As concerns grow that the rising cost of living is pricing out Seattle’s artists, we spoke with local musicians from different backgrounds about how they’re getting by.
The headlines are relentless. As each record-setting month passes, we’re reminded how expensive living in Seattle has become. In an era where million-dollar houses in once-affordable neighborhoods are frighteningly common, it is now good news when rents increase only a little instead of astronomically.
While the entire working class is squeezed, there’s particular concern that the soaring cost of living is driving out musicians, who have been an integral part of Seattle’s cultural identity even before flanneled longhairs helped define a generation.
Are our starving artists on the verge of literally starving, or at the very least fleeing for cheaper pastures? We spoke with local musicians from a variety of backgrounds to find out how they make ends meet (or didn’t) in an increasingly expensive city.
Emily Nokes, Tacocat
Day job: Freelance editor, writer and graphic designer
Lives on: Capitol Hill
Nowadays, Emily Nokes references her savings account in the past tense. The 33-year-old used to think about retirement but says it now feels out of reach for her generation. The more immediate concern is filling the income gaps when her band isn’t touring and her monthly check from the “Tacocat bank” doesn’t cover all her living expenses.
Since leaving her job as The Stranger’s music editor in 2015, her surfy pop-punk group — one of Seattle’s most successful indie bands in recent years — has been her main source of income. “You can pay your rent, pay your cellphone bill and pay everything,” Nokes says of her income stream now, “but it’s also about the stuff you can’t do anymore, like get a new pair of shoes or get your hair done as frequently as you want.”
While still paying off “gnarly” student loans, the Capitol Hill holdout keeps her overhead fairly low, sharing a $1,175-a-month apartment (a bargain by 2018 Seattle standards) with her partner, though the rent keeps inching up. Still, there’s not much room for “surprise expenses.”
Roughly 30 to 40 percent of her income comes from freelance writing and graphic-design gigs, including her work as Bust magazine’s music editor, which is especially crucial when the band’s writing new material instead of touring, as they are currently.
Now in their early 30s, they’ve watched their friends have babies and buy houses and cars — lives they’ve forgone, in part, to focus on music. “I feel really lucky — I think we all do — to have any kind of working artist life at all,” Nokes says. “No matter how tenuous it gets, it’s still a pretty cool freedom to have.”
Admittedly, they’ve considered leaving Seattle and the scene in which they helped carve a larger space for women. If Nokes’ rent keeps rising and the “dilapidated” house her bandmates share gets flipped, “I don’t think that we’ll be able to continue in Seattle as we are,” she confesses. Even if artists lose the Hill (if they haven’t already), Nokes isn’t as doomsday as some when forecasting the future for musicians in our rapidly changing technopolis.
“There will always be artists,” she says defiantly. “There will always be people who are working at the cafes that the tech bros go to, people that have to bartend at those places. They need to live somewhere. … They can’t stamp us out completely.”
Day job: Coffee-shop manager, founder of holistic skin-care line
Lives on: Mercer Island
Living and working on Beacon Hill, Moni Tep has witnessed gentrification firsthand, as her longtime neighborhood has gotten “more and more white by the day.”
But the last thing the electro-R&B singer expected was to find a more affordable apartment for herself and her 8-year-old son on Mercer Island, land of gazillion-dollar mansions. “It’s like the twilight zone,” she says, still in disbelief. “You’re like, ‘What the hell’s happening?! Did I really just move from Beacon Hill to Mercer Island?!’ ”
Despite her cross-lake relocation, the 25-year-old is still a neighborhood fixture, managing Beacon Hill’s artist-friendly Station coffee shop. Her son, who still goes to school in Seattle, hangs out at the cafe after school until Tep gets off around 9-9:30 p.m., which helps save on day care. Some nights the sultry-voiced single mom will hit the studio until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before getting up to bring her son to school.
Parenthood also requires her to be more selective about the shows she takes, ensuring they compensate enough for missing a night with her son and potentially time off work. She says that can be even more challenging as a black woman as she’s often offered less money than her white peers.
“As artists of color in Seattle, I think that people expect for you to do things because they feel as if you are appreciative of the spotlight, or appreciative of the space that you get put into,” Tep says. “But [they] don’t want to match that with monetary value.”
She adds: “You talk about who owns the venues and you think about who owns these marketing companies and you see it isn’t a reflection of the artists of color in these communities. It’s white folks who run these places.”
As a result, Tep says more artists are forming collectives and throwing their own events (such as her Sway x Swoon series with Stas Thee Boss) to support themselves and their friends. “You have to be creative,” she says. “And you have to take initiative and take charge, and just take up space. Don’t ask for space.”
As a self-described “real Seattle kid,” she “never ever considered” moving to Tacoma. But the once-far-fetched idea has been on her mind lately, as she sees a more diverse community and the ability to find a house in Grit City. “I can’t see being able to do that in Seattle for a very long time,” she says.
Day job: Works occasionally at a boutique-clothing store, learning to make wigs
Lives in: Tacoma
After graduating from The Evergreen State College, Bremerton native Olivia Hatfield wanted to live in Seattle. For $300 a month she got a mattress in the basement hallway of her friends’ house while the aspiring rapper worked a “soul-sucking” job at Buffalo Exchange by day, playing shows at night. Ultimately, the vocally dexterous emcee, better known as Guayaba, wasn’t able to sustain herself in the city. “The longer that I was there the more I realized that it was turning into a place I didn’t want to live,” she says.
