Upstream Fest: From Skepticism to Outright Fun

The Upstream Summit and Festival started like a meeting between two estranged friends who were forced to get together.

On one side, there were the musicians, the artists, the people towards whom the summit was targeted. On the other side, were the sponsors of the event represented by companies like Vulcan and Amazon, which have little to do with the music scene in Seattle, but without which the event wouldn’t happen.

The first ever event of its kind, Upstream invited these two distinct demographics – artists and corporations – to shake hands, and discuss the very issue at the bottom of the contention: the future of the city, and to whom it belongs.

More than any time in recent history, Seattle is being transformed at a rapid pace, mostly by the heavy flow of corporate money coming from technology giants. While companies like Vulcan build shiny skyscrapers and the likes of Amazon attract highly-paid technology workers to live the city, artists see themselves forced to move out to cheaper places. With these changes, it’s easy to see why the creative community would see this convergence with skeptical eyes.

Seattle-native rapper Gabriel Teodros started his speech in one of the breakout sessions saying that it felt ironic that an event with a panel on “building healthy communities” is being sponsored by the very billionaires who are on the bottom of “destroying communities.” He went on to say that cultural hubs – like the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Central District neighborhood – were a key part of his development as an artist, and that gentrification is threatening the existence of such places and the communities they host.

On the other side of the spectrum, keynote speaker and music living legend Quincy Jones, was sympathetic and optimistic. He called Paul Allen – the owner of Vulcan and Upstream Festival’s prime mover – a good friend, a good guitar player and a music aficionado. He was excited to be in his home town and surprised to see that some things haven’t changed much.

Most of the artists at the event were somewhere in between. They took a wait-and-see approach and were willing the give Paul Allen the benefit of the doubt.

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Borrowing its format from the popular SxSW Conference and Festival, Upstream was divided into two main events – the Upstream Summit during the day, and the Upstream Festival in the evening. The Summit took place Thursday and Friday (May 11-12) at the WaMu Theater with speeches and discussions about the future of the music industry and a special focus on streaming and data harnessing.

The Festival started Thursday and didn’t end until Saturday (May 11-13). It happened at multiple venues in Pioneer Square, one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods. Almost all speakers and performing artists were from the Pacific Northwest, and most of them were from the Seattle region. Upstream was unquestionably local.

Star Anna

Local rock musician Star Anna during her set at Comedy Underground

In spite of the skepticism in the beginning of the Summit, as soon as the bands started playing, the tension started to melt away. Pioneer Square was bursting with live music from buskers (all curated by Gigs4U) to free performances, to main-stage acts that attracted people by the thousands.

During his performance on Thursday, local violinist and composer Andrew Joslyn gave a shout out to the event’s organizers. “Let’s give Paul Allen a hand! Let’s give this ‘SxSW in Seattle’ a try!” he cheered the crowd.

An element that played a role in the success of the shows was the diversity of the acts. Artists came from various social, racial and cultural backgrounds – a rare feat in an increasingly segregated city. In any single moment during the festival, one could attend to shows that ranged from hip-hop, jazz and R&B, to rock, pop and metal as well as folk, country, singer-songwriter, electronic and many other genres. Never did Seattle see so many local musicians playing at the same event.

Tai Shan, a musician friend of mine who also played at the festival through Gigs4YU, described it well on her Facebook page: “[Upstream] was kinda like Seattle threw a party and all my friends were invited to play.”

Indeed, if you were a musician in Seattle, most of your colleagues would be there – either playing or watching a fellow musician’s performance. Even for me, who don’t have many musician friends, ended up bumping into several acquaintances.

After attending the Summit and watching a few shows, my assessment of the event was positive. I feel that Seattle has a unique opportunity to foster creativity not despite its demographic and urbanistic changes, but exactly because of them. The city is full of examples of compelling partnerships between corporations and artistic communities. One initiative that is particularly close to my heart (I’ve worked on the project) is the Storefronts Seattle project, which brings together artists and corporations (including Vulcan and Amazon) to activate communities and neighborhoods through art.

Upstream Summit’s last keynote came from global hip-hop sensation and Seattle native (and resident) Macklemore. During his speech, he highlighted how the support from fans in Seattle was fundamental for his band to make an impact on a national and global level.

Macklemore is quoted on GeekWire saying, “We sold out three shows at Showbox and booking agents in New York City heard about that. They got wind of that and wondered what was going on in Seattle. To have that support first here, and on that grassroots direct-to-fan relationship we had built with our fans, that is what enabled us to even get noticed in the first place.”

At the end of his speech, he praised the event organization and said, “this is a well-intended festival. I hope it’s here to stay.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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