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5 Locals Tell Us What It’s Like To Be a Musician in Seattle Today

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Seattle is the birthplace of many things: grunge, Jimi Hendrix, Boeing, and Amazon.

Art and tech contend for the spotlight in Emerald City—it really is quite green in the summer—though both are part of its identity, and they strive to build off of each other.

This ‘Pixorama’ of Seattle designed by Berlin-based firm eBoy was displayed as a full-size mural at Upstream Music Fest. See it in full at How many familiar faces and places do you see?

Today, Seattle, which is made up of sloping hills, indecisive weather, and mist that rises above the blue-gray ocean, continues to observe the influence of both of these industries. With what seems like more creatives per capita than any other American city, artists flock (or stay) here to be part of a diverse and expanding music community. Meanwhile, tech transplants make this the Silicon Valley of the Pacific Northwest, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has a stake in many aspects of the city, including the arts: the Seattle Art Museum recently displayed the Allen family’s collection of historic landscape paintings, and Allen founded Upstream Music Fest + Summit, which took place for the first time in May, bringing bands and lectures to spaces across downtown Seattle.

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While Seattle fosters a community of artists, many find it hard to monetize their music here, especially in comparison to cities like Los Angeles and New York, where PR firms and managers exist in numbers more comparable to the amount of aspiring entertainers. Through lectures, Upstream addressed this reality, all while bringing artists across genres together in one place, if only for a weekend.

We went to Pioneer Square, the heart of Upstream Music Fest, to speak with Seattle-based artists AstroKing Phoenix, Donormaal, Emma Lee Toyoda, CHILDBIRTH, and Taylar Elizza Beth and learn about the challenges and rewards of being a part of this creative community.

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1. Magic Shop at Pike Place Market 2. The infamous Gum Wall

Music Across Stages, Genders, and Genres

Ask almost anyone to name the city’s best venue, and The Crocodile will inevitably get a mention. It’s no wonder: talent buyer Meli Darby was poached from her previous position at the Nectar Lounge in Fremont where she brought giant acts like Wiz Khalifa and Little Dragon to the stage. Darby curated this year’s Upstream Music Fest, which was headlined by Seattle native Macklemore, plus Flying Lotus and 300+ artists that played that weekend, most of them PNW locals. Throughout the city, Darby is known for booking hip hop at her venues.

Seattle native, rapper, and multimedia artist AstroKing Phoenix says this isn’t the case for many Seattle stages. “Not a lot of the venues here are booking hip-hop like that; a lot of them are reserved for national acts. I think [we as artists] are doing a good job of creating our own venues. Each show is its own experience.”

Taylar Elizza Beth, a rapper, singer, and songwriter, says the Seattle hip-hop community is very close, but the answer to whether there is support across genres is complicated. “You know, I think there is; and that’s speaking just from our point of view, because we are multi-genre artists. I feel like I have a lot of people in the techno, DJ, and dance scenes, even the rock scenes; the lines are becoming so blurred within that, because us weirdos, we could be doing an entire love ballad one second, and then doing a punk rock inspired rap, you know? Moshing and shit. I think it’s a really cool inspired mix right now. But on the whole? No. Usually we just stay within the rap scene.”

The support seems to exist less between genres, and more so between people. Women, especially, in the community, are notably supportive of one another.

AstroKing Phoenix and Taylar Elizza Beth at Upstream

“There’s a lot of cool women of color musicians that I really look up to in the scene. It’s really easy to reach out to them, or just foster relationships within social media, and build each other up in a really positive way, which is cool to see,” says Emma Toyoda, who fronts, writes, and composes for her eponymous band, Emma Lee Toyoda.

DoNormaal, (her stage name is a Dutch phrase meaning, ‘chill out, stop acting weird’), has likewise experienced support from other women in the scene. “In the hip hop scene when I first got here I knew almost no women, and slowly I’ve been meeting more femmes, and creating relationships with them, and that’s really nice because it’s totally a boy’s club, just like everywhere is a boy’s club … I feel like the femmes here do support each other. There’s a lot of comparison [from outsiders], and I feel like that can be hard. There’s a lot of grouping me with Guayaba and Taylar [Elizza Beth], and comparing us… we like to be together; I feel like we’re going to do some awesome collaborations…[but]…I don’t think [comparing] is necessary at all. I think it’s just sexism and racism.”

Childbirth, a project from members of Tacocat, says inclusivity within the music scene is good, but not perfect. Political but tongue in cheek, (in their song “Let’s Be Bad,” vocalist Julia Shapiro delivers lyrics like “Let’s be bad/let’s split a dessert” in a breathy, deadpan tone, over ominous scuzzy guitar) a receptive audience is paramount to Childbirth’s shows. “I think that Seattle is special in how many other bands are like us, and how many women are playing music,” says the band’s Stacy Peck, who moved to Seattle from Iowa which, in 2001, “wasn’t the hottest place to be a 22-year-old lesbian. I wanted to move out [to Seattle] and start a band with ladies, and have girlfriends, and wear jackets.” Her bandmates chime in to say, “Mission accomplished.”


Surviving Off Your Art

Compared to many festivals, the consensus among artists is that Upstream pays better than most. This is a small step in an ongoing paradox that seems to take place here: despite the number of artists, it’s not so easy to make a living as a musician.

“It’s almost like the city doesn’t want its artists to be in the city,” says AstroKing Phoenix. “I feel like they make it hard for us to even be living in our own city where our art is thriving. It’s a struggle. I feel like artists, especially artists of color, should be getting paid way more than we are; there are a lot of funds and a lot of money here, and they’re reluctant to pay us. We should be able to live and thrive in the city off our art. A lot of new artists that have been making a name in the city definitely deserve to be making a living off their art.”

