Three days, 30 stages, over 300 acts and dozens of music-industry workshops. This week, Paul Allen launches his latest major civic initiative: Upstream Music Fest + Summit.
Does Seattle — or the world — really need another mammoth music festival?
We’re about to find out.
This week, the new, ambitious Upstream Music Fest + Summit, dreamed up and largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, promises to transform Pioneer Square into an eclectic “walkable mixtape” and music-industry conference.
Upstream Music Fest + Summit
May 11-13 in Pioneer Square, Seattle; four free venues with tickets ranging from $40 for Thursday to $425 for a three-day VIP pass (upstreammusicfest.com).
Downstream Music Fest + Art Show
May 11-13 at Substation, 645 N.W. 45th St., Seattle; $10 per day (substationseattle.com).
The event will be geographically tight (roughly four by four city blocks) but conceptually sprawling, with 30 stages (four of them free), lineups by guest curators and around 300 acts that range from the famous (Flying Lotus, Dinosaur Jr., Shabazz Palaces) to bands that haven’t even released a record yet.
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At the conference, music icons will give keynote speeches, including jazz legend Quincy Jones, hip-hop star Macklemore, and Portia Sabin, a cultural anthropologist who now runs the well-known indie-rock and comedy label Kill Rock Stars.
The conference menu includes workshops about whether record labels are still relevant in the digital-streaming era, how bands can earn a paycheck by getting their music into video games, and how musicians can harvest and use data — who’s listening, how they’re listening and when — that music corporations have been leveraging to their own benefit for decades.
Upstream is the latest civic initiative from Allen, who has earned a reputation as a generous but sometimes fickle philanthropist — his EMP Museum, now called MoPop, is one example, with its shifting names and identities (music, science fiction, pop culture in general). And his gallery Pivot Art + Culture got off to a rocky start in 2015 when it hosted a blockbuster exhibition, then stated that “long-term options other than a gallery space are being considered. (After the turmoil, Pivot remains a functional art gallery.)
More recently, he’s put his muscle and wallet behind Seattle Art Fair, which has attracted artists and art-buyers from Phnom Penh to New York and, last week, announced he would donate $30 million to build housing for low-income and homeless families.
Upstream, said Vulcan spokeswoman Anna Imperati, is “very much Paul’s vision, inspired by his experiences at music festivals. It’s similar to Seattle Art Fair in that he had such amazing experiences at Venice Biennale and asked: ‘Could we do this in Seattle?’ ”
So far, the reaction from Seattle’s music community has ranged from cautiously optimistic — with, as always, a few naysayers — to enthusiastic.
“Seattle needed to have a festival like this,” said John Richards, a DJ at the independent radio statio KEXP. “When you see gentrification, anything that creates a space for artists, a space for music in our city, it should be supported by our city.”
Richards, as well as folks like Kate Becker from the city’s Office of Film and Music, think Upstream could become Seattle’s answer to South by Southwest — Austin’s now-enormous festival of music, film and technology, where President Barack Obama gave a speech about cybersecurity in 2016.
Musician Tendai Maraire, of psychedelic-inflected hip-hop groups Shabazz Palaces and Chimurenga Renaissance (both of which are playing Upstream) said this kind of festival is instrumental to pulling art and culture closer to the heart of Seattle’s civic life.
“If you’re gonna be a major city — which we are, even though we pretend like we aren’t — and make moves like this, who better to do it than Paul Allen?” Maraire asked. “The city is changing, and not everybody is happy about all of it, but this festival coming along is one piece of an intricate puzzle for Seattle.”
Upstream also hopes to be an answer to the “festival fatigue,” that music critics in Europe and the U.S. have been writing about for at least a decade: oversaturation of the festival market; skyrocketing ticket prices; homogeneous lineups with the same big-name musicians; a maturing music fan base that doesn’t want to spend days on end being jostled by teenagers who are drunk, high and hollering.
Instead of festivals like Sasquatch! (where people drive to a rural location for a few days) or Capitol Hill Block Party (which puts the emphasis on “party”), the folks behind Upstream want to shine a light on new musicians — especially ones from the Pacific Northwest. And they want to be as comprehensive as possible.
“That has been the mission from the jump,” said lead Upstream curator Meli Darby. “Trying to get the whole spectrum of Northwest music and look at it from a bird’s-eye view … and use this as a platform to be more collective and collaborative.”
Around 1,200 bands applied to play at Upstream, she said, but the festival could only book around 330.
Darby (who has been producing shows in Seattle for 18 years) said the festival placed a premium on diversity from the beginning, inviting a large roster of guest curators from various corners of the city’s music community to choose what we’ll hear.
She’s invited KEXP DJs, music and community group 206 Zulu, queer arts festival ’Mo Wave, Sub Pop Records, musician and producer Catherine Harris-White (also known as SassyBlack, formerly of THEESatisfaction) and dozens of others.
