In the hulking shadow of Bumbershoot, a proliferation of small festivals — Pizza Fest, Vibrations, Northwest Psych Fest and others — are helping new bands find new fans.
Summit Block Party. BIG BLDG BASH. VanFest. Pizza Fest. Northwest Psych Fest. Cairo’s Vibrations. Hollow Earth Radio’s Magma. DASWASUPGIG’s Roachella.
The number of underground music festivals currently taking place around Seattle is staggering. To begin to make sense of it, picture three tiers. Alone at the top sits Bumbershoot. Below it, midsized festivals with an emphasis on regional talent, such as Capitol Hill Block Party (CHBP) and Ballard’s Macefield Music Festival. Below that, a collection of small, upstart fests, bustling like startups in the tech world.
Is this proliferation of bantam festivals — which don’t cost much to attend and are rarely for-profit — a response to the bigger ones getting too big? And does their coexistence mean that the Seattle scene is as vibrant as it’s ever been?
NadaMucho 41 for 2015 Festival
Wednesday-Sunday, Oct. 14-18, at Substation, 645 N.W. 45th St., Seattle; $5-$8/night or $30/weekend (206-403-8883 or nadamucho.com).
Yes to both, according to Matt Ashworth, the editor-in-chief of music blog NadaMucho and promoter behind an ambitious, five-day, all-local art and music showcase named 41 for 2015, which starts Wednesday at the new venue Substation on the Fremont/Ballard border.
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“There’s more interesting music in Seattle than any one entity can represent, and a lot of us who are passionate about it are tired of the big-festival model. They’ll have artists I like, sure, but they don’t serve the purpose of showing people new bands they haven’t heard.”
That sense of discovery is something Ashworth is trying to bring back with 41 for ’15. “Bands who have played Sasquatch! or done a live set on KEXP, they’re already past what we’re trying to do, which is get bands on that radar.”
A group like the psych-punk trio Charms would be ineligible for Ashworth’s event, having climbed the festival ladder this year from SoDo’s BIG BLDG BASH (BBB) to CHBP and finally Bumbershoot, where “we got a good response,” says singer-guitarist E.J. Tolentino. But it wasn’t quite the star-making opportunity it might’ve been back in the ’90s — Tolentino and his bandmates Josh McCormick (synths) and Ray McCoy (drums) describe the Vera Project stage, where they played, as feeling removed from the rest of the festival, with its set times listed in a separate section of the program from the mainstage acts.
Charms’ CHBP set at Cha Cha Lounge, Tolentino says, was “more effective for getting our name out there.” But McCoy says BBB, a completely sold-out experimental-rock warehouse party, was definitely the most fun. “The whole concept, the vibe, the location … it’s an ideal festival for the DIY scene, the kind of thing you dream of playing.”
BBB co-founder Pete Jordan “absolutely” sees events like his as a reaction to big-festival fatigue — the expensive tickets, the less intimate atmosphere. “The thing we noticed immediately during the first BBB [in 2014] was a feeling … as if everyone in attendance had a little ownership of the festival.”
The way these festivals stay solvent is decidedly more do-it-together than DIY. In the absence of big-money sponsors, festivals like Summit Block Party (SBP) rely on crowdfunding campaigns and assistance from small businesses, both to keep tickets free and to pay their staffers.
BBB isn’t free, but it may as well be — its $15 cover this past June not only averaged out to 50 cents per band but also included food and drinks donated by local restaurants and breweries.
For the bands, getting paid isn’t the point — reaching new fans is. And to that end, Ashworth says, inclusivity is key. “You can’t play music for a living when you have the same 40 of us music nerds coming out to the shows,” he says. “You need the Amazon workers, the tech workers — the ‘squares’ — to support you, too.” (When not covering Seattle music on his blog NadaMucho, which he’s kept up since 1997, Ashworth works in public relations for a tech company, which has also done work for CHBP.)
The underage crowd shouldn’t be underestimated either, say Adam Way of SBP and Van Wolfe of VanFest.
Way, who is 23 and grew up in West Seattle, started volunteering at Bumbershoot as a seventh-grader and was just as fascinated by what he saw behind the scenes as by what was onstage. “Having someone trust you to take care of something — that’s gratifying,” Way says. “Especially at an age where people are usually just like, ‘oh, he’s just a kid.’”
Hooked, he volunteered at Vera as a teenager and, more recently, interned at Neumos and for CHBP. Last month, he launched his own production company, Way & Co. Presents.
Wolfe is 21 and his interest in music festivals also started with Bumbershoot, but compared to the indie-rock leaning SBP, the 5-year-old VanFest is a little further off the grid, both in location (a public park in suburban Maple Valley) and spirit (no alcohol, but enough emo, hip-hop, pop-punk and metal to go around).
“Even after turning 21, I prefer to attend all-ages shows,” Wolfe says. “Sober people tend to be friendlier and more fun, and being inclusive is super important to me. I’m a hard-core music lover, and the hard-core music lovers are who [VanFest] is for.”
Is there actually more music being made here now than ever before? That’s harder to quantify. But if you’re feeling out of touch, head to Substation this week.
Odds are you’ll leave with a new favorite band.