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.

A Ride to the Top

Whitney Lyman and William (Bud) Ransom remember vividly the first time they played together to a big audience. The PONCHO Concert Hall at the Cornish College of the Arts was full of students, faculty and community members to watch the Scores of Sound Student Music Festival, a non-curricular recital for Cornish students who choose to present their work to a crowd outside the classroom.

The Elderly at Columbia City Theater on June 10. Picture taken from a cell phone camera.

Lyman and Ransom performed four songs they wrote together. Both nervousness and excitement occupied their thoughts as they showed the public the fruit of months of rehearsals.

“When we got off the stage, there was this huge thrill,” Lyman recalls. “People were telling us they really liked what we were doing, and that was a good sign.”

Good signs of success are what bands like Lyman and Ransom’s are looking for on the journey toward broader acclaim. The duo started playing together in 2007 as music students at Cornish, and in 2010, they officially formed their neo-folk band, The Elderly. The story of The Elderly is an example of what local musicians go through to break out of the pack and gain recognition outside the Seattle area.

While Ransom writes the songs, plays the guitar and sings, Lyman creates the harmonies, sings, and plays the banjo and the percussion. The mix of string acoustic instrumentation and light tambourine beats creates an unhurried, rustic sound. The Elderly’s songs abound in vocal harmonies, and lyrics communicate idyllic settings. Occasional claps bring playfulness and reveal the easiness of the duo’s songwriting style, which always seems to arise from a walk in the park.

American folk-rock from the 1960s and ’70s inspired the band, and the name The Elderly is a nod to that influence. The band sounds like a male and female version of Simon and Garfunkel, with deft guitar playing and carefully placed banjo arrangements.

“In the 70’s, my mom and her four sisters had a folk music band,” Lyman said. “That was the first music I grew up listening to – folk music inspired by the times of the 70’s, but I was listening to it when I was a kid in the 90’s.”

“All the music I listen to is old,” Ransom added. “Don’t think of ‘the elderly’ as old people; think of it as sepia photograph.”

While the band’s influences ooze from the past, its drive to create music and perform is very present. In the last few months, three new musicians joined the band: Judd Wasserman (bass and vocals), Nick Ptacek (guitar and vocals) and Devin Anderson (drums).

“The new band members open up a lot of options,” Lyman said. “They bring their own ideas – which would have never been created if it was just the two of us. Musically, the sound is different, but it’s the vision Bud and I had from the beginning.”

In addition to drawing more members, The Elderly has been an active participant in Seattle’s music community, a must-have pass for gaining local influence.

“Being part of the community is how you get people to find you,” Lyman said. “It feels like it’s a group of friends – having this personal connection is important because people go to your shows because they like you as a person.”

Bassist Judd Wasserman added: “There are different circles interconnecting. When there’s a show of any band inside one of these circles, everybody from this circle goes to the show because they know they are going to get good music.”

This community environment makes it easier for the success of one band to prompt the success of another. When folk band The Head and the Heart signed to record label Sub Pop last November, the entire local music scene got a boost of visibility. With its origins in the Seattle independent circle, The Head and the Heart now tours across the country – as well as in Europe – playing shows and expanding its fan base.

Wasserman is friends with the folks on The Head and the Heart. “Just seeing what happened to them over the past year is unbelievable,” he said. “The Head and the Heart opened a big door for a lot of acoustic music.”

Wasserman believes the band reached national success for a mix of reasons including its members’ business savvy, smart use of social media, honest chemistry between band members and the public, entertaining live shows, and personal connections with influential people.

“The Head and the Heart was the first to stand out,” he said. “I’m sure there will be many other local bands that will break because of them.”

As The Head and the Heart attracts new fans in distant places, The Elderly has been enjoying a period of fair visibility among local concertgoers and press. The Seattle Weekly recently reviewed the band’s show at the High Dive on March 29 calling Lyman and Ransom an “intriguing couple” who clearly has “the tools both lyrically and musically to distinguish themselves from the flock with an infusion of texture, variety, and risk.”

