Thurs-Sun Sept 23-26, various venues, $5-$65.
As we gather for an interview less than two weeks before the first annual Decibel Festival, event volunteers Sean Horton, Kristina Childers, Paul Edwards, and Mike Lakeman look exhausted. These organizers have been working long hours--on top of their day jobs and regular DJ/live gigs--for the inaugural edition of the event.
Decibel is the four-day electronic-music showcase they hope will put the Pacific Northwest scene on the global radar--and decisively erase the popular belief that this region is solely indie and garage rock central.
With a strong lineup of 90-plus artists solidified and four venues (Barça, Chop Suey, Capitol Hill Arts Center, and Oseao Gallery, the official after-party venue) confirmed, the crew continues to face the daunting task of drawing people to Seattle from September 23-26 to witness dozens of low-profile musicians making tracks with no sing-along choruses, no videos on MTV, no commercial radio airplay, little love from college and listener-supported radio, and scant attention from local media outlets (save for the paper before you).
Though their voices and faces show the strain of this monumental task, festival catalysts Horton & Co. are upbeat about the quality of spectacle they've assembled. But for a while, Decibel's existence hung tenuously in the balance. With less than a month to go before start date, only 34 passes had been sold; 500 purchased passes were needed to break even, 200 to cover travel expenses for out-of-town talent. Without a tremendous surge in sales, months of hard work would have been for naught.
After Horton sent an urgent e-mail to various electronic-music news groups, many supporters, who didn't want to see the unceremonious folding of what is destined to be one of the U.S.'s greatest gatherings of electronic-music excellence, purchased tickets.
With disaster averted, Horton still had to rein in costs. Decibel decided to ax four Detroit acts (Scan 7, Electrofunk, Tek Brothers, and DJ Clandestine), which were consuming a third of the overall budget. "The lineup's so strong without them that it's not much of a casualty," says Edwards. Besides, fellow Detroiters Twonz, Mike Huckaby, and DJ Minx will appear.
"We're not expecting this to be a profitable venture at this point," Horton says. "We're expecting it to be something that allows the Northwest and Seattle electronic-music community to be put on the map. That's really the focus."
Although the scope of the event has raised the question of whether Decibel organizers were overly ambitious, Horton says a smaller scale wouldn't have attracted visitors from other cities. "I firmly believe that if we were going to make it any less of an ambitious project, we wouldn't have people from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Michigan, and Wisconsin buying tickets. That is why I wanted to go at this [aggressively] and try to get world-class talent--which we have. This lineup is attracting national--and even global--respect throughout the electronic-music community. In order to attract a larger audience with underground music--regardless of what style it is--you have to have a diverse lineup. I don't want to downsize it."
"People keep saying we should've gone smaller the first year," adds Edwards, "but if you look at Mutek or DEMF [Detroit Electronic Music Festival] or even Coachella, their first years were huge. I feel like going big is definitely the way to go."
Decibel's bill ought to excite many underground-electronica aficionados, but it also serves as a stellar crash course for novices wanting to get up to speed with cutting-edge sound design [see Data Breaker sidebar for highlights]. There may be no household names playing Decibel, but the quantity of quality producers and DJs performing is breathtaking.
Reflecting a lack of prima-donna attitude, most of the out-of-town talent has opted for modest fees and accommodations (about 20 are crashing at Horton and Childers' house). "These [artists] know that this is special and not something that happens in the United States, as far as forward-thinking and experimental electronic music goes," says Horton. "It's normally the kind of thing that happens in Europe or Canada. So we're really trying to create something new here."
Although Horton failed to book techno giant Richie Hawtin, there's no shortage of tech-savvy artists to redress the Canadian star's absence. "John Tejada is a programmer for Native Instruments and one of my favorite producers," Horton says. "People like him, Richard Devine, and Tipper are really pushing the boundaries of technology, but also creating incredible dance music. I think we've more than covered that angle with the festival: talented artists who are both compositionally and technically gifted."
Former Seattleite Tomas Palermo, editor of electronic-oriented XLR8R magazine, sees Decibel as a natural outgrowth of the region's musical fecundity. "From the laptop battles to the resurgence of its live-band scene, to all sorts of hiphop and electronic and inter-city collaboration between Seattle and Portland artists, 10 years post-grunge we are seeing the Saturn's return of the Northwest music scene, and it's better and more diverse than ever. Decibel will be another reason to pay attention to the noise up north."
Renowned Atlanta producer Richard Devine says he signed on for Decibel because "it seemed like it would really open doors for a lot of electronic artists like myself. Seattle has been a long-time center for lots of different music, and I think the city will be an electronic hot spot in the near future."
"Don't be afraid to see an artist you've never heard of or experience a style of music you've never seen because of a preconceived notion of what it might be," Horton concludes. "There's a ton of talent here, and my biggest fear is that people won't see something because they haven't heard of it. If that was the way things were, then this music would never get noticed. It gets no radio play. How else would you hear it unless you actually take a chance?"