February 26th, 2008 | by LocalCut News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Does Seattle's Music Scene Have a Portland Problem?

     
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boxing"Is this just another 'Seattle-scene obit' or are they really onto something?"

So asks Athima Chansanchai of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a recent blog post. She's a little worried after reading a Corey DuBrowa-written feature in this month's Paste Magazine that calls into question the relevance of Seattle's music scene. That article pinpoints a few different boogeymen responsible for Seattle's purported decline, one of the bigger ones being—wait for it, waaaaaaiiiiiit for it—Portland:

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 ?ed Seattle's increasingly expensive real estate and impossibly dense traf?c for the artist-friendly con?nes of Portland, Ore.


The article goes on to quote Walla heavily:

“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.'”


The P.I.'s Chansanchai isn't the only Seattle pundit looking defensive over the Paste Magazine article. Seattlest.com, a franchised blog which has weighed in on the "Portland vs. Seattle" argument in the past, posted a discussion-spurring blog entry on the Paste article as well, wherein poster Kim Ruehl rebutted in the ever-engaging first person plural:

We're not saying we don't understand why so many gifted former Seattleites have departed for Portland's cheaper rents and more communal songwriter scene. We loved Portland the two years we lived there, back in the day. But we're in Seattle now, we're not the only ones, and we're pretty stoked about the music that's getting made here. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that something's in the air in the Seattle music scene, and that our time on the national stage didn't end ten years ago.


That sounds hopeful. As do some of the comments on the P.I. blog, which range from calling the article "hogwash" to pronouncing "As far as I can tell, rock is dead. Everywhere, not just in Seattle."

For me, plenty of questions come to mind:

*If Portland's music scene is already eclipsing Seattle's in popularity and artist appeal, will that process accelerate if Sam Adams, an avid supporter of the arts, is elected mayor?

*And won't Portland's scene just follow the same arch as Seattle's if the condos and Californians keep flocking here fast and furious?

*Can Portland's network of localized media outlets and record labels compete with the likes of heavyweights like Sub Pop and the very cool KEXP radio?

*Can the two cities live in peace, or must we constantly question eachothers' relevancy in these turbulent times?

*Must Portland go to war with Seattle, redirecting I-5 in both directions so that none of our cities' respective bands can play in the other city's clubs?

*Will Olympia lay low until Portland and Seattle have leveled eachother to dust, then rise like a freak-folk phoenix?

None of these (mostly ridiculous) questions will be answered in this blog post. For more insight on what's really going on in Seattle, though, we have the a fine resource to consult in ex-WW Music Editor, Mark Baumgarten, now the Editor of Seattle Sound magazine, based in (you guessed it) Seattle. We asked him for a couple of thoughts on the Paste article, and in true Baumer form, he replied with an essay:

"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.

For the most part, this article is dead on about what is going on in the Seattle music scene right now, but Corey DuBrowa really does a disservice to the complexity of the situation by insinuating that there is some sort of "demise" of Seattle's influence in the national music scene. What is happening here isn't a death, but a shift that the above quote from James Keblas spells out in no uncertain terms. From everyone I've spoken to about it (and let me tell you, everyone wants to talk about how our two burgs stack up), this is what I have gathered:

After Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit national charts, Seattle was saddled with a reputation as a musical center that attracted thousands of musicians and music fans (which, you folks might know, Portland is experiencing right now), and cash from a music industry eager to capitalize on the hype (which Portland has yet to really experience, and likely never will). That, plus the incredible amount of money from Big Tech and Big Coffee that flooded the economy, has helped drive property values up and many struggling musicians out. What is left over is the aura of a musical ground zero, populated by the established musicians and music fans from that early-'90s boom who have turned their love of music into successful businesses. The sound of grunge may have faded, but the people responsible for making and following that sound hold the cash and pull the levers here...and they have created a robust and unique music industry.

Now Seattle boasts one of the largest distributors of digital music (Amazon), one of the best internet radio stations in the world (KEXP), and a number of influential record labels, including the industry giant Sub Pop. The list goes on: tons of music websites, Microsoft's digital music division (responsible for the Zune), the Experience Music Project (host of the only large-scale annual meeting of music critics); Sasquatch! Music Festival (the Seattle-produced music festival boasting one of the best lineups of any outdoor festival—eat it Coachella) and the magazine I edit (which finds plenty to cover on a monthly basis just within the Puget Sound area). Plus there is a fully-staffed Office of Film and Music that is constantly wooing more industry players to the city (Keblas recently told me that he wants Seattle to be the capital of music licensing in America... owever you feel about that, it's good for the independence of local musicians).

It's a different world up here, but Seattle is certainly not in decline. If anything, this city is more influential than it ever was in the early '90s. It's just that the influence is now held by radio station DJs and programmers, label heads and the music fans that work in the tech industry...not necessarily by big-time artists. All of those industry folks might not be going out to shows every night (if they did, chances are the clubs would be doing better), but they are giving artists in the Pacific Northwest the national exposure and distribution necessary to maintain their own independence and the Northwest's standing as the capital of independent music.

Of course, along with the wealth and prosperity for business-owners comes a more uptight, difficult culture for artists to exist and create in. Clubs close down, but other ones open. This is the ebb and flow of a city where life is more difficult, but the spirit of creation is never quashed. Pedro the Lion's David Bazan, most of Death Cab, Eddie Vedder, Blue Scholars, Rocky Votolato, Damien Jurado, Jesse Sykes and other established artists still call Seattle home and draw inspiration from it. And there are a lot of new faces making great music. For LocalCut readers, I have compiled a short list of what I'm digging right now [see links section below].


Well, there you go. Seattle is experiencing ch-ch-ch-changes, not becoming a silent, blighted bayside wasteland. I'm happy living in talent-thieving Portland, but I no longer pity our music fans to the North, regardless of what Paste Magazine has to say. Seattle's basketball fans, though, that's another story.

Links:
Paste Magazine Article
Seattlest
P.I.'s "Big Blog"
Seattle Sound Magazine

Mark B's Seattle Music Picks:
Throw Me the Statue: http://myspace.com/throwmethestatue
Fleet Foxes: http://www.myspace.com/fleetfoxes
The Cave Singers: http://www.myspace.com/thecavesingers
Dyme Def: http://www.myspace.com/dymedef
Grand Archives: http://www.myspace.com/goslowpoke
PWRFL Power: http://www.myspace.com/pwrflpower
Joshua Morrison: http://www.myspace.com/joshuamorrison

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