Although getting a review on the paper is a required checkbox for any band that wants make it big, it is certainly not enough for a band to secure national prominence. The Elderly – as most independent bands – is not a profitable enterprise. All band members have day jobs that allow them to reconcile their strenuous rehearsal schedule with their need for money.

“We want to play music for living,” said Ransom who bartends part time. “It’s a way of going through life; to do music as a lifestyle.”

Lyman, who cooks pizza in a restaurant in Capitol Hill, added, “Our goal is not fame or money, but to share what we create. It’s communicating without talking. If this could be our job, we’d do it.”

While fame and money may not be the band’s main goal, these themes constantly permeate its members’ thoughts.

“Of course we’re not close to there yet,” Ransom said. “I worry a lot about my band members. As we’re are trying to make it, tons of bands are doing the same.”

“Choosing a music career is an emotional roller coaster,” Lyman said. “There are the extreme highs and the extreme lows. You get really excited about something, but it doesn’t happen. The challenge is to keep your motivation going. You have to remember the wonderful high moments to help you carry through.”

As The Elderly’s ride continues, the band matures and its dreams grow. “We want to reach as many people as possible, affect people in a positive way,” Lyman said. “Maybe the next step is doing a full-length album, or get on tour.”

On Friday June 10, the Elderly will play at the much-hyped Columbia City Theater. For many bands, playing there is a steppingstone to shows in festivals and broader visibility.

Although the band feels it’s moving in the right direction, all members know the unspoken truth: making it nationally is for a lucky few.

“The challenge is to convince myself that it doesn’t matter if we make it or not,” Ransom said. “It’s hard to stop and let go of the fear of not having done everything we have to do. I have to convince myself that we all have jobs, we all love each other and playing music together, and that’s what matters.”

Lesson from Lady Gaga

When I first heard of Lady Gaga, I was intrigued. Where the hell does she come from? Who is this person? To me, she seemed the kind of artist who was fabricated with the sole purpose of creating buzz and money. She looks like this random person discovered out of nowhere and is now omnipresent in every radio station and in the minds of every YouTube viewer.

As I couldn’t handle my own curiosity, I sought to read more about her story and found it fascinating. What’s intriguing about Stefani Germanotta (Gaga’s real name) is the transformation that led to the creation of Lady Gaga. The character Germanotta incorporates – conveyed by her makeup, wigs, wardrobe, dance moves, voice, videos, behavior etc. – is cryptic, controversial and at the same time, mesmerizing.

The New York Magazine recently published a great article about Gaga’s story. The magazine describes Gaga as a “self-invented, manufactured, accidental, totally on-purpose” pop star. Contradictory? Yes. But accurate. The part I didn’t know about Lady Gaga was the effort she put to become what she is today. While it is true that she is a product of the industry, it is also true that she wouldn’t get where she is now if it was not her will power and drive to become famous.

I found it interesting to discover that not only did Germanotta create and transform herself into the Gaga character, she also transformed her own body to became famous. She realized she was over-weighted to be a pop star, so she got thin. Her nose was a little too big, so she got a nose job. She knew that if she was blonde, she would have more chances to succeed, so she got her hair dyed. Her name was way too complicated, so she chose a better one for herself.

While the success in Gaga’s case came from a mix of personal effort, personal talent and – most importantly – luck, her story taught me a lesson: there is no such thing as to be born for success; no one is born with the success gene in their DNA.

When you are a kid singing in a choir, and there is always that cooler girl who sings way better than you, you tend to believe that you just don’t have the talent. The cooler girl, of course, was born for singing. What I’ve been learning is that the cooler girl was probably taking voice lessons secretly while everyone else was envying her. She just wouldn’t tell anyone.

Success doesn’t come out of nowhere and is not written in your genes. It involves determination, will power, meeting the right people and, sometimes, luck. Next time you see someone who is more successful than you, think about what this person has done to get where she is today. It may give you another perspective about your own success and you may think, well, I can also do that.