The rise and fall of Seattle’s Upstream music festival

At the Upstream music festival, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne uses a giant inflatable ball to crowd-surf during the band's headlining set on June 3, 2018. The stunt has become a trademark of the band's performances. (Photo © Victoria Holt)

The email was titled "A Message for our Fans" and dated Jan. 25, 2019, but the wording had likely been approved well before then.

"It’s been our goal to create a unique music experience for the community. One that celebrates and supports the region," it began. "We’d still like to do this but will be taking time to think through the best format to do so. Thank you to our fans, artists, guest curators, sponsors and the Pioneer Square neighborhood for helping us create two incredible weekends of music discovery."

And with that brief series of stilted sentences, the would-be institution known as Upstream Music Festival ghosted from Seattle's cultural landscape.

The communications pros at Vulcan Inc., Upstream's billion-dollar, privately owned parent company, got one thing right: Upstream did indeed create two incredible weekends of music discovery. All told, more than 500 bands and artists performed during Upstream's two incarnations, in May 2017 and June 2018. The vast majority of those artists were from the Pacific Northwest. Tens of thousands of people attended both years. Tapping the area's recent population boom, Upstream was intended to connect new Seattleites with new music, highlighting the region's wealth of talent and variety of sounds. In that regard, and by almost all counts, it was a success.

Both years Upstream recruited "community partners" to help curate and diversify the festival's musical offerings. Popular tastemakers such as Sub Pop Records, Starbucks and the Tractor Tavern hosted artist showcases alongside up-and-coming event producers and media outlets like the Blow-Up, TUF and LoveCityLove. Each partner was given a decent budget (which varied in size) for artists of their choosing. Among the countless decisions Upstream organizers were faced with, commissioning community buy-in was one of the savviest they made. Upstream shared its resources and platform, in return gaining little but credibility and social-media views. Among a glut of boilerplate corporate music festivals across the U.S. — Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Governors Ball, and these days even Bumbershoot — it was a uniquely progressive move.

And it worked: At $60 a day, pricing felt fair, opening doors to dozens of acts each night in venues clustered tightly enough around Pioneer Square to encourage frictionless hopping from one set to another. Motivated fans easily caught 10, 12 bands in the span of a few hours, some in established venues like Central Saloon, AXIS Gallery and Trinity nightclub, others in unused, unconventional spaces decked out entirely for Upstream purposes, like the Buttnick Building or the unfinished 18th floor of Smith Tower. Free shows happened daily in outdoor venues around the neighborhood. It wasn't frictionless: There were complaints about defective entry scans, selective security checks and a ridiculous no-bag policy. But considering the logistical complexities the multivenue format presented, it was surprisingly close.

Along with musical performances, both installments also hosted a "summit," or conference component. The inaugural year brought marquee personalities like Quincy Jones, Macklemore and Mike McCready, all of whom gave engaging interviews on their music-industry experience before respectable crowds at WaMu Theater, plus scores of industry-oriented panel discussions, workshops and lectures. The second-year offerings were significantly scaled back but still drew decent crowds eager to learn about online distribution, the global marketplace, metadata tracking — topics meant to boost the business acumen and bottom line of local musicians. This effort toward education and career development, offered free to all artists playing the festival, was another forward-thinking, community-building component of Upstream.

Both years, Upstream presented a gauntlet of phenomenal, groundbreaking bands from Seattle and around the world, all packed into walkable distance. It provided genuine educational and networking opportunities. As much as a slick branding opportunity for Vulcan, Upstream was a canvas for Seattle to paint itself as the sophisticated, multiculti city of the future that it aspires to be. The key point was that both the collectivized imagination of our homegrown culture-makers and the blockbuster budget of Vulcan were required to do so.

That's a long list of wins and earnest efforts at outreach. Setting a standard that was its own to live up to, Upstream did a lot of things right. So what went wrong?

Upstream and Vulcan staff declined to go on record for this story. No details, no personal testimony, no clear commitment to the past or future of the festival. In turn, fans and bands echoed the ambivalence. Among several musicians and promoters I spoke to, their general feelings can be characterized as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This distance between the corporate administration of Upstream and the creative community the festival is intended to serve is the core of the problem.

Upstream was presented like a gift to Seattle from one of the richest men in the world. Whether motivated by a sense of duty or largesse, this beneficence was articulated before the inaugural festival in statements released by Allen and then-executive director Jeff Vetting. "We have a thriving music scene filled with emerging artists that deserve more exposure, resources and attention,” Allen said. “The greatest value of art, whatever the medium, is when it’s shared widely.” And per Vetting, “As the music industry evolves, we want to help push our local music economy forward to ensure artists can thrive here.”

The decent paycheck (which started at $500 for local artists and increased from there), the pro bono professional development, the investment in infrastructure — these moves were intended to reinforce Seattle's teetering music industry, to support musicians where and how they live. But the shadow of Allen's incomprensible wealth loomed large, compounded by Vulcan's pursuit of profit at both the Upstream ticket booth and in its real-estate developments in Seattle neighborhoods that have historically been affordable for artists and musicians. Together they gave Upstream a whiff of corporate culture-washing, as if with one hand Allen hoped to erase his negative impacts while throwing a bone to those impacted with the other. This same observation was made by former Stranger visual arts critic Jen Graves when Allen opened his Pivot Arts Center in 2015 and shuttered it less than a year later. Allen's equivocation with the arts is hard to reconcile with his virtually limitless fortune.

