Upstream Music Fest + Summit, Day 1: Building Healthy Communities Panel

Upstream Music Fest + Summit
05/22/2017
Gabe Pollak
all photos by Bebe Labree Besch (view set)

People come to conferences hoping for simple answers to complex questions.

At a music industry summit, especially one designed for young artists like the Upstream Music Fest + Summit, the question is, "How do I make it in the music industry?" And the answer is... there is no answer, or at least no uniform one. But there are a few examples of what has and hasn't worked for other music industry folks in the past. Young artists may not be able to apply those same ideas to their careers, but they can adapt them.

That seemed to be the message of Maggie Vail, Tim Bierman, & Gabriel Teodros, who paneled "Building Healthy Communities: On and Offline," on Thursday afternoon at the WaMu Theatre. Vail, label manager at Bikini Kill Records and executive director Portland-based nonprofit, CASH Music, began the conversation with a question: how do you define community? In place of a hard-and-fast answer, the trio offered a wide-ranging conversation on healthy and unhealthy scenes throughout their lengthy careers, touching on both painfully contemporary, local issues like gentrification and artist displacement as well as a little bit of Seattle music history.

Each offered valuable examples of solutions that have worked for them, while cautioning young artists from seeking simplistic solutions. Speaking about a hip hop duo, Native Son, who have made a sustainable career playing free house shows around the world and selling merch, Teodros, a veteran of the Seattle hip hop scene, concluded: "I think the moral of the story, everybody, is that there's a million different ways to succeed... and that you don't have to replicate anything. You can make your own way."

Vail, who previously spent 17 years at Pacific Northwest indie standby Kill Rock Stars, chimed in, encouraging artists to think clearly about what they want with a career in music. "You also need to define what your success to be," Vail said. "Plenty of people don't want to be the biggest band in the world. Plenty of people just want to live and make music."

The industry vets marveled at their careers with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Bierman, long-time manager of Pearl Jam fan organization, Ten Club, recounted that, when he took on the massive task of corralling the grunge band's passionate fanbase at the request of friend (and PJ bassist) Jeff Ament, he hardly knew what he was doing. "I never even had a computer or even knew how they worked." Then, full pivot, he reminisced about sitting court-side with Pearl Jam, Flea, and Zach De La Rocha at a Sonics vs. Lakers game in the nineties.

Teodros, an early participant and top profile on Myspace Music, talked about losing connections with thousands of fans after the site crashed. Perhaps Teodoros summed up the panel's takeaway best, declaring: "My entire music career has been a series of mistakes I'm proud of."

Maybe not the answer people were looking for, but the reminder that they needed. Failure is part of the process.

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