Mastering the Hustle 15: The Business (Can the Music Industry Survive in Seattle?)

Mastering the Hustle
Martin Douglas
All photos by Victoria Holt

KEXP, Upstream Music Fest + SummitMoPOP, and The Recording Academy have partnered together to present Mastering The Hustle: a panel discussion with six annual events, tackling a different topic to help emerging artists make better decisions earlier in their careers. Throughout the series, we’ll be discussing everything from how to get airplay, legal and licensing, healthcare for artists, and promoting your brand.


To state the obvious, Seattle has become a prohibitively expensive place for an artist to live while focusing on their art. Many artists who have managed to earn decent money from their work still have to work a day job – sometimes two or three – to be able to afford to remain in the city. That's not even including the artists who have moved to more affordable communities from Marysville to Olympia because they've been priced out of Seattle, or the ones who have moved out of the state completely. So how do we retain our music community in Seattle while dealing with the changes in the city's culture due to skyrocketing expenses?

In the fifteenth installment of our Mastering the Hustle workshop series, several members of the Seattle music and arts community gather to discuss the topics surrounding being in this community while the city continues to change. Composer/orchestrator/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Joslyn, hip-hop artist/activist/liaison for Seattle Arts Coalition Julie-C, and Managing Director of Northwest Folklife Reese Tanimura discuss these issues in illuminating detail on a panel moderated by KEXP's Senior Arts and Public Affairs Producer and host of Sound & Vision Emily Fox.

Kid Roman kicks off his keynote speech by positing the difficulty of thriving in Seattle at its current stage. While known as a progressive city, capitalism is still a driving force here, the dollar ruling over a host of positive qualities, especially hard work and engagement with our community. Young artists struggle to find and maintain the tools they need to ascend to the next level. So can the music industry survive in Seattle? How can artists combat the issues that plague our artistic community?

Roman starts to answer these questions by noting the systems implemented to help our youth from an early age; public school orchestras, jazz bands, and marching bands. But there are few courses for youth anywhere dealing with music production and the business of music. Roman acknowledges the education of music has been colonized and limited to a precious few genres in its vast world. Another concern raised by Roman is a matter of which venues are available for developing artists. Venues accommodating national and regionally touring groups, like Neumos and The Showbox, occasionally hosts shows starring local acts, but only after they've acquired the knowledge and resources necessary to play rooms as big as these. If these rooms started opening up to more artists on the local level, these acts would have the resources they would need to climb the proverbial ladder in the city.

Roman offers the quote many aspiring musicians receive from the adult leadership in their lives – teachers and parents: "Music isn't a real job." This is because of the DIY and grassroots requirements of the music scene here in Seattle; there is the notion you can't exactly start fresh to participate in earnest. Most artists have to develop their name completely on their own. The unofficial consensus is that music isn't an attainable career, it's a hobby for which only a lucky few can access as a way to earn a living. It causes a young artist to spend more time seeking support (financially, emotionally, and knowledge-wise) than working on their craft as artists.

Panel moderator Emily Fox begins by referencing a conversation she had with KEXP DJ and hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros earlier in the day for Sound & Vision, who pointed out he feels the voices of people of color in the city aren't truly being heard, and when the discourse surrounding venues like The Showbox stifles the discourse about providing low-income housing to Seattle's neighborhoods. He feels the spaces where Seattle's music culture is being created aren't being preserved.

Fox introduces the topic of affordability -- a crucial discussion regarding living in present-day Seattle -- acknowledging she wanted a representative of the city on the panel. Since the reps she asked to participate had to, unfortunately, pull out, Fox pulled up clips from an interview with Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan for the panel to react to.

