Swimming Upstream

Meli Darby

From the Old Fire House Teen Center in Redmond to the Student Hip-Hop Organization of Washington to Nectar Lounge to the Crocodile, Melissa “Meli” Darby has spent the last 17 years booking every type of band at every type of venue around Seattle. In July, she left her job at the Crocodile to become curator for Upstream, the music festival and music-industry summit produced by Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc., set to launch in May 2017. We spoke with Darby only three weeks into her new gig. She was equally thrilled and anxious about her role in realizing Upstream’s full, scene-elevating potential.

How has the transition been?
I feel like I fit right in here. It’s an incredible team. I feel like I got a fully paid scholarship to go to an Ivy League university.

Was it an easy decision for you?
I definitely took some time. I’ve worked for myself or a music venue for the last 17 years. I was like, can I do this? Can I wake up in the morning and acclimate to this environment? Over this last year I though a lot about what my next steps would be professionally. I was coming up on six years at the Crocodile and almost a decade of being a venue talent buyer. I’d been asking myself, OK, what’s next? Would I go the route of being an independent promoter and focus on artist management and have to relocate to LA? Or was I going to stay in Seattle and try to find another position? A lot of this feels fated, honestly. As somebody who was basically born and raised in this Seattle music industry, the thought of having to move away to take it to the next level was a bummer. I wanted to find a way to stay in Seattle and find a way to support our local community and economy so that people like myself and musicians and artists don’t have to relocate to make progress in their careers. And that’s the exact intent of the festival, too.

How will you do that with Upstream?
That’s the question. Our idea is to bring industry professionals that are doing it in other places and bring them here so our artists have access to these folks. Figure out how we bring those resources to Seattle. It’s about starting a dialogue, and beyond just talking, this is our way of trying to implement those ideas.

So you start by paying bands a decent fee 
to play.
Yes. Upstream’s mission to be artist-centric and that starts with paying a decent fee. And we’re committed to booking 75 percent of the bands from the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve dedicated my life’s work to supporting local and national emerging talent. That’s what I’ve done: break bands. The mission behind the festival is perfectly in line with the work I’ve done my entire career. I’m hearing that people are skeptical and I understand that, and we’re open to the feedback. We’re open to the questions. People’s skepticism will help us formulate and execute and meet people halfway.

People love to question Allen’s intent while he remains invisible or untouchable.
The question for me is, what happens when you have somebody of that stature willing to allocate funding and resources and time and energy into the growth of the music industry? I can tell you from the inside, that if people have concerns [or are] questioning the authenticity or whether this festival is coming from a genuine place, that it 100 percent is. Aside from the company itself, at what point do you take into consideration me as a curator? Or Jeff [Vetting, Upstream’s executive director] in supporting the Seattle music industry through [his former job at] KEXP? You have to take a look at the key players involved and look at their work. And the work will speak for itself.

I’m not sure everyone realizes, but Paul is a huge live music fan and music plays a big role in his life. The idea for Upstream started with him and a desire to support up-and-coming acts. Upstream is something that’s needed, absolutely, especially the summit component. I’ve always wondered what I could do if I had access to these kinds of resources. So that’s the big thing. I wanna be the conduit here. I wanna be the connection, really up close and personal with a lot of musicians and music-industry people in Seattle. I’m in a good place to help continue to make those connections. The best thing about it is recognizing my own value—as a professional, as a woman in this industry. I bring a whole different perspective. 
I come here and feel like that perspective is 
valued. That’s been huge for me.