Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Athens Music Scene: Must Read

After the Goldrush:Does Seattle's Music Scene Still Matter?
Writer: Corey DuBrowa
Feature, Issue 40, Published online on 22 Feb 2008

The city responsible for innovators from Hendrix to Heart to (Wayne) Horvitz—the Ground Zero of grunge, the home of the influential Sub Pop label and the inspiration for period-perfect 1992 film Singles—has seen better days, musically speaking.
Late last year, the Crocodile Café became the latest in a long line of vaunted live venues (from the OK Hotel to Moe’s to RCKCNDY to Fenix Underground) to close its doors. Others, such as the Showbox and Comet, have either been purchased by out-of-town interests or continue to exist only precariously, threatened by the downtown core’s massive residential—and commercial—development schemes. Some of the scene’s leading lights—including Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, Mudhoney’s Steve Turner and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla—have fled Seattle’s increasingly expensive real estate and impossibly dense traffic for the artist-friendly confines of Portland, Ore. And increasingly punitive noise ordinances and nightlife restrictions have made it difficult for Seattle clubs that book live bands to turn a profit, forcing them to consider more lucrative alternatives.

“Mayor [Greg] Nickels and other city leaders don’t have a clue about the impact of their policies on this community,” says Tim Hatley, lobbyist for the Seattle Nightlife & Music Association. “If you’re Dan [Cowan, owner of Seattle fixture the Tractor Tavern], why would you invest in a booking person and upgrades like sprinklers and soundproofing when you could make more money as a pool hall for the yuppies in their brand-new condos right across the street?”
EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHEREThe argument for Seattle’s musical demise largely boils down to economics. Any vibrant music scene requires plenty of cheap space in which artists can live, practice and work, since a musician’s living is often feast or famine—and it’s been a long time since anyone could accurately call Seattle “cheap.” According to Northwest Multiple Listing Service, the median price of a single-family home in King County as of fall 1993 (the same timeframe in which Nirvana’s In Utero and Pearl Jam’s Vs. were released) was $159,000. By the fall of 2007 that same property had swelled to $457,000. Even taking inflation into account, prices have essentially doubled within 14 years (with a corresponding impact on rents), which has predictably chased some former residents to less-expensive locales.
“The music community itself is still really strong in Seattle,” says Death Cab guitarist Walla, a Portland resident since 2006. “But there’s a goldrush mentality about the way the city is managed. The difference between Seattle and Portland has everything to do with economics: Seattle City Hall seems to have completely lost any interest in music or the arts. It’s crazy to hear Mayor Nickels going on about building a tunnel under the waterfront: All he seems to care about is ‘denser, bigger, more.’ My decision to move to Portland was strictly about quality of life vs. a musical choice. I started looking at houses here two years ago, and thought ‘I can afford to buy a nice house within walking distance of a bunch of mom-and-pop shops run by adult kids just like me.’”
For their part, Seattle’s civic leaders suggest they’re doing all they can to balance the commercial interests that have fueled the city’s considerable growth and the artistic and aesthetic interests associated with Seattle’s musical boomtimes. “There may be some growing pains affecting nightlife as Seattle continues to grow and density increases, but Seattle music has moved from ‘scene’ to industry,” says James Keblas, Director of Film & Music for the mayor’s office (a position created in 2003) and co-founder of the Vera Project (see sidebar).
Keblas points to a 2003 economic-impact study showing that Seattle’s music industry contributed $1.3 billion in revenues to the city, supports 8,700 jobs and is comprised of more than 2,600 businesses, including 88 record labels, 115 record stores, 164 live music venues, 100 recording studios and nearly 1500 bands/artists (according to recent independent surveys). “The City Council recently passed a noise ordinance but the details and rules won’t be worked out until June 2008,” Keblas says. “I can assure you it will be as lenient towards live music venues as possible, and far less strict than any other major city.”
Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that it was ever easy to be a working musician in Seattle. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm—progenitor of the term “grunge,” co-founder of the seminal ’80s indie band Green River and one of Seattle music’s most influential voices—cautions against making too much of the current downturn.
“It’s not like things were necessarily any better in the ’80s,” Arm explains with a sardonic laugh. “The U-Men were the biggest band around, and they usually played to less than 50 people in tiny places like the Ditto Tavern and the [now-defunct] Vogue. The war against local music was on full-force: The 1985 Teen Dance Ordinance made it impossible to put on legal all-ages shows; you either played house parties or rented a hall and took your chances. To say the scene’s ‘dead’ seems Chicken Little to me: That’s about marketing conceits, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the music. Maybe it’s good for the scene to have a little difficulty, you know? That way the people playing music for the enjoyment of it, rather than building some ‘career,’ will keep the thing going.”
“What we had in the ’90s was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” says Charles Cross, editor of late indie paper .The Rocket and biographer of Seattle icons Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. “There was a period in 1993-94 in which five local bands debuted at #1 in the Billboard charts: That’s an impossible standard to maintain. People forget that in 1991, when Nirvana supposedly ‘broke,’ Kurt Cobain’s tax records show that he made only $33,000 and was evicted from his apartment because he couldn’t afford the $137.50 monthly rent. People have been writing Seattle-scene obits since 1994—it wasn’t as great as everyone seems to think it was then, and it isn’t as bad as everyone suggests today.”