The first question Fox asked Mayor Durkan was how do we keep artists in the city who are feeling the financial squeeze. Mayor Durkan answered, "Government has to play its role, and then it has to engage everybody else to play their role." She spoke of development on city-owned land right across the street from KEXP, where there will be affordable housing on top, and an art space and organization helping the city's homeless community on the bottom. Fox adds the plan is to have 100 units of low-income housing available. She also asked Durkan what is considered middle income in the city, to which the mayor replied $85,000-$90,000 a year. The city released a report that found the median income for an artist in the city is the equivalent to about $12 an hour. Fox then asked Mayor Durkan, "As Seattle becomes more and more unaffordable, how can we work to be a place where artists can work and live and contribute to the culture?" Durkan answers by noting the importance of preserving cultural spaces, creating not just affordable housing but also affordable arts spaces like lofts and exhibit spaces. "No one wants to live in a city that is sterile because it's lost its art and its soul.," she concludes. Fox asks if these are things we're seeing more or less of in Seattle.

Julie-C notes that to have a true conversation about equity, you must engage in historical acknowledgment. She points out the fact that a good amount of times, we see art advancing an agenda which does not promote equity. "There has been a historical disparity in the direction of these investments geographically," she says, and she stresses the affordability is going to be temporary depending on the agreement with the developer.

Tanimura points out the idea that building new things is not always a solution. "Seattle had affordable housing, and there are a lot of things that drove [housing rates] up," she says. The financial growth of the city, market-induced inflation. Part of the problem not being acknowledged in the forefront is the fact that the city's government is not thinking about these matters until it's too late. Tanimura speaks to Julie-C's notions of disparity, saying there is a lot of public art in Seattle, and some of it was probably made by a Central District artist who can't afford to live in the Central District anymore. "We're going to get an artist to put up a mural of something that existed 10, 20 years ago, but those people don't exist in the city anymore," she says.

Joslyn acknowledges the stigma that affects artists, who are basically freelance business owners living off of a gig economy. The federal government has no idea what to do with workers in a gig economy. He explains the troubles of him and his wife trying to buy a house with the banks telling them that he doesn't have a consistent income. "So if I were working at McDonald's making minimum wage, I'd look better on paper," he says. He notes it's a terrible scenario for full-time artists such as himself who make a decent, middle-class income (at least middle-class in most cities), but he looks like a risk.

Fox acknowledges the gap between the haves and the have-nots inhabiting Seattle and how the housing rates are skyrocketing. When she moved to the city in 2016, the average cost of a home here was $550,000 (which she felt was a lot, moving from Michigan -- where you could buy a house in Detroit, its biggest city, for $40,000); now the average is over $700,000. Fox asked Mayor Durkan about the affordability gap, who replied that an estimated 700,000 jobs are coming to Seattle by 2024. (Most of them will require some post-high school education and training.) The problem is that most people taking those jobs are people from out-of-state. Mayor Durkan described a plan to give our high school students two years paid college tuition and the seeds of a plan to create a system for arts internships. Fox asks the panel what a system or network of this sort would look like in Seattle and the things the city could be doing to help its artists.

Julie-C notes the benefits of Seattle quantifying uncompensated cultural labor and providing some sort of financial benefit, like getting credits toward transportation and rent. Tanimura speaks on how we talk about the economy in a financial frame when historically that's not always the case; the economy has also historically been immersed in trading goods and services. "We need to be able to think comprehensively that money isn't the end goal," she says. Creativity is a tool of enrichment and is a value in and of itself.

Joslyn, from a music industry standpoint, notes a point in Kid Roman's keynote about establishing industry programs in schools. He felt his education at Western Washington University was antiquated; he learned about Western music theory and ear training, but not basic fundamentals like how to do his taxes as a working musician, licensing, touring, etc. He stresses career development as someone in the music industry should be an implemented course in education; for years he was in a band and worked a full-time job and in turn went through many hard lessons and lost a lot of money. He felt if he had some structural education in the music industry, it would have benefited him and prevented years of mistakes.