“We both don’t live in the city anymore like we used to,” says Taylar Elizza Beth, referring to herself and Astro, “and we both can’t afford to live here. Yeah, Upstream’s paying pretty well—compared to what we usually get paid, for shows and shit. At the same time, you’re Paul Allen. You could be paying us a lot more to do these shows. But it is experience, and exposure.”

DoNormaal at Upstream

DoNormaal says Seattle has a few years before its current scene has more of national spotlight—beyond being known as Nirvana’s hometown. “Like every scene, Seattle has really good things about it, and things that are less supportive for the artists. It’s hard to get paid well here. There’s so much music being made in Seattle that I feel like sometimes it’s overwhelming for the community here, and it makes it so that they latch on to a few artists, and those are the artists that you’re constantly hearing about. They’re really good artists, but in a city where there are so many artists, I think it would be really cool if there was more representation of different scenes and people at different levels of their career. But other than that, it is pretty supportive. I came here and pretty much right off the bat I got a lot of love and support.”

Emma ToyodaAlley Rutzel // KEXP

Emma Lee Toyoda: “[Payment for artists] is usually based on door sales, so it’s nice to have something like Upstream where it’s just a flat rate fee…I think you just have to keep on playing very regularly and that’s how you keep making money and from selling merch and everything…  I feel like ticket sales are always so low to get people to come out to them, but then how much of that actually goes to the artists? You have to split that two, three ways, or sometimes four ways…”

Visual artist and designer Shogo Ota who owns Tireman Studio in Seattle notices how hard it is for his musician friends to make a living here. Originally from Gifu, Japan, Ota was commissioned by Starbucks to design the “Unity Cup,” seen in Starbucks all across America before the 2016, evoking togetherness during a divisive time. Ota is often commissioned by local bands like Thunderpussy, Grizz Almighty, and Acapulco Lips, to design T-shirts, posters, or album art, and has formed relationships with the artists. While his art is his full time job, he notes that these musicians often work on top of playing full time in bands.

Shogo Ota at Upstream in front of his mural of the crowd

Challenges the city is facing today

Considering it’s the fastest growing major city in the U.S., it only makes sense that Seattle is experiencing some growing pains. The artists explained what issues arise amid changes.

AstroKing Phoenix: “I am a Seattle native. I was born and raised in central Seattle, before it got gentrified. In the last 5-10 years, a lot of people, mainly people of color, are being moved out of that part of the city where I grew up; there was primarily a black community there for the most part. Now it’s primarily white people. If you’ve never been to Seattle, and you’re here now [for the first time] you would have never have seen how it used to look.”

DoNormaal: “There’s a lot of money in the city but it has one of the biggest homeless problems. It’s supposedly really progressive and anti-racist, but the segregation is crazy. When you look at the north end versus the south end and how gentrification is running rampant everywhere and pushing so many brown folks out, and white people out too, up North… There’s this feeling that Seattle is a very progressive place, and I think there is some truth to that. But because a lot of Seattleites are like, ‘Well I’m from Seattle and we’re all liberals and we’re all very progressive,’ they can kind of hide behind that, and not really confront the reality that those things are ingrained in us, and show up in all of the things that we do. When you say, ‘Well I’m not that way,’ it impedes your ability to work through whatever issues you might have. There’s a lot of stuff under the surface; there’s definitely a lot of sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia, you know, everything here. It’s such a white city. And it’s a city that’s definitely run by white men, and white men control the music scene, and they are making all the decisions. Even with Upstream, this area is where one of the biggest homeless populations in the city is. This is where they live, but they can’t really be here right now, so they’re all being kind of pushed out; there’s a lot of issues here [in Seattle] that are not being spoken about. ”

Stacy of Childbirth: “Rent has skyrocketed. No one can afford to live in the city anymore unless they have a million roommates or work all the time. It would be cool if the tech people came out too, if this [festival] was packed full of people from companies that were displacing the artists, if they would give back to it a little bit.”

Pike Place Market

Ways to Support and Preserve Seattle’s Creative Side

Upstream hosted lectures about powering a creative community, and how local bands can reach a global audience; it also enabled bands to rub shoulders with one another in Pioneer Square, where most say they don’t generally spend their time. Above all, the festival seems to focus on artist enjoyment. “I want to make sure the musicians are happy,” said Executive director Jeff Vetting. “It’s important to me to be an artist friendly festival. Put the musicians first because the Pacific Northwest scene is the one we’re trying to promote. We want to make sure that they’re having a good time, and that they’re happy and well taken care of. We always talk about making every artist feel like they’re a headliner.”

Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ with notes from the KEXP DJs when it came out in 1991.

Other outlets built into the city are supportive; the influence of local station KEXP cannot be overstated. Starting as a 10-watt station in the early ‘70s, today they broadcast globally. The space hosts live sessions that are open to the public (acts like Father John Misty, Angel Olsen, and David Byrne have graced the space), and focuses heavily on local artists, especially Sharlese Metcalf, who hosts the long-running Audioasis program. Metcalf is lauded among artists for considering nearly every pitch that comes her way and giving a lot of air time to emerging acts. KEXP also hosts Mastering the Hustle, a series of industry workshops aimed at emerging artists.

Listeners can tune into KEXP from anywhere in the nation, or globe. If you’re in town, stop by the gorgeous airy space, which was designed by Paul Thiry (known as the father of modern architecture) and shop for vinyl at Light in the Attic Records (also a local label), or try coffee from La Marzocco, which has a revolving coffee program from different roasters. Most local publications (The Stranger, Seattle Weekly) can point you to shows featuring local acts; MoPOP (Seattle’s museum of pop culture focusing on both music and Sci Fi), hosts Sound Off!, an under 21 battle of the bands which helped bring bands like Emma Lee Toyoda to the fore.

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