Seattle Upstream Music Fest Aims to Challenge South by Southwest

Music festivals are expensive to underwrite and produce — so it’s no surprise big players get involved for even relatively modest, one-day affairs. Sometimes it works out great, as when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak sponsored the US Festival back in the day; but other times it can fall flat on its face, as the recent debacle surrounding the Fyre Festival has made clear.

Following that festival, ticket holders are suing backers and promoters such as Ja Rule for Fyre’s not living up to expectations. Music festivals, of course, are costly endeavors requiring facilities for customers and musicians, built stages, transportation for stars with myriad demands, venders, and much more. Fyre was one of many failing music festivals: Customers paid thousands to arrive on an island in the Bahamas, where there was next to nothing set up. The event was canceled, and everyone was flown home.

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Yet one of the biggest and most popular indie musical events of the year remains South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas. Spanning a couple of weeks, the festival is home to thousands of performances from upcoming bands, indie rockers, and solo artists who might or might not be invited back on stage the following year. SXSW, as it’s known, hosted 2,224 acts on 103 stages, performing for over 30,000 attendees just this year.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has always been a great music lover and is well known for underwriting the Experience Music Project, an interactive Rock ‘n’ Roll museum in Seattle, Washington. But his love of music doesn’t stop there — nor does his near-obsession with Jimi Hendrix. Now Allen wants to create a musical festival to rival SXSW, based in his home city of Seattle.

Already dubbed North by Northwest (presumably not an ironic reference to the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same name), the Upstream Music Fest will feature 330 acts on 30 stages over three days. It’s running May 11-13 in Pioneer Square, smack dab in the middle of downtown Seattle.

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Acts scheduled include Shabazz Palaces, Dinosaur Jr. Flying Lotus, Beat Connection, Snarky Puppy, The Thermals, and Magic Sword — and there’ll be talks and lectures, too, including sessions by legendary recording artist Quincy Jones and popular hip-hop musician Macklemore, along with punk record label manager Portia Sabin and composer Ron Jones.

Sessions at The Upstream Summit include How To Win in the Streaming Economy, Arts + Advocacy, Amazon Music Innovation, Synch Licensing, Data-Driven Touring, People Over Playlist, and How to Survive as a Musician.

Which all begs the question: Will people buy a $325 pass for a Summit + three-day Fest? Will the Upstream Music Fest really take off and compete with SXSW in a world in which music industry pros have been talking for years about "festival fatigue"?

Maybe — maybe not. Checking social media, there's remarkably little buzz about the festival. Twitter shows only a handful of tweets with #UpstreamFest from non-promoters; and on Instagram, it's the same story. At least the Facebook page for the Music Fest has over 10,000 people in its digital community, but how many will purchase expensive tickets for the untested festival, and how many will attend one of the four free stages?

It's difficult to break into the saturated world of music festivals. And while the Upstream Music Fest looks promising with its eclectic mix of Pacific Northwest artists spanning rock, pop, hip-hop, metal, funk, jazz, blues, electronic and country, it's good to remember that even powerhouse festivals like SXSW started out small, too. Indeed, the first SXSW in 1986 sold a whopping 700 tickets total.

In the end, a great music festival is about what Hendrix would undoubtedly call the experience. And that's the challenge for Paul Allen and the entire Upstream Music Fest team: great bands on stages throughout the downtown Seattle area? That's just the first step of a long journey.

Let's hope for some rock 'n' roll.

Last Modified: May 10, 2017, 11:08 am

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