Autonomy and self-determination are important pillars for any human on the planet but especially so for creatives, whose work is often monetized and capitalized by corporations who have little interest in artistic growth or integrity. Independent Venue Week is an effort to spotlight the music venues around the world that place importance on engaging with arts locally, nourishing and fostering artists both local and national to develop a lush music scene.
There’s no doubt that Seattle has one of the best and abundant music scenes in the world. In order to spotlight the many independent venues that encompass Seattle, we broke the city into different sectors. There was some debate among the writing team about whether “Central Seattle” is actually a term but how else would one describe the neighborhoods that are neither North or South Seattle? In our Central Seattle (not to be confused with the Central District) we’re covering Downtown (which, in this case, includes Pioneer Square and Eastlake), Capitol Hill, Belltown, and Queen Anne. Each neighborhood has its own distinct style and a plethora of venues beyond what we’re covering here. We recommend every Seattleite, both new and old, to explore the vast live music opportunities that the city provides.
One of the most historic theaters in all of Seattle is The Paramount, which initially opened in 1928 as a silent movie theater. The venue was built by Paramount Pictures with the intention of being an opulent spectacle and the finest movie palace Seattle has ever seen, investing nearly $3 million for construction. With 2,807 available seats, the Paramount is decorated in the Beaux-Arts (also called French Renaissance) style of the palace in Versailles and is the first venue in the United States to have a convertible floor system, which converts the theater to a ballroom. This opens up the concert capacity to 3,000 people, making the space a perfect choice for nearly arena-sized artists who prefer a less sterile and more luxuriant experience.
Over the years, artists like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Madonna have played pivotal shows at the Paramount. Indie heavyweights like Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes are common players as well as a bevy of comedians and high profile musicals like Wicked and Hamilton make regular and significant stops.
The theater is run by Seattle Theater Group, which also runs The Moore Theater in Belltown and The Neptune in the University District. STG is a non-profit performing arts group that takes care of historic theaters, providing education programs and focuses on connecting diverse artists with diverse audiences. Executive Director Josh LaBelle previously told PBS that the Paramount is “the people’s theater” and that historic theaters “are not just the history of the city but also the history of the performing arts.”
The shining beacon of youth-driven all-ages venues is The Vera Project. Founded 18 years ago in the wake of the abolishment of Seattle’s teen dance ordinance, which severely restricted venues from holding shows for underage music fans, the space was modeled after a volunteer-fueled club in the Netherlands called VERA Groningen. The Vera Project is a non-profit that runs as a participatory democracy with its volunteer members making key decisions and actions in running the space. They have a say in everything from overall decision making, the venue’s safe space policy, and what kind of programs and education they’d like to see.
Program director Jason Clackley emphasizes the importance of education within the space, which offers opportunities to learn everything from live sound to screen printing. “I’m constantly making sure people are supported and feel like they’re learning skills,” he explains. “We have these quarterly meetings where folks can come and talk and we give them information about the financials and the plans that were put together with their help, their input, and the board of directors as well. So it's a very collaborative experience for everybody involved.”
With two different spaces, the main stage and the gallery space, within Vera to utilize for live music, artists big and small are able to have an opportunity to play. “I love having the gallery space because we’re able to have artists like Spirit of the Beehive come and really pack out the place for that show,” says Clackley. “It’s really nice that we can offer that room as the alternative when the show isn’t going to have 200 plus people there.” Some of the heavy-hitters that have recently stopped by include Iceage, Car Seat Headrest, Adrianne Lenker, CHAI, and, most memorably, Pussy Riot.
Located in the heart of Capitol Hill, where young people and hot dogs overflow, Neumos and Barboza are stationed squarely on top of each other, offering very different but equally fantastic experiences for artists and fans alike. The venues are both owned by Steven Severin, Mike Meckling, Jason Lajeunesse, and Jerry Everard, who, according to Severin, initially gathered together 16 years ago to just try to throw some cool shows and have some fun.
“After a little bit we thought a bit more about the quality and the direction of music we wanted,” explains Severin. “We very much wanted to stay away from the mainstream and started truly embodying the independent, artist-centered business. After some years, we realized how much of an incubator we were for bands. We tried to be a spot that artists wanted to play. We didn’t want to be just a venue they had to play because we had the date open. The amazing thing is we got to do that. We were the first steps for a lot of bands that went on to be big like Muse, Vampire Weekend, Avett Brothers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fleet Foxes, Diplo, Adele, Band of Horses.”
For Severin, independence is more important than ever. “Independent promoters and venues are being swallowed up faster than ever,” Severin points out. “Monopolies suck. They limit your choices and music is turning that way. There’s two gigantic promoters in the world and they’re Billion dollar companies. They’re buying smaller independent companies that worked so long and hard to create something special and the bigger corporations just go and buy them up…When that happens it changes and becomes less about the music and more about the spreadsheets and the bottom line and I believe that takes the passion out of a lot of it.”
Even complete Seattle newbies have likely heard of the storied Crocodile née Crocodile Cafe. Originally opened in 1991 by lawyer turned businesswoman Stephanie Dorgan, the Crocodile Cafe became instantly iconic with early legendary performances by Mudhoney, Nirvana, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam. For sixteen years the venue brought anyone of notable name and became a breeding ground for local artists to cut their teeth.
In 2007, the day after a Saturday night set by Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), J. Tillman (soon to be known as Father John Misty) and David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), the venue abruptly closed. The city mourned the loss like the death of a close friend. Luckily, a group of business people and musicians including Alice in Chains' drummer Sean Kinney, Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver, Peggy Curtis, Portugal. The Man guitarist Eric Howk and Capitol Hill Block Party co-founder Marcus Charles swooped in to purchase the establishment, re-opening the venue as the Crocodile in March 2009.
Today, the Crocodile continues its long run of world-class programming of all genres and styles, with artists far and wide feeling grateful to grace its legendary stage. The Back Bar has become a favorite neighborhood spot for hot pizza and intimate local shows, burlesque, DJ nights, bingo, or karaoke. Glossy photos of iconic moments during the Croc’s grunge era adorn the walls while friendly bartenders with just the right amount of edge make you feel like you’re in an episode of Cheers meets Behind the Music. It’s everything an independent venue should be. The Croc's current managing partner Adam Wakeling had this to say about running the historic venue:
"For me, the best part of operating an indépendant music venue is providing a place for like-minded people to work and play and for artists to enjoy performing at that place. I truly get the greatest satisfaction in helping put together a team of caring, friendly and professional people to put on the best shows possible for both the artist and the customer. Allowing people to be creative in the way they do their job and giving them freedom to make decisions without being overbearing is key to finding the right folks that want to be here. It doesn’t always work out for folks as they have visions of it being a giant party and meeting all these artists and that is all fun all the time. It’s not, it’s hard work in all of the roles, from bartender and server to security, to booking and production, etc... Long hours that can be demanding in many ways and it’s defiantly not a 9 to 5 job. It is the service industry through and through even down to taking care of the artists' requests. Complications and highlights go hand in hand on a daily basis when you are host to different groups of people on a daily basis. Part of the satisfaction is looking back at the day at 2 am, even if it was a difficult and say “'yes, we did it.'"
A free show for The Paramount's 90th anniversary highlight a changing Seattle from one of its most stable and established musical landmarks.
Domino don't have many missteps in their record of signees. Three years into their third decade, their roster only continues to shine more impressively with time. All of that rings especially true for the label's more recent American indie rock signings, of which tonight's sold out Vera Project s...