Despite Its Issues, Upstream was a Fun 'Step in the Right Direction'

The joys and complications of Seattle's tech-sponsored music fest.
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Upstream brought diverse artists from Seattle and beyond to various Pioneer Square venues.

Amid Seattle’s great cultural shift—the influx of tech workers and its effect on the local music economy—Microsoft tycoon Paul Allen held the inaugural Upstream Music Fest + Summit last weekend in Pioneer Square.

Founded as an event to “learn from industry professionals and celebrate the emerging sounds of the Northwest,” the three-day festival involved performances from important local artists like Mike McCready and Grace Love, as well as a summit with heavyweight Seattleites like Macklemore and Quincy Jones.

“We are intentionally focused on providing a platform for emerging artists and supporting them at every level of their career, which is why they built an event that incorporates both a fest and summit experience,” said an Upstream spokesperson.

From the start, the festival felt reasonably organized, but did have some annoyances that set it apart.

For one, moving around took too much time. Attendees were fit with a wristband that required the Amazon-powered Upstream app to activate. It had to be scanned at every venue and frequently the scanners didn’t work. Plus, the festival was under CenturyLink Field security policies and staff rummaged through your bag multiple times unless you payed $10 for a locker. (As with Seahawks and Sounders games, larger bags were not allowed at the main stage outside the stadium.) Stadium prices applied too; beer was often upwards of $7.

That said, once you were where you needed to be, the music and talks were fabulous.

Upstream’s summit began Thursday morning with a keynote from Grammy-winning arranger and composer Quincy Jones, who spoke about his Seattle roots. Attendance was moderate and hyperlocal, including a slew of enthusiastic students from Garfield High School, Jones’ alma mater.

“It’s great to be back in Seattle, man,” Jones said. “It feels a little different here, but there’s also something that hasn’t changed in 50 years.”

Jones also talked about being an early-adopter of music technology. “As musicians, you have to activate both the soul and science of music,” he said.

When asked about Upstream, Jones spoke of the “trust, respect and love” he and Paul Allen have.

As summit days transitioned into evening music, the lull was long. Performers chosen to represent the “emerging artists” were well worth the wait, though, and stages ranged from inside restaurants, outside and even on the 18th floor of the Smith Tower.

Soulful singer Grace Love took the Court in the Square stage Thursday wearing a power suit and suspenders, singing classics like “Summertime” with guest Kathy Moore on guitar. Adding to the magic, Jones emerged at the front of the crowd during Love’s set and hung out afterwards for autographs and pictures.

Later, Thunderpussy rocked the Comedy Underground, a basement venue that hit capacity before the show even began. Many waited in line outside while Molly Sides covered “Somebody to Love,” rasping like Grace Slick.

Friday saw performances from two different Seattle bands with similar popular appeal. Deep Sea Diver, led by mastermind Jessica Dobson, put on a mellow set on the main stage. Afterwards, Beat Connection—which brought a spicy mix of electronic and soul music—was led by the smooth croon of Tom Eddy and the energy of the youthful crowd.

Saturday’s highlights included the jazz-funk Snarky Puppy, who played the main stage to beautiful weather. Their set featured tight horn lines and risky solos that put the crowd on the edge of their seats. Shabazz Palaces, the driving Afrofuturist rap group closed out Saturday night on the main stage.

Fun was had, but questions persist. Did Upstream elucidate if tech culture can coexist symbiotically with the local music world? After all, isn’t it tech employees, like those under Paul Allen’s charge, that are displacing Seattle's grassroots musicians?

Festival volunteer Lauren Sheehan said, “The irony [of this festival] is that it takes the local people who can’t afford to live in the city and brings them in to entertain the new locals, transplants who can afford to live here.”

“It’s been wonderful, but it’s going to take an awful lot of work to develop the music economy in Seattle,” said Nate Omdal, lead organizer of Free Trade Music Seattle. 

Omdal worked with the advocacy group to help Upstream better serve regional artists, especially after the original artist contract employed overly stringent policies, he said.

“Upstream said if you’re going to take this $500 gig at Upstream you can’t play for, say, 60 days before and 30 days after,” Omdal said. “Paul Allen’s contractually restricting my friends, people who make $40,000 a year if they’re lucky, from working in the spring-wedding season.”

These blackout policies are commonplace with music festival booking, but Free Trade Music Seattle insisted that the local-serving event should exclude them. Upstream listened to the criticism.

“We waived every radius clause for our regional artists to ensure they are getting as much work as possible,” an Upstream spokesperson said.

Overall, the response to the weekend was positive. Ticketholder Shasta Bree had “a lot of fun,” and during his keynote, hometown boy Macklemore offered praise. “At its core, this is a well-intended festival,” he said.

Performers, too, felt it was a step in the right direction.

“I think that it’s scary that we might lose really good artists to other communities because we don’t have the industry here,” musician Andrew Joslyn said. “Upstream brings the industry here and gets us that recognition.”

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