Like a few thousand people this weekend (the organizers are claiming 30,000 attendees, which seems a little high if you ask me), I went to the inaugural Upstream Music Fest in Pioneer Square. The experience was mixed (read our reviews, here, here, here and here), but there’s definitely some promise in the Paul Allen-created festival. The SXSW-model is tantalizing and seemed within reach, but a few things are keeping it from feeling like a real rock fest and less like a corporate party thrown by our tech overlord.
1. Knock it off with the clear bag policy. It is written in the fine print of the book-length set of instructions (we’ll get to that in a minute) that you can’t bring in a bag, and if you want to bring a bag, it has to be clear. 1a) This is not a fucking football game. It’s a rock and roll festival. We are not smuggling in weapons, we are not going to get in roid-rage fist fights, we are in tiny clubs, not a big stadium as a massive throng of angry people yelling at modern-day gladiators. 1b) The policy disproportionately affects women who have shit they need to bring with them and some of that is private and personal. Would you like me to flash my tampons and period pads at the club, sir? Is that sexy? No. So, knock it off with the clear bag policy. If you’re going to insist that people use them, give them out FOR FREE when people pick up their implants—I mean, wristbands.
2. Knock it off with the elaborate data mining and privacy invasion. If you want to track where people went, fine, but you don’t need my fucking name to do it. You also don’t need my Facebook profile and you don’t need my Twitter, you don’t need my email, you just don’t. Do not make people download the app to register it, do not make people register this thing in order to “activate” the wristband. The wristband should come activated when we pick it up. We already feel like cattle, how about not making us feel like we’re just here to collect marketing data for you?
3. If said wristband comes with a list of instructions longer than a recipe for Coq Au Vin, you are doing this wrong. This is a rock festival, no one is going to read that fucking thing, which will bring us back to problem number 1.
4. Get your sound dialed in. Most of the venues that we and our friends went to that were bars and clubs sounded great; but some of the non-traditional venues didn’t (I’m looking at you, 18th Floor of Smith Tower). Worse, the main stage sounded like shit when we visited. Friends left Dinosaur Jr. because the vocals sounded shredded, and the problem didn’t appear to be fixed for headliner Shabazz Palaces. The bass was killer, but everything else was fuzzy. Upstream, you’re a music festival, you basically have one job. This is it.
5. This shit is too expensive and too big. Cut the price and the number of bands in half. 150 bands is plenty. $65 is a deterrent to anyone who is not middle-class or a brogrammer. If you have never heard of any of the bands (and that is likely if you are able to afford this luxury) you are going to be deterred from coming. If you do recognize these bands because you are 21 and cool, it is likely that you won’t be able to afford to come. Therefore, the people you want to be at this festival are kept out of the experience because of basic economic status. It took years of blowing street cred for Bumbershoot and Capitol Hill Block Party to be able to raise their prices to this level. You have to wait, too.
6. Keep the stages confined to Occidental Square. There is no need for the “main” stage to be in the CLInk. It’s too far away from the action, it’s too impersonal, and it’s not really clear if you have the crowds yet to warrant a “big” stadium stage.
7. Get some really big local headliners. Go all out. Past and present. Get Pearl Jam, Macklemore, Mudhoney, bring back Sir Mix-a-lot. With so many smaller, indie local bands, a lot of people who were not music obsessives were deterred: "I've never heard of any of these people, why would I pay for that?" was a refrain I heard. People need a little candy. Give it to them.
The festival wasn’t exactly a rousing success, but it wasn’t an epic failure, either—as Rich Smith wrote, venues were “feast or famine,” but it did have promise. Fix these things and we’ll be less cranky next year.