Fox brings up the notion of displacement and asks if there are any ways we can repair this problem. Julie-C suggests historical reconciliation into some of the city's redlined communities, using the language of historical legacy. Tanimura adds the idea of utilities and property taxes rising and eventually pricing small businesses out of the city. "Property value going up is a great idea if you're going to sell and leave," she says. She suggests building a structure which incentivizes people who are going to buy property in their communities and stay.

Fox notes the support around The Showbox and asks the panel if things are going on in underrepresented or underserved communities to preserve their arts spaces, their communal spaces. Julie-C describes how Africatown has been doing great work in preserving housing, working with individual developers to secure affordable housing. "In Seattle, we have a rich, rich history of direct action,' she says. On the subject of creating a landscape of opposing developments or even just looking into them with a little more depth, she says we as people have more power than it appears, it's just a matter of finding the time of seeking out proposed land actions and contributing to community review boards, which requires a great deal of extra labor for people simply trying to afford to live here. If a group of citizens came together to oppose a land action, she says there is a lot of power in that, "especially if you're artistic, or musical, or know how to capture some attention." The pace of land development in the city is grueling, and perhaps being more creative in utilizing independent media might be a step in the right direction.

Tanimura offered an example of a policy that isn't beneficial to the people living in Seattle today. In an environmental impact statement, if you find, say, an indigenous relic or something of cultural-historical value, there is a process that halts a development; research is done, community meetings are held. "If the same development process interrupts a living, breathing population of cultural practitioners, it doesn't matter," she says. She brings up the environmental impact statement regarding the Seattle Center Arena, and the response from the city was that they understand Northwest Folklife's cultural practices, but there are systems in place federally to protect spaces such as museums.

Fox brings up Seattle's creative community report, which includes software developers and computer programmers. It notes there are two families of the creative class; arts, design, entertainment, and media makes up one family, computer occupations make up the other. When combined, wage and income totals are brought up, primarily because of the latter. The report states Seattle has, on average, the second-highest hourly rate in the nation ($30 an hour). On the same report it says Seattle has the highest-paid computer workers in the nation ($40 an hour on average) and the lowest-paid art workers (as mentioned earlier, about $12 an hour). It seems like a great way for the City of Seattle to point to the numbers and talk about how great the creative economy is when there is, in fact, a huge disparity. As Fox asks the panel what they think of tech jobs being included the creative economy, an audience member laughs.

Julie-C notes Seattle as the prototype for the creative economy, located in almost every academic study for urban design discussing "creative cities," because of the tech-driven aspect of creative industries. She notes a creative industry model in Puerto Rico -- drawn up in a 3D pyramid diagram. The tech firms were on top, but it was more of financial class analysis. She acknowledges the importance of not just lumping the numbers together but visualizing the levels of a creative economy.

Fox asks how can media/entertainment/arts career still thrive in Seattle's creative economy if they're in the same category as lucrative tech jobs. Julie-C believes a locally-focused creative economy could be emboldened if the disparate parts saw each other as one. Holding each other accountable in a unified front has a chance to make the economy more equitable. Tanimura believes including all jobs in the creative economy is valid, because there is a range, but essentially we're seeing high peaks and low valleys. But we don't see the conversations inherent, and the analysis doesn't see the bigger picture, the utility of art in business. She brings up Joslyn's point about the financial bias against artists and subjective nature of art, noting the high loan rates for tech startup capital, only for some of those companies to fail and be sold off. Until how our systems take a good look at the notion of disparity and bias and what equity means (and how to change it), the same systems will always be in place.

Fox asks how Tanimura would like to see the community supporting the arts, to which Tanimura replies, "I would love to see a bunch of loan officers in a room for training on bias and equity!"

