After Upstream, What Next?

Aham Oluo and Quincy Jones at the Upstream Summit

Seattleites floated through Pioneer Square during last weekend’s Upstream Music Fest & Summit and at the same time they floated through a slew of pertinent questions: What does a billionaire like Paul Allen know about creating a music festival? Or, for that matter, a music conference? Is this thing an impotent gesture by the tech industry to suck up to the same artists it pushes out of a city too expensive to live in? And what’s up with the goofy clear bag policy?

The ambivalence was valid. But in the aftermath of the three-day event, it’s time to ask different questions: questions about the possible arrival of new music business models and, best-case scenario, about the re-invigoration of Seattle’s music scene as it shares resources and cross-promotes with the tech world.

Compared to Bumbershoot or Capitol Hill Block Party, Upstream is a different kind of animal, one that’s very self-aware and, from all appearances, willing to learn from the mistakes of other similarly large events. For starters, despite the overarching specter of corporate sponsorship, the vibe still felt very local. When strolling along the cobblestone streets of Pioneer Square, I ran into old friends and allies—a once-usual occurrence fast becoming rare due to gentrification, disappearing venues and other side effects of urban growth. Local hip-hop comprised roughly one-fifth of the entire lineup, a feat no other large Washington festival can boast. The addition of a music-industry summit on Thursday and Friday communicated an effort to educate and empower the local artist community rather than commodify it in a grab for cultural relevance. There was great intention at work at Upstream, establishing a foundational symbiosis between art and commerce.

Then there were the moments, those special little occurrences of serendipity that reminded fans and artists why we love the Northwest music scene so much. Like when I returned from a blistering set by Snarky Puppy to catch Evan Flory-Barnes feverishly play his upright bass during Industrial Revolution’s set in Occidental Park. Barnes and Co. played a setlist every bit as virtuosic as Snarky’s and, in a lot of ways, more dynamic. Or when I had to force my jaw closed while hearing Thunderpussy vocalist Molly Sides belt out soaring, pitch-perfect notes drenched in the trademark sweaty rasp she’s mastered. Or when I ducked into Goodsteph’s animated set and witnessed  a fresh brand of hip-hop/soul fusion I’d never seen before. I saw hometown boy turned music titan Quincy Jones bob his head at Grace Love’s set. I watched Sassy Black lay out the music game like a boss during her panel discussion on the art of collaboration. I saw groups of teens, flushed and excited as they ran from venue to venue, discovering bands and making memories. I saw an older Asian lady, possibly in her 70s, dancing to Smokey Brights alongside a young black man and a middle-aged white couple. It never once felt like the Seattle I’ve known, but it did feel like a Seattle I could grow to live with.

The tech community doesn’t need local musicians; it wants them—and that’s a very good thing. With disappearing revenue from CDs and downloads, alternative streams of monetary subsistence provided by tech are necessary to prosper as a musician in the post-Napster era. Whether it’s a platform such as 8Stem extending the shelf life of artists in the form of fan remixes or song placements on a Microsoft-made video game, local tech companies are emerging as a financial benefactor and enabler of great music. In 2017, tech platforms are the new Medici family.

For the aspiring musician, the streaming age is an era of adapt or die. Art must reconcile its relationship with tech in order to thrive. While this may be a form of selling out, at least it’s intentional and local artists can now leverage their social currency to dictate the terms, which makes all the difference in the world. Even Kendrick Lamar, whose own brand is based on a certain level of ‘wokeness,’ recently did an American Express commercial. Does that erase his credibility as a Black artist growing up in an impoverished area? Does feeding his family via corporate dollars invalidate his narrative? With Upstream, an olive branch has been extended by the tech community to the music community. Amid the reticence and doubt maybe it’s time for Seattle’s music scene to open up to a new notion: It’s usually not a bad idea to take money from a billionaire.

All photos by Bruce Clayton Tom.

Upstream in Photos
Day 1

Day 2


Day 3