Even after moving back home, Hatfield (who doesn’t drive) continued her pace of two or three shows a week, commuting up to two hours by bus, ferry and Lyft. Oftentimes the pay didn’t justify the travel, not to mention having to crash with friends in the city since the last ferry usually left before the shows ended.
Only recently has the 26-year-old — who now lives in Tacoma with her partner, who covers most of their bills — started asking venues for what she feels she’s worth, though not without trepidation.
This spring a small but reputable Seattle club offered her $50 to open for a touring artist. While she eventually coaxed them up to $100, similar haggling with a summer festival was less fruitful and she wound up passing on the gig; not an easy decision since most of her limited income is from performing. “It’s still very terrifying to me, honestly. I’m really afraid of getting blacklisted or being labeled as being difficult to work with,” she says.
Perhaps ironically, Hatfield’s found DIY shows to be more lucrative than playing Seattle’s more established venues with actual talent budgets. “When I first started, I had this idea of a hierarchy of venues and what they would pay. But it’s upside down,” Hatfield says.
Rachel Ratner, Wimps
Day job: Web developer
Lives in: Columbia City
When the rent shot up by $500 a month, it was time to move on. Until three years ago, Rachel Ratner — singer/guitarist for Seattle punk vets Wimps — was sharing a Central District house with two roommates. “It’s just a little bit harder,” says Ratner, 38, of sustaining a scene in post-boom Seattle, “and I also think things are always shifting. … The center of where musicians live is dispersing a little bit now.”
In their 20s, Ratner — who has since resettled in Columbia City with her partner — and her bandmates worked various jobs, including some retail and, for Ratner, gigs as a DJ and outreach manager at KEXP. Entering their 30s, the trio — whose third album, “Garbage People,” drops in July — sought more stability, drummer Dave Ramm working as a speech therapist and bassist Matt Nyce doing graphic design.
Ratner had dabbled in some “web stuff” at KEXP and through other side projects, and began a career as a web developer before Amazon’s world domination. She enjoyed the work and was proud of being one of the pioneering women in a male-dominated field. Her current job at a small philanthropic organization allows her to live in the city, and her 45-hour workweek leaves enough time for her music. “It’s like having a second part-time job, but it’s not undoable,” she says.
The biggest hitch in Wimps members’ career/band balance is touring — a chief source of income and promotional tool for many working musicians. These days they’re limited to shorter runs using two weeks of PTO, maybe cashing in a bonus week of sick time. And it’s worked out well for them, as making Wimps a full-time thing has never been the defined goal.
“Not to say that we aren’t ambitious,” Ratner says, “but I’ve seen how difficult it can be to make a living out of it. … We wanted just to do it and we’re happy that people like it and that we’re able to do it.”
Erik Walters, Silver Torches
Day job: None
Lives in: Enumclaw
About a year ago, Erik Walters decided to go all-in on music. It’s a lifestyle choice he questions daily, but one that wouldn’t have been possible while making rent in Seattle. “The reality is you can’t do it,” the singer-songwriter says. “There’s just no way to make enough money to get by in this town doing music full time.”
So, Walters — who performs as Silver Torches and as a touring member of Pedro the Lion — hung up his coffee-shop gig and moved back home with his parents in Enumclaw.
As an independent artist, the extra money he made from past day jobs always went toward his music: making records or paying the players. With the rise of home-recording technology, it’s possible to cut a record on the cheap. Though for his latest album, the beautifully dark “Let It be a Dream,” Walters wanted a more polished studio product.
“You’re looking at several thousand dollars,” he says. “Plus, if you hire a publicist, which I did, that’s quite a bit of money as well. It’s not cheap. It’s like buying a car if you want to do it.”
As Walters sees it, it’s a necessary investment (if not exactly a surefire one) he compares to getting a small business off the ground. Still, it doesn’t make taking on debt, which he expects to pay off by the end of the year, any less nerve-wracking. “It’s very scary,” the 29-year-old says. “It’s like jumping out into a ravine with no parachute or something — ‘OK, here I go!’ You’re just hoping you land and you don’t die [laughs].”
A few weeks before hitting the road with Pedro the Lion, Walters was in Palm Springs, California, writing songs with friends and other musicians a publishing company set him up with. His 2018 goal is to bank a bunch of songs he can license out for use in film and TV for additional income. Nothing’s hit just yet, but he’s enjoyed meeting and co-writing with new musicians, though it can be a little awkward at first. “It’s like going on a bunch of first dates,” he says.
Whatever happens, Walters doesn’t envision moving back to Seattle proper any time soon. He wishes the tech giants spearheading the city’s transformation would do something “to help facilitate the creation of art” and worries Seattle’s storied scene could turn into “people just being hobbyists.”
“I feel like Seattle’s supposed to be this music town,” he says, “and a lot of stuff comes through here, but what are we gonna do when people stop making it because everybody has to leave because it’s so expensive?”