The inaugural Upstream Music Fest and Summit is set to begin today (May 11) and is being slated as the Pacific Northwest’s answer to South By Southwest. The three-day festival and summit will feature hundreds of performances throughout Seattle’s Pioneer Square and CenturyLink Field. The brainchild by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, the summit is designed to promote music discovery, spark transformative conversations and foster opportunities for emerging artists and the industry within the new entertainment economy, all with a strong focus on Seattle’s music scene.
Upstream is managed by Vulcan, Allen’s private management firm, which has and continues to play a huge part in development projects in Seattle, including the predominantly black community of Central District. The Central District has been a hub for many notable musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones, but development pressure is pushing artists and musicians out of the area.
Central District artists, many of whom will be playing Upstream, saw the approaching festival and Allen’s deep ties to Seattle as a way of contacting the Microsoft co-founder about struggles facing the community. On April 28, organizers from the Central District launched a petition through Change.org called Create Equitable & Inclusive Development in Seattle that implores Allen and Vulcan to take the artist community into consideration when developing the neighborhood.
“I think we have a really powerful opportunity because Vulcan is a local company and because Paul Allen is a local philanthropist, and I think they consider themselves invested in the Seattle community,” said one of the petition’s primary organizers, Julie Chang Schulman, who raps under the name Julie-C. “We wanted to help broaden the perspective the idea of what it is to preserve art and culture, what does it mean to really center that beyond just something to consume.”
Vulcan recently purchased 10 acres of Seattle land for $53 million for multi-purpose use, including retail space and 1,200 new apartment units. The company also won a bid to redevelop one of the country’s first integrated public housing locations and are turning it into public and private space.
The 30 local organizations who signed the petition felt Upstream was the ideal opportunity to reach out to Vulcan and present their argument, especially given the festival’s mission of providing local artists with resources they need to thrive in the new music economy.
In a press release announcing the festival, Allen said “Upstream will celebrate the sound and culture of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. We have a thriving music scene filled with emerging artists that deserve more exposure, resources and attention.”
The petition calls on Allen and Vulcan to fulfill that mission by engaging with the community beyond the festival. It asserts that “the artist/musician class in Seattle – the one that Vulcan intends to support and invest in – is being economically displaced at a growing pace,” suggesting the very acts making up over 70 percent of the Upstream lineup will no longer be Seattle-based due to development pressure.
“Paul Allen and Vulcan have outsized influence and resources when it comes to shaping not only the physical, but cultural environment,” said Cynthia Brothers, who works with Vanishing Seattle, another organization signed onto the petition. “Allen’s controversial development projects across the city, such as in Cascade/South Lake Union — and especially in the CD – have contributed to gentrification and the displacement of longstanding artists, musicians, and creatives whose talent, sweat, and vision have made Seattle vibrant and culturally rich and made festivals like Upstream possible to begin with.”
“So much of our activism tends to be reactive and we’re hoping that this is an approach that will hopefully make a difference and keep our city accessible to us,” Julie-C told Amplify.
Julie-C works for 206 Zulu, one of the organizations signed onto the petition. Other primary organizers include a prominent figure in Central District, Wyking Garrett from Africatown, who has been an anchor in resisting displacement in the community. Rappers Geneiva Arunga and Keosha Fredricks have also played an important role in the creation of the coalition. Arunga and Keosha organize displacement rallies on Saturdays which feature musical performances and draw attention to the cause on a weekly basis.
“We have so much creativity and brilliance in this city that I think if we declare the intent and pull the right people into the conversation and there is a willingness, that we can envision something new,” said Julie-C.
Since the petition went up, Vulcan has been in contact with the coalition. In a statement sent to Amplify, a Vulcan spokesperson wrote “We have reached out and are hoping to meet with the artists behind the letter. This conversation requires many stakeholders, including developers. We’re proud of the work we’ve done in starting Upstream and pleased with the positive response from so many musicians and fans.”
“They have definitely shown a willingness to have a conversation,” Julie-C said of a coalition member’s communication with Vulcan. “Right now, we are asking for a presence at Upstream to galvanize around this issue. After the festival there is definitely a willingness to have a conversation and they have expressed interest.”
With talks poised to happen after this weekend, the coalition is seeking to merge the festival’s mission with theirs by creating a dialogue around providing artist space and ownership within Vulcan’s development projects and continual analysis of the economic impact music has on Seattle’s culture and artists.
“We can’t miss this opportunity to present this issue in this new light,” Julie-C said. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel, we just want to put new energy, more inertia into the conversation that has been happening.”
Upstream Music Festival and Summit begins Thursday (May 11) and runs until Saturday (May 13) with a heavy lineup of Seattle-based artists and musicians. Macklemore, President of Kill Rock Stars record label Portia Sabin and Jones will be keynote speakers.