Food & Drink

How to Fix Seattle’s Music Scene

Why Seattle isn't the music city it once was and how we can change that

By Dan Ray March 22, 2023

FRANKFURT, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 12: singer and guitarist with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain performs live on stage in Frankfurt, Germany on November 12 1991

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

In September 2017, I founded Dan’s Tunes, a small publication focused on showcasing Seattle’s local music scene. Throughout the past five years, I have spent countless hours talking with musicians, artists, and other industry folks about the state of the current music climate in Seattle. When we’re on the record, everyone always has nice things to say — and Seattle does have a lot going for it, from the sheer number of venues in the city to the people working behind the scenes to keep the arts alive.

Today, I am here to face the facts: Seattle is not the music city it once was. That doesn’t mean it can’t be something great, but we do have to face reality in order to get there. We have to stop pretending it’s still the ’90s and the scene is doing fine. We have to stop ignoring the fact that musicians are leaving the city — and I don’t mean to Tacoma or Port Orchard, although that is happening, too. I mean to Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.

A friend of a friend of mine recently moved to Vegas and said “Seattle lives in the past. Vegas lives in the future.” We have to stop living in the past, being complacent with the status quo, and start to create the environment we want.

So, how do we do that? I have a few ideas.

Integrate music into the city

Music should not only happen at music venues. Period. In almost every major city in the country I’ve been to within the past two years (Boston, Austin, the Bay Area, Des Moines, San Antonio, Philadelphia, etc.), local bars and restaurants have live music at least once a week. I very rarely see this in Seattle. I’ve seen it at wineries, but most of those are outside the city proper and also cater to a very specific crowd. Music needs to be more readily accessible to the general population. The current Seattle music scene is incredibly insular, and that insularity creates a multitude of problems.

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: money. Musicians don’t have money. Venues don’t have money. The arts, in general, don’t have any money. When money is tight, stress is high, and it’s difficult to make decisions. For the past few years, most of the messaging from the arts community has been for patrons of the arts to step up and pay the $10 door cover to support local arts.

While people should do this, we have to look at the reality of the situation. Seattle is a city of tech workers and introverts, and help from people who only go out once every two weeks only goes so far. At a certain point, you can’t ask your audience to come to you. You have to go to your audience. And the way we do that is by integrating music into the city.

When artists play a show, they get paid on ticket sales after the door fee (the amount of money the venue needs to be open for the show: paying the sound engineer, the person who sells tickets at the door, security, etc., usually around $250) and/or a percentage of bar sales, depending on the venue. Let’s say a show costs $10 and the door fee is $250. If the show sells five tickets, it makes $50. The artist doesn’t get paid, and the venue loses money. This is not unusual. If the show sells 30 tickets, the venue takes its $250 and the artist makes $50.

This strategy, put bluntly, simply does not work, mostly due to the underlying promotion structure. Venues, more or less, rely on artists to promote their shows and do very little promotion on their own, primarily because of the inability to pay even one full-time marketing manager, let alone the marketing team that would be required to effectively promote an arts business in a metro area of almost 3.5 million people.

The effect of this current system is frustrated artists and venues, the former because they’re left to the wolves to beg their friends to come see them play at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday for the fifth time in six months, and the latter because their establishment is empty for the eighth night in a row, and doesn’t know how it’s going to pay rent next month.

The way we interrupt this cycle is by integrating music into the city at large. Local bars and restaurants need to start hosting live music on a regular basis. Yes, you will have to pay the musicians, and yes, musicians, you should charge what you think your time is worth. But people love music. There are countless studies on how music influences our mood, and live music even more so.

According to a study done at Goldsmiths, University of London, seeing 20 minutes of live music once every two weeks may add up to nine years to your life due to increases in feelings of self-worth, closeness with others, and mental stimulation. Put simply, live music is an asset not only to your life, but to your business. If people experience greater feelings of self-worth, closeness with others, and mental stimulation at your business, they are going to come back — and bring friends.

This kind of integration will predominantly create a happier, more communal general public, which, I argue, will create a significant ripple effect of positive change in the city’s climate as a whole. But, more tangibly, this will expose the general public to local musicians and, in time, drum up support for those musicians when they play shows at venues. There’s a marketing principle that people have to see your name or brand at least seven times before they remember. If people are exposed to a band or musician when they’re out at their usual watering hole, that increases the likelihood they’ll recognize, and thus want to come see, that band or person play at a venue. Integration helps the bar with creating a happier clientele and helps the music community by exposing it to an audience it wouldn’t normally reach.

Serve better alcohol

This system of integration has to work on the flip side, too. Venues need to prioritize their bar. If social media have proven anything, it’s that people need to see the value in something before they invest in it. We live in an age of free trials and easy returns. People don’t spend money when they can’t see the value in it, and the general public doesn’t understand the value of live music. Small venues need to face the reality that it’s unrealistic to expect people to pay $10 to see a band they don’t know and may not enjoy in a city where half the population doesn’t know if they’ll be able to make rent and the other half is too burnt out from working 60 hours a week to try anything new. But what people do understand the value of is alcohol. If small venues prioritize bar sales — having creative drink specials and the option of higher quality bar items – they will draw patrons based on that instead of having to rely on the musicians to pull a crowd.

