Magical things used to happen when there was live music in the airport.
Travelers were able to take a moment from the rush and listen to the sound of Seattle — a taste lasting longer than a bowl of chowder or a craft beer.
The musicians, too, had their moments. Stevie Wonder once stopped to listen to a young artist, asking her if she had a record contract and leaving his card.
Eddie Vedder gave a musician a $100 tip and a couple of picks — encouragement to keep going.
And then the pandemic came, and the music — save for the prerecorded songs and announcements by musicians such as Duff McKagan and Allen Stone — stopped.
That will change this week, when Sea-Tac Airport introduces what it is calling its “Music Wall” — a 12-by-7-foot screen on which two hours of performances by 30 Seattle-area musicians will play on a loop; and on which viewers will be asked to make donations that will be distributed among the artists.
The Music Wall is located on the C Concourse, across from Gate C10.
It’s a way to bring music back to a place that has been silenced by the pandemic, and to help artists whose livelihoods have been devastated by the inability to play in public — and, in many cases, work other jobs in restaurants and bars.
“We keep in touch with a lot of our musicians, and we started to hear a lot of horror stories,” said Jon Stone, general manager of Gigs4U, which books artists in civic, municipal and commercial spaces, including the airport.
“This is what they do, this is their job,” he said. “If they don’t do this, they are in the service industry, but those are shut down, too. We were frustrated we couldn’t help.”
He rallied places like the Museum of Pop Culture and Victory Studios, which produces an online show, “Band in Seattle,” for footage of local artists; and companies like Promosa to donate the audio and video components. He also gathered self-produced videos from the artists and produced a few pieces, threading them together with footage featuring KEXP deejays Marco Collins and Eva Walker introducing the artists and encouraging viewers to donate.
Gigs4U will collect the donations, pay the taxes and distribute them among the artists. The plan is to make a new video every six weeks and, in the future, place music walls in different areas of the airport.
Aline Vida has been playing soul and rock music as half of Aline & Wes (with Wes Speight) for years — and at the airport since 2018.
She plays Etta James and Sade because “at the airport, people like things that are more mellow,” she said. “People are trying to get to where they want to get to, and they want to be calmed.”
When she isn’t playing, she is an operations manager whose hours were cut, so she has received grants and unemployment, which has helped, but it’s still been hard.
It’s been even harder, though, not to play for people — and make the personal connection that live music creates. It is even more so at the airport, where there is no stage.
“People are able to come right up to you. … I have had so many unexpected, meaningful experiences at the airport,” she said. “You have to let your guard down. It’s a different form of interacting.
“You’re emotionally vulnerable in a good way.”
She remembered a bear of a man who stood watching her play, and when she finished, walked up, hugged her and kissed her on the cheek.
“I had just played a song called ‘I’m Still Alive,'” she said. “I guess he needed to hear that song at that moment.”
Tami Kuiken, a dining and retail business manager who manages Sea-Tac’s music program, said music is in Seattle’s fabric and is a key aspect of the airport’s ambience.
“It is vitally important to have music in the airport because we are a music city,” she said. “And the music is part of our environment now. It relieves the anxiety of traveling.”
The wall replaces the live music program that started in March 2013 and was supposed to run for just 12 weeks. But it was so popular that the airport continued to fund it, paying the artists $25 hour on top of donations and whatever merchandise and music they sold. It was always a daytime gig so they could also work at night.
In 2014, the program’s funding ran out, so the airport asked restaurants and retailers to fund 50% of the program, which they did, because they knew it helped them.
“We found the travelers were dwelling longer in the areas where the musicians were,” Kuiken said. “They were staying in the restaurants, having another beer and spending in adjacent stores because of the music.
“We started building on it to where it is now.”
Build, indeed: In addition to the stage now in the Capitol Hill Food Hall in Concourse A, the airport has planned a stage at the North Satellite and the Central Terminal.
But until then, there is the Music Wall, soothing travelers and sustaining artists.
“It has a real wow factor,” Kuiken said, “You watch it and think, ‘There they are, larger than life!’ It created a warm and happy feeling in my heart.”
Said Stone: “Seeing it took me back to my early years as a musician and music lover in Seattle. We have this wealth of talent that we’re nurturing.
“Watching this is feeling like you’re hearing things for the first time all over again. It’s a beautiful feeling.”