Is tech culture killing Seattle’s music and art scene?

Nov 28, 2016, 6:40 PM | Updated: Nov 29, 2016, 11:47 am
Leeni Ramadan performs with her band, Prom Queen (photo by Katie Summer)
(photo by Katie Summer)

I used to watch a lot of stand-up comedy in Seattle. But then something happened: all the funny comedians moved to New York or LA. Left in their wake were a bunch of amateurs, not funny enough for me to spend my money and time on. I stopped going. It was too hard to watch.

Artists leave Seattle all the time, from comedians to improvisers, musicians, actors and visual artists. Many of them leave Seattle for greener pastures. And when I say “greener,” I’m talking about money.

“Musicians that want to have a professional career, and work in the music business usually tend to relocate,” said musician Leeni Ramadan, who works in corporate video and does singing telegrams to make ends meet. “There’s no sense of being able to live and thrive as a serious artist here in Seattle and really, really make it. It’s really difficult to make a living doing music here.”

Ramadan says she’s thought a lot about moving to LA or Nashville.

But when talented artists leave, that affects the culture of our city and the quality of the arts. I’ve been wondering why Seattle doesn’t have more of an industry, an economic infrastructure to support all of the talent here. What could we do to keep talented people in our city?

“Seattle has always had a pioneer spirit,” says Kate Becker, director of the office of Film, Music and Special Events for the City of Seattle. “In the 90s we saw that very much in DIY culture. People trying to build their own careers and create their own music without necessarily the support of the industry. That is not so true anymore. I would argue we have a good, strong music culture here in Seattle.”

Becker says the city does plenty to support artists, from paying local musicians to play at the airport to creating more affordable housing.

Musician, and Freakout Records co-founder, Guy Keltner moved to Brooklyn earlier this year.

“I don’t think I can afford to be here anymore. I wouldn’t have chosen to have left,” said Keltner, whose rent in Brooklyn is cheaper than in Seattle.

Thousands of tech workers have moved to Seattle over the past couple of years and Keltner thinks they’re part of the problem. These high paid workers moved into apartments that artists could no longer afford, and Keltner says don’t support local culture.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s really milquetoast,” Keltner said of tech culture. “I’m not knocking the industry, it’s supporting jobs and it’s supporting this robust housing market we have. But a lot of these dudes, they’re eating microwave dinners, they go to the same restaurant every day, they work at Google, they work at Amazon. I’ve worked at a tech company before, a couple of different places. There are a lot of people who just want to do that job all day, sit on their computer and then they go home and watch Netflix, and they don’t really get out of that bubble. They might go hiking on Saturday. That’s their lives. And people wonder why we’re moving. Because no one wants to go to our shows. No one wants to go to a show anymore! They don’t have that kind of schedule, they’re not living that lifestyle.”

Keltner’s bandmate, and music label co-founder, Ian Cunningham, says he’s watched San Francisco lose its music scene to the tech culture of Silicon Valley.

“That music scene is dead,” says Cunningham. “It’s not kind of floating or sort of getting by, it is dead. There is nothing happening, clubs are shutting down left and right. All those bands are gone. They’ve gone to LA. There is no music scene in San Francisco. You look at that and that’s the direction we’re headed. We lived on Capitol Hill for forever. Our buildings are getting torn down, our neighbors are all gone. It’s hard for the people who are left. It’s hard when you can’t afford to live in your neighborhood anymore so you’ve moved farther out of the city and you have a harder time commuting to these shows. And when I get there, who’s actually going to be there anymore?”

Lacey Swain is licensing director at Seattle’s SubPop records, but she’s lived in LA the past two years.

“Living in different places, Los Angeles, Austin, I find that artists seem super supported in Seattle in a way that I haven’t seen any place I’ve ever lived. Taken seriously. And there is that mentality of, oh, to make it big you’ve got to move to LA or New York. But I feel like Seattle always did a really good job of encouraging local artists. Getting grants and having all these awesome programs and writing about them in the weeklies and giving them attention that you just don’t see in other places.”

Swain doesn’t think Seattle, or tech culture, is to blame.

“Without being super rude, that sounds like a lazy excuse to me,” Swain said. “That sounds like, ‘I’m really great and if only there were people here to see me, I’d be making so much money.’ That just seems lazy. Maybe your band sucks! Maybe there are a million bands and everyone is trying to do a thing and because of the Internet everybody can do a thing. They feel like, ‘Well, I’m doing this. Where’s my money? I deserve this.’ If you’re doing something great, people will find you no matter where you are living.”

Earlier this year, Paul Allen announced Upstream Music Fest + Summit, a music festival and networking event coming to Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood in May 2017. The idea is to connect local musicians to the industry and help artists thrive. Ramadan thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

“I definitely don’t want to come across as sounding like I’m down on Seattle,” Ramadan said. “I think really highly of Seattle and the art that’s made here. I think it’s just a shame that it’s so difficult for the people making things here to actually afford a living.”

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Is tech culture killing Seattle’s music and art scene?