Upstream Music Festival attendees walk from one showcase to another along Occidental Avenue South near midnight on Saturday, June 2nd, 2018, during the festival's second year.
Upstream Music Festival attendees walk from one showcase to another along Occidental Avenue South near midnight on June 2nd, 2018, during the festival's second year. (Photo © Victoria Holt)

If Upstream was a gift, it was given with strings attached. Not only the submission of personal information upon entry, which is standard in the age of opt-in surveillance media. But submission to a vision of corporate-sponsored art and culture as an antidote to state-sponsored corporate profiteering. Upstream sought to support the arts community while taking something from it. It managed to be a really fun weekend despite being antithetical to itself. Faced with such a fundamental contradiction, fans could enjoy the festival only so much. On the other side, Vulcan could not abide the financial loss it allegedly incurred.

Seattle Art Fair, another Allen-envisioned, Vulcan-produced, big-budget cultural event launched in 2017, is coming back again in 2019. But Seattle Art Fair is a far simpler logistical affair wherein galleries pay big money for display spaces that are housed in a single venue, which is owned and operated by Vulcan. Also, locally and nationally, the art-fair market is expanding while the music-fest market is shrinking.

Then there's MoPop, which opened in 2000 as Allen's public display of affection for Jimi Hendrix and stumbled along for a decade-plus with no particular understanding of who it was meant to serve. Allen poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the endeavor until it finally became "fully sustainable" as a nonprofit two years ago, per the museum's director of marketing. Upstream wasn't handled with the same patience by Vulcan. It never got the treatment it deserved. Two years is too soon for cold feet. South by Southwest, the festival-conference ideal that Upstream aspired to, took decades of organic growth before it became the juggernaut it is today.

Vetting, a veteran event producer who came to Upstream via KEXP, was fired after the first year. Meli Darby, a longtime Seattle concert promoter and Upstream's talent buyer both years, had her position eliminated after year two. Their contributions to Upstream went beyond their work on the ground; their reputations lent credibility that's otherwise unavailable to a corporate music festival. Without them, Upstream is just Vulcan, and within Seattle's creative community, Vulcan's track record is spotty at best.

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There's a very simple answer to its conflicted existence: Remove the conflict. Give the festival to the community.

Start by taking a cue from ACED, or Artist Coalition for Equitable Development, the advocacy group that made a valiant attempt to correct Vulcan's course when the festival was first announced. Many of ACED's members — Seattle mayoral hopeful (and Crosscut contributor) Nikkita Oliver, Hollis Wong-Wear of the Flavr Blue, KEXP DJ Stas the Boss, the entire Seattle Musicians Union Local 76-49 and others — had personally felt the effects of Vulcan's developments in the Central District. They were the same people Vulcan claimed that Upstream was meant to support. Per the group's open letter to Allen and the Upstream brass, "Radical transparency, commitment to process, and trust are central to successful community-centered engagement and organizing."

Imagine a totally free, totally transparent, community-oriented music festival. One that opens its books as a test case to fledgling promoters and artists, provides professional development from brilliant minds to motivated students, pays equitable rates to artists and attracts a cross section of ages and income levels by virtue of ticketless access. Upstream made overtures in that direction, which is a positive step, and social beneficence can be valuable public relations to a private corporation. But from the outset Vulcan's bottom-line accounting precluded such a radical leap. Given this predicament of late-stage capitalism — aka "don’t hate the player, hate the game" — it was destined to trip over its own feet.

There's precedent for the free megafest: Last summer I joined tens of thousands of people in downtown Montreal on a gorgeous summer night during the 39th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. No gate, no ticket, no barrier to entry at all; dozens of stages convened across city parks, plazas, shopping centers and other public spaces. I saw performances by musicians from Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Chicago and Portland alongside a wildly diverse audience. Rather than demand payment for admission, the event was sponsored and subsidized by the likes of Heineken, Air Canada, the Canadian federal government, and various public and private agencies. Additionally, the city's lavish concert hall hosted seated, ticketed shows of a more formal nature. Over the course of 10 days, more than 200,000 people attended almost 1,000 performances. It was, in a word, spectacular.

Free goes a long way toward engendering goodwill. In 2017, according to the Montreal Gazette, MIJF generated $48.5 million in associated economic benefits and $10 million in taxes. Even with $4 million in government subsidies, the thing is paying for itself. It's not only one of the greatest cultural events in the entire world, it's fully solvent. To get there took a lot longer than two years of operating in the red.

Even Bumbershoot cost only $3 in the years when James Brown, Tina Turner and Oingo Boingo headlined. Yes, the city's economy was different then. And there are far more billionaires in Seattle now.

The collective wealth of our oligarchal class is particularly ridiculous when contrasted to the lack of imagination its members demonstrate in spending their money. Upstream could spend $100 million on a free, annual community-based festival for 10 years, giving the organization plenty of time to reach an arrangement with public and private enterprise to offset costs — which is but a fraction of a fraction of Paul Allen's $20 billion estate. When he was alive and, dollar for dollar, one of the world's most generous philanthropists, Allen literally couldn't spend his money fast enough. By all reports he genuinely loved music, and Seattle's music scene in particular. As a monument to the man and an engine for the music community, Upstream could live up to a vision even grander than Allen imagined.

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