Seattle’s South by Southwest, the Upstream summit and festival is designed to help emerging artists learn how to make their mark in the new music economy.
Billionaire Paul Allen has invested in Seattle’s real estate, art scene, sports teams and even brain research.
Now, he is returning to his music-nerd roots.
The Microsoft co-founder is funding Upstream, a three-day music summit and festival designed to give emerging local artists the resources they need to navigate and thrive in the new music economy.
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“The idea just started percolating,” Allen said, speaking from his yacht in Rio de Janeiro, where he is attending the Summer Olympics.
“Seattle would be a great place to do it because we’ve always been a great place for innovation,” he said, “and I just thought it would be a great opportunity to work with the local venues in Pioneer Square.”
By day, some 200 artists will gather at the CenturyLink Field Event Center with music professionals, technologists and creatives to talk about how to succeed in the industry. There will be interactive keynotes, breakout sessions, cross-industry discussions and mentoring workshops for local artists.
In the evening, the artists will perform in more than 25 spaces and venues throughout Pioneer Square and CenturyLink Field’s North Lot.
“Basically, we want to focus on how artists are making money now that the traditional record-sales model has gone away,” said Jeff Vetting, Upstream’s executive director and the former events manager at KEXP. “Not all artists know how to capture and monetize those opportunities.”
The artists have not yet been named but will be curated by Meli Darby, a longtime local talent buyer who left The Crocodile earlier this month to join Upstream.
The event is being managed by Vulcan, Allen’s private company, which is partnering with KEXP and the Alliance for Pioneer Square. Vulcan declined to say how much Allen is investing.
It will be open to the public, and tickets will be available this fall at upstreammusicfest.com. Artists chosen to perform will be able to attend for free.
“What I really want to do with this festival is support up-and-coming acts. The blues groups of the future to the experimental jazz acts, like Snarky Puppy was a few years ago,” Allen said. “And electronic music is becoming a much larger component.”
Kate Becker, the director of the Seattle Film and Music Commission, said the summit will build a bridge for the talented musicians who may fill the city’s venues — but don’t know where to go from there.
“Not all cities have as much of a live music scene as we do, which is fantastic,” she said. “But this is about how we grow this ecosystem.”
Allen isn’t sure he will participate in any of the panels at Upstream (“I’m not an oracle.”) but is interested in the evolution of streaming.
“You need to find ways to capture the value artists are creating,” he said.
Vetting has spent the last year visiting music festivals to see what works, from the way conference rooms are designed, to the types of professionals who fill them.
“I’m over the moon about this,” Vetting said. “Nothing breaks my heart more than to have a band that started in Seattle describe itself as a ‘Los Angeles band.’
“We should have the opportunity for those bands to stay home and succeed,” he said. “The artists can’t get the lift that they need, and this might be it.”
Pioneer Square was chosen for its geographical density and its easy access to the freeway, Vetting said, but also for its rich musical history in jazz, grunge and hip-hop.
“So many firsts,” Vetting said of the area, “and we want to be able to replicate and create more of that magic.”
Allen still remembers seeing Jimi Hendrix at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1968.
“That was one of the performances that burns itself in your memory,” he said, adding that he saw Hendrix perform again at Sick’s Stadium in 1970.
These days, Allen can be spotted at the Neptune, most recently to see artists like Billy Gibbons, Joe Jackson and Snarky Puppy.
“There’s a whole different way to express yourself in music and the other arts,” he said. “And it hopefully complements other things you do in technology.”
To that end, Allen plays guitar in a band called The Underthinkers, and has played with Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics, Joe Walsh and, more recently, Jimmy Page when the Led Zeppelin guitarist received a Founder’s Award at EMP Museum.
“I have had some amazing experiences as a musician,” Allen said, then paused. “Even with my modest skills.”