. Decibel has consumed me as much as I consume the potential of Seattle's electronic-music community." And the benefits we reap are anything but firstname.lastname@example.org