Editor's note: This story is an adaptation of a series of reports by the author on "Changing the Sound," which recently aired on KUOW Public Radio.
By the time Nirvana released its groundbreaking major label recording Nevermind, in September of 1991, Seattle had already changed irrevocably from the isolated seaport it had been for most of its existence. After many decades as a center for logging, fishing, and aerospace, by the 1980s Seattle had become the home of the software giant Microsoft. East Coast transplant Howard Schultz had acquired Starbuck’s, and was in the process of transforming the basic cup of joe into a lucrative global corporation. A new class of young professionals was moving in to work for these growing businesses.
Along with these nascent industries, Seattle had also developed into a popular culture hub that centered around a thriving music scene. In the mid-1980s, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman founded Subpop Records and started releasing singles by local bands like Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana. Subpop was one among many record labels in the area that focussed on the burgeoning indie rock scene. The difference: Poneman and Pavitt not only knew how to pick their bands; they knew how to hype their product. They flew in a prominent British music journalist, Everett True, and gave him the grand tour. True published a glowing article about the Seattle Sound.
After that, it was all golden for the label. Seattle was inundated by music fans, and aspiring musicians. Music historian Peter Blecha says, while Seattle’s tourism economy may have picked up, the city’s elite wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to become a rock and roll destination. “I think they were very happy with us as the Space Needle place, the place you could see Mt. Rainier from.” Nevertheless, by the time Nevermind hit it huge, Seattle was at least as famous for music as it was for Boeing airplanes and Wagner Ring cycles.
Some observers trace Seattle’s rock and roll reputation back to 1962, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair. The late arts impresario Peter Donnelly arrived in the Pacific Northwest just two years after the Fair. Donnelly remembered thinking the city was little more than a frontier outpost at the time. But he also recalled that the city’s elite were ambitious for something more. They envisioned a new Seattle, a metropolis to rival New York, or Paris, or San Francisco. “All of a sudden,” Donnelly said, “it wanted to put in place the things that cities with big aspirations had. And the arts were an important component of that.”
Donnelly came to Seattle from Boston as a Ford Foundation intern to learn arts management at the new Seattle Repertory Theater. The Rep was housed in one of the empty World’s Fair exhibition halls (now Intiman Theatre). Other old Fair buildings were given over to the Seattle Symphony, the Opera, and to a new contemporary art wing for the Seattle Art Museum.
These institutions established themselves during Boeing’s commercial airplane heyday and the big Cold War spending on Defense and education. Between 1960 and 1970, Boeing rolled out three new commercial jet models. In 1966, Boeing won a federal contract to develop and build the nation’s first commercial supersonic transport, the SST. Unfortunately, five years later, on March 24, 1971, Congress killed the program, and the next day Boeing laid off 7,000 workers. Despite that cataclysmic blow to the regional economy, the arts groups hung on.
That summer of 1971, to help buoy his citizens’ spirits, Mayor Wes Uhlman decided to mount a cultural festival. “I felt very strongly we should be doing something to add some life and vitality,” he says, “maybe divert attention from some of the sad things going on economically.” While the Mayor’s Arts Festival may not have dispelled the economic doldrums that gripped Seattle, it was at least a small sign that the end of the world was not imminent. (It also eventually grew into the massive annual Bumbershoot Festival each Labor Day weekend.)
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