SeaTac performers

In the midst of the chaos, many travelers find a slice of happiness as they stop to listen to music by Pacific Northwest artists. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle) 

Performing amid the hustle and bustle of a major airport is a unique experience for most musicians. At first it may appear no one is paying attention to their sweet or soothing beats. That’s because airports can bring sensory overload for travelers juggling several things at once. But in the midst of the chaos, many travelers find a slice of happiness as they stop to listen to sounds played by some of the top artists in the Pacific Northwest.

Over time the musicians learn that people are in fact paying attention. Travelers walk over to them and spill their guts on how much they enjoyed them, how they made them laugh and cry,” said Ed Beeson, Founder and CEO of Gigs4U, which partners with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to present the airport music program.

These interactions are part of what makes music at the airport so special for both performers and travelers.  Gretchen Yanover, a cellist and composer, was performing at SEA Airport one day when a young couple and their three-year-old son stopped to watch. The child was fascinated by Yanover’s performance and didn’t want to leave — even when the family had to catch their flight. Before departing, the family bought an album from Yanover, which contained  her contact information. Several years later, Yanover received an email from the couple that included a photo of their son, now five or six years old, playing the cello. They wrote that he still listened to her CD almost every day.

This March, SEA Airport celebrated a decade of bringing the best of Seattle’s music scene to the front door of the Pacific Northwest. Since 2013, more than 200 Pacific Northwest performers have played over 28,700 hours of live music in concourses throughout the airport. Live music at the airport is also back to its pre-pandemic schedule of seven days a week.

Groovy beginnings

The live music program played its first notes at SEA Airport in 2013 as part of a citywide effort to showcase the diversity of the music scene in the Northwest and create a calming and joyful environment. It started with an overhead music program to highlight local artists, filling the airport with the beat of the city.

In 2013, the airport launched a partnership with Ed Beeson, who has produced live music events throughout the Northwest for over 35 years. At SEA Airport, he began  a 12-week pilot music program, starting with just 10 musicians. Due to its instant popularity, it had become a permanent program by 2014. As a result, Beeson formed Gigs4U, which he now runs with his wife Ramona. Though formed to bring artists to the airport, the company  has since expanded to provide gigs for the Northwest’s top performers through organizations and initiatives including the Downtown Seattle Association, the City of Seattle’s Busker Programs, Friends of Waterfront Seattle, Seafair, and more. Gigs4U’s scheduling system and a roster of musicians has helped them easily expand into other venues throughout the city.

Keeping the beat

From the beginning, Gigs4U and SEA sought  to bring in musicians representing a variety of music genres, ethnicities, and age groups. They gave local musicians a reliable income stream during daytime hours, a time when there aren’t traditionally many performance opportunities: Musicians tend to make most of their money in the evenings playing gigs and teaching lessons. Regular daytime performances at the airport often provide enough additional income for musicians that they don't have to get a second job. At SEA Airport, performers are compensated $108 per two-hour performance and encouraged to supplement their pay by offering  artist merchandise and CDs for travelers to purchase.

High notes

As a result of the airport music program, many musicians have found new opportunities and had impactful interactions with world-famous musicians.

Here are some highlights:

  • A handful of airport musicians are now living and performing full-time in major music cities — Nashville, Los Angeles and Austin.

  • The youngest musician to participate in the program, Nolan Garrett, started at age 15. He landed a full scholarship to Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts after a one-on-one interview with McCartney himself.

  • Champagne Sunday began performing at the airport after moving to Tacoma from California during a rebrand. They were very successful at the airport and in the Tacoma music scene, and have since become so successful that they no longer have time to play the airport.

  • Stevie Wonder introduced himself to Sara Christine and told her “she had a beautiful voice.”

  • Tekla Waterfield was hired to perform and act in a Hollywood movie.

  • Geoffrey Castle was hired to perform in China.

  • Eddie Vedder tipped Jason Kertson $100 and some guitar picks.

  • Dave Matthews has often tipped artists well and posed for selfies.

  • Jeff Goldblum asked Whitney Lyman to “sit-in” with him at his standing gig in Hollywood.

  • Seal sat in with Fleur Wood and Dave Grohl stopped by to say hello.

Drop the mic

Here are a few standout moments over the last few years of the program: 

  • In 2019, Washington State soul and R&B singer Allen Stone performed a live concert on stage at the Central Terminal as part of the SEA  Airport’s expanding music program. Read an interview with Allen Stone.

  • To support musicians who could not perform live during the pandemic, SEA participated in the JetStream Music Festival in 2020, an online celebration hosted by 23 North American airports featuring local musicians. Watch the livestream.

  • In 2021, with live music still on a pandemic pause, SEA Airport launched a digital music wall in the C Concourse — a 12-by-7-foot LED screen that played a two-hour program highlighting over 30 musicians.

  • SEA continues to grow its music program, recently adding three permanent performance spaces in Central Terminal, Concourse A, and the N Concourse.

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