Joslyn is asked by Fox what are ways for artists to better monetize their work. He answers that there is a lot of animosity toward tech, but essentially tech has changed the notion of being an artist for the better. Before there were all sorts of gatekeepers in place but now it has shifted to a permissionless culture. "You can get in with a mediocre level of talent and still have a career in music. I don't know if that's good or bad, but the fact that there [are] bedroom composers with access to Avid, to Pro Tools and Logic and Ableton Live..." There is a barrier in terms of money, but the process has been democratized; artists can have their own distribution, they can own their master recordings and can figure out their own touring. To answer Fox's question, he says the possibilities are endless. Remote recording opportunities are at an artist's fingertips. "Unfortunately, the music business is not a meritocracy," he says. But some people know the hustle, and they have tools at their disposal. Going back to an earlier point, he says educating yourself on the business of music will help you go farther. He lists joining a PRO (or professional rights organization) such as BMI or ASCAP, who collect royalties and have systems in place to protect artists.

Looking for an example of other cities supporting their artists, Fox asks the panel for their observations. Joslyn notes an Austin arts community program called Black Fret, a patronage program of sorts. SXSW has been commodified to death at this point, but Austin recognizes their arts and music communities are important. Tanimura points out Rain City Rock Camp for Girls and notes how in parts of Europe, musicians are given government grants to create. So much of being an artist in America is chasing down the money.

Fox brings up the thesis question of the panel: Can the music industry survive in Seattle? What do we need to keep our arts scene strong?

All three members of the panel are certain the music industry in Seattle will survive. "Yes, the music industry [here] is not going to die," Joslyn says. "We're not going to all pack it up and [say] it's over, game over, let's go and do something else. I'm going to become a lawyer." He feels the housing issue needs to be addressed. Arts and rehearsal spaces are crucial at this juncture. A tiered system should be put in place, places, where artists can perform in front of people (such as open mic nights), are important to any music scene. Joslyn mentions the idea of Seattle being in the adolescent stage of where San Francisco currently sits in American culture. He feels our situation in its current state is not dire, but "we see the horizon, we see the pitfalls that are coming." Members of the music community continue to move out of the city and it's frightening to him. He feels as though the discourse around the state our arts scene is in is a positive step forward.

Fox asks him where he sees the arts scene 10, 15 years down the line, to which he answers, "Arts scenes come and go, that's the way it is." People flock to the city where the current cool thing is happening, and then "money comes in and kills it," and next thing you know, people are flocking to Tacoma and the cycle continues. If grunge was the big renaissance of Seattle music culture, then what about acts like Odesza and Macklemore? He references a segment of television show Parts Unknown where Anthony Bourdain asks Mark Lanegan if he ever misses the grunge scene. Lanegan replied, "Yeah, you can be sentimental about it, but it's like being sentimental about grade school."

Tanimura feels there will always be a music industry here in Seattle. It's more a matter of what it will look like. "Is it the one where there are consistent gatekeepers who are deciding what is being seen and heard and distributed and funded? Is it the one where we value all levels of art, expression, and interaction with that? Where we have spaces for community groups who are perpetuating traditional arts practice, and those people are still in the city and not just gathering at the place from Federal Way or Bothell?" She doesn't think it's a matter of whether the music and arts scenes will continue to exist, of course, they will. It's a matter of how much of the current equitability situation we are willing to stand, of how we organize and advocate. Are we willing to engage with who suffers the most from artist displacement, the black and brown groups who take the brunt of social issues?

Julie-C adds the energy from the grunge boom in the '90s did influence policy going forward, contributing to the huge Department of Arts and Culture the city has now. "Looking at who gets to benefit from that creative energy, that surge, is really critical," she says. In the Central District, the International District, and the South End during the '90s, civic leaders and artist from those areas were focused on a more dire need to maintain the culture of their neighborhoods. She says a fair amount of activism was required for KEXP to become the institution it is now. "What if there was a KEXP in every cultural community?" She feels a utopian Seattle music scene could exist if we as creative people, part of the city's artistic ecosystem, applying our creativity to more radical creative solutions rather than just mimicking an industry that was never really built for our success as a whole.


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