And if we take the music out of it entirely: No one likes to be hungover. And no people will come to your venue if they wake up hungover after one drink from your bar (it’s happened to me). Serve people well, and they’ll come back.

Make (some) shows free

Serving better alcohol also means venues don’t need to charge for every show. Again, people need to see the value in live music before they pay for it — and people don’t see the value in bands they’ve never heard of. Let them see the bands for free. This doesn’t mean every show has to be free. Maybe only weeknight shows are free. Maybe just Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Maybe just Tuesdays. Maybe only the first Tuesday of every month. Figure out what works for your establishment, but find some way to prove your value to the public in a low-stakes environment for them. And yes, you still have to pay the musicians that play. But just like local bars and restaurants, if you provide value to your customers, over time, your business will grow. You’ll make more money on bar sales, earn a more dedicated and loyal customer base, and also provide more value for the musicians as they’re exposed to more fans, which means they’ll be more excited to play at (and promote) your venue.

Turn down the volume

Serving people well isn’t just about food and drink. It’s about crafting an environment people want to be in. And people don’t want to be in an environment where it’s so loud they can’t hear themselves think or talk to their friends. Yet this is the case at basically every Seattle venue. I’m a music journalist, and half the time I don’t even like being at venues because I lose my voice just trying to say hi to a friend. I honestly can’t remember the last time I left a Seattle show with my voice still intact.
We need to turn down the volume. We need to create an environment where people can still hold a conversation with their friends while the music is playing. We need to stop, quite literally, physically abusing people by destroying their ears and their voices. It’s bad for public health, it’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the musicians themselves. If musicians know they’re at risk to lose their voice (especially before their set), that means they’re not talking to their friends and fans. They’re not welcoming people in. They’re not selling merch because they’re unable to talk to their customers. And if musicians lose their voice or hearing, that means the quality of their set goes down, which makes people less likely to return to the venue.

Yes, concerts are supposed to be loud. But there have been several times when I left venues with my ears ringing, and I had earplugs.

Yes, concerts are supposed to be loud, and yes it depends on the genre. If you’re ripping a metal show, sure, blow my ears out. But there have been several times I have left (nonmetal) Seattle venues with my ears ringing — even though I was wearing earplugs. Music can’t improve self-worth, bring people together, or stimulate people’s minds if they’re too preoccupied by the pain they’re in.

Start shows earlier

According to Stacker.com, in 2019, the majority of the Seattle workforce worked in professional, scientific, and tech services. The second-highest industry was health care, followed by retail, manufacturing, and education. What this means is approximately 43% of Seattle’s working population is composed of people who get up early and work long hours (retail excluded). Let’s be serious: None of those people are coming to a show that starts at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Half of those people probably aren’t even coming to a show that starts at 9 p.m. on a Friday night because they’re already sleepy by then.

If we want people to come to shows, we need to start earlier. (We should also standardize the way tickets are organized — half the time when a ticket says “8 p.m.,” I have no idea if that means doors at 8 or show at 8 — but that’s a different article.) In mid-2021, I created and sent out a comprehensive music survey asking my audience about factors that would make them attend or not attend a concert. One of the questions asked about start time. Of 85 respondents, 43.5% said 7 p.m. Forty-five percent said 8 p.m. Only 10.6% said 9 p.m.

Yes, weekday shows will always draw fewer crowds than weekend shows. But it doesn’t have to be so stark. If we start shows earlier and cater to the audience that currently exists in Seattle (as opposed to the audience we want to exist or that used to exist), we can still draw in a crowd on a Tuesday night.

Focus on making people happy

The Book, Volume 1, Page, 41, Picture, 7, Legendary American guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix, 1967

Photo by Bentley Archive/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

I recently played an open mic in Des Moines, Iowa. After the show, someone came up to me, introduced himself as a fifth-generation Des Moinesian with a lot of musical connections, and asked what I needed and what he could do for me. Another person offered to book me for a variety show. Someone else offered to practice with me for future open mics. After living in Seattle the past five years, I was shaken. When I attended or played shows in Seattle, people would often come up to me after — but to ask what I could do for them. “Can you come to this show next week and cover my band?” “Can you write X article?” “Can you book my band on the bill next time you play a show?” Once, a Seattle musician asked for a review by commenting on one of my personal Instagram posts.

This kind of selfish individualism is exhausting, isolating, and detrimental for everyone involved. It breeds hollow, stagnant relationships not built on any kind of real connection. What Seattle needs to ask is, “What can I do for you?” This goes for the business side — venues and artists need to ask themselves what they can do for the other party – but also for the customer-facing side.

In the end, that is how we create a sustainable, evolving system — by genuinely looking out for others. If we are constantly asking ourselves what we can do for other people, we will always be searching for the best solution to any given problem, and we’ll see it through a wider lens than only our own.

The lightbulb moment for me in starting Dan’s Tunes was when I had what had to have been the fifth conversation with a local musician who, with no prompting whatsoever, referred to the scene as “disjointed” or “fragmented.” Well, this is how we fix that. We integrate. We work together. We create an environment in which artists like Travis Thompson (signed to Epic Records), Macntaj (signed to Bloc Star Evolution), Halley Greg (appeared on The Voice), and Payge Turner (appeared on The Voice), can become as influential as Nirvana, Heart, Soundgarden, and Jimi Hendrix. We make space for those musicians — and our city — to grow.

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