As a result, Upstream’s “mixtape” includes hip-hop, indie rock, jazz, electronic music and heavy metal.
The festival, Harris-White said, will give musicians and attendees alike a chance to find new sounds, cross-pollinate and build relationships across cities and states. To, in her words, “build the community beyond people who are so close, you could throw a rock at.”
Even though a large percentage of Upstream’s artists are from the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho), “Not everybody in one scene is alike,” Harris-White added. “The Seattle scene is different from the Tacoma scene.”
Upstream musicians are already discovering new peers simply by reading over the lineup and doing some research.
“I’m super-excited to see Boy Harsher,” said Michael Loftus, guitar player for Seattle queercore punk band Sashay. (Boy Harsher is a gritty, goth-inflected electronic duo from Massachusetts that began when one member starting setting the other member’s short prose to music.) “Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of them until a week and a half ago. Now I play them at work constantly.”
Brent Amaker of theatrical country band Brent Amaker and the Rodeo (which he describes as “spaghetti Western meets Devo”) appreciates Upstream’s broad spectrum of musicians. “I hate being put on a bill that’s all country,” said the Oklahoma-born, Seattle-based musician. “That way of thinking about music just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
And, as far as he can tell, musicians feel like Upstream is treating them well.
“Festivals often save a lot of money for big-budget headliners and throw the other bands a hundred bucks just for the honor of playing the festival.”
Amaker demurred when asked how much Upstream was paying the Rodeo. “But,” he said wryly, “It’s more than what I would get playing South by Southwest.”
Measurement of success
Big questions still loom over Upstream: Will it succeed? And how would it measure its success? Sheer ticket sales? The number of times up-and-coming artists get to hobnob with music-industry bigwigs? The volume of bands who wind up getting a record deal out of the weekend? Or some other yardstick?
“On the festival side,” Upstream director Jeff Vetting explained, “it’s a purely enjoyment metric. I just want people to go out and discover their new favorite band. On the summit side, I want artists to learn about their industry so they can go out and be successful.”
Vetting declined to say how much Allen and the festival’s corporate partners — including Amazon.com, Starbucks and Miller Lite — have invested in Upstream. (Becker, at the city’s Office of Film and Music, said she didn’t know either, but had heard the budget “broke seven figures for its first year.”)
Allen, Vetting added, wants Upstream to get off the ground first, then learn to walk on its own.
Richards said that’s similar to how Allen supported KEXP, donating $3 million in 2001 — plus a South Lake Union building he rented to the station for one dollar per year — with the expectation that the station would become self-sustaining.
“I think it’s a smart way to go about it,” Richards said. “A project doesn’t exist without him, but then he steps away and lets it go. So you gotta earn it. Would we be who we are today if we didn’t have to work for it? Would we be lazy if we had that safety net?”
Upstream has already hit at least one milestone of success: counterprogramming.
As part protest and part joke, local musician and producer Tim Basaraba is throwing a “Downstream” music festival at Substation — self-described as “Seattle’s underground music venue” — in the “Frelard” zone between Fremont and Ballard.
“I thought this would be a great, fun launchpad for bands that wouldn’t even think about applying to Upstream, or those who applied and got rejected,” Basaraba said. “I don’t want to begrudge any of the bands playing Upstream. It makes sense. The paycheck is there, the ability to make new fans is there. I’ve got some friends playing Upstream, like The Spider Ferns, and maybe they’ll get that thing everybody’s wanted since 1990: a record deal.”
Basaraba swiped Upstream’s logo (and added a toilet), but says he hasn’t gotten any kind of cease-and-desist memo from the main festival. “If Paul Allen wants to sit down and talk, I’ll stop all Downstream programming for a studio and a jam space in Pioneer Square,” he said, laughing. “I live in Lake City … I can be easily bought.” (Vulcan’s corporate offices are on the southern edge of Pioneer Square.)
A “call-to-action” also is being circulated on change.org, thanking Allen for his support for Upstream, but asking Vulcan to offer more affordable housing in its development of properties in Yesler Terrace and “the Promenade” in the Central District. It’s already been signed by some significant figures in Seattle’s arts and culture scene — including George (“Geo”) Quibuyen of the foundational Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars and Ashraf Hasham of TeenTix.
“Let’s draw a line in the sand now,” the letter says, “and commit to keeping space for art makers and musicians.”
In the meantime, everyone — from Upstream organizers to musicians to Downstream — seems to be holding their collective breath, wondering what the weekend will look like.
“It’s hard to make a judgment call about this festival because I haven’t seen it yet,” musician Tendai Maraire said. “I know this world is quick, quick, quick to make a judgment about everything. But I’ll give you a very honest assessment when it’s over. I’ll tell you the truth.”