Published on March 19th, 2013 | by Katy Evans28
Rock in a hard place: Tacoma’s struggling independent music scenes
All photography by Scott Haydon, all photographs feature Tacoma shows.
Maybe it’s me: I’m older, I put much more value in a good night’s sleep than I used to. But maybe something beyond my inevitable aging is happening, because Tacoma’s indie music scene just isn’t what it used to be.
For more than half a century, independent and live music in Tacoma has had many heydays, some of them brilliant pan flashes, some of them evolving effectively over years.
Even just ten years ago, there were many small venues where local bands could find audiences all over the South Sound, and it used to be considered a boon that a band touring the Northwest could book upwards of six successful shows from Portland to all points north. What has changed since then? Turns out, independent music has changed a lot in ten years and evolving redefinitions of music success have some specific reverberations in Tacoma.
We know that recorded music sales have shrunk hugely ($27.8 billion in 1999 to $16.5 billion in 2012) and music is now a different kind of product: artists must tour to survive and find relevance. While touring, artists need to navigate a complicated new system of online branding, retail sales, blackout radius clauses, hall fees for selling their merchandise at shows, and other profit snatching hazards. Bands at any level of success are using management to deal with these and other challenging aspects of a shifting industry.
This change marginalizes – penalizes, really – areas that can’t guarantee predictable profits. Increasingly, “secondary” markets like Tacoma are seen more as competition than as a complement to “primary” markets like Seattle.
But beyond these issues, music exposure and discovery has become easier and easier as we find ourselves in an unprecedented era of quantity and quality, thanks to the internet. Bands seem to be everywhere. But why aren’t they playing in Tacoma?
I’m not the only Tacoman who wishes for more and better music here: I talked to five local music professionals to see how they’ve navigated the changes in the business and to get some expert perspective on steps forward.
Adam Ydstie, Brian Skiffington, Aaron Stevens, Kayla Stewart, and Zach Powers have all been actively involved in live music production in and around Tacoma for years. Adam and Kayla run booking for local production company The Warehouse; Brian has been organizing all-ages shows for local and touring hardcore, punk, and metal bands for more than a decade; Zach is a hip-hop emcee who has performed and booked shows throughout the Northwest for the past seven years; and Aaron is the programs manager at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts and a local music supporter for more than 15 years.
Each has a unique experience interacting with music but regardless of perspective, all five agree that there are key issues impeding the growth of healthy independent music scenes in Tacoma
The Challenge of Place and Space
Adam, Aaron, Brian, Kayla, and Zach agree: Tacoma is stuck between a rock and a hard place (Seattle and Portland/Olympia) and beyond our geographic constriction, we have no venues available to host the kinds of shows that could revitalize an independent music culture.
Says Kayla Stewart, “My biggest challenge now is working to rebuild the local music scene. The era of plentiful all-ages venues in Tacoma is gone. People need to leave their egos and resumes at the door and come together, throw and play free shows, and book bands even if they might not have a huge following. If there was a time to take a risk, this is it.”
It makes sense – if you were a kid like me, as much as you loved the bands that rolled through town, it was the venue that defined the era. All the way back to the World Community Theater where bands like Nirvana debuted to Tacomans in 1987, to Hell’s Kitchen, Club Impact, and Fife’s Java Jump Cafe, spaces shaped scenes. And with a vibrant scene, regardless of genre, comes more attention and a willingness to engage from both local and touring performers.
Brian Skiffington’s experience was much the same as mine: “Growing up, my friends and I had to carpool to Seattle to see every show. With hardcore and punk music, where I cut my teeth, most of our shows happened off the beaten path, in basements, garages, warehouses. When I went on tour and saw how different scenes functioned it showed me that if I just find a place for bands to play, they will come.”
Scene-building is crucial, and you can’t do it in a void, hence our primary problem: “Venues, venues, venues. I feel like the venues are always changing, closing, ‘under new management,’ etcetera,” laments Aaron Stevens. “It makes consistency very difficult. I can use Broadway Center venues but that comes with union labor costs that are hard to manage for smaller shows.”
Everyone echoes the same concern. From Brian: “The biggest challenge right now is lack of realistic venues. I have access to spaces for smaller shows, I can find places to do shows that will draw 25 to 150 people, but beyond that Tacoma has nothing. I couldn’t bring a 400 or 800 person show here. The only venues that can handle that kind of crowd either have completely whack vibes, don’t do regular shows, or cost too much. It’s simple economics. If a Tacoma venue can give a better offer, Tacoma would get the tour instead of Seattle. Until there are better rooms to play in Tacoma, this will not happen.”
And there are other issues that complicate our development.
The Frustrating Nuances
Tacoma has a reputation, and it’s not what one would call positive. Aaron explains, “There are too many artists and managers to count who have told me they won’t play Tacoma.”
“Despite our place in music history and the famous musicians we’ve produced, Tacoma is still not seen as credible music community,”states Kayla Stewart; and Adam Ydstie shares further, “Performers don’t believe Tacoma turnout will be great, and turnout is one of The Warehouse’s biggest challenges. People tell us that they love what we do and that we need to keep doing it. We book quality shows that would sell out in Seattle, and still people complain or don’t come.”
Our experts, for the most part, agree the perception from outsiders is warranted. “There’s a lack of interest in local music in Tacoma’s youth and young adults.” shares Zach Powers, “We have a great deal of solid local music here for a city of 200k and we’ve been working for years to try to hip people to it but haven’t really created momentum – in hip-hop we’ve taken steps backwards, actually.”
This lack of reliable audiences is traceable to our lack of reliable venues. But its not just the audiences we can’t rely on – Aaron has concerns about some of our local performers too. “I don’t think the audience is given nearly enough respect in Tacoma by the artists. There’s also not enough competition to really push us as artists to be excellent.”
These promoters are all considering lots of moving parts as they try to find ways to maintain and grow music appreciation in town but there is a specific Tacoma population whose lack of engagement is a truly significant problem.
Youth of Today
Adam, Kayla, Aaron, Brian, and Zach can all trace their passion for music to their early teenage years. I’m sure many of us can remember similar moments of discovery: the first time one of our friends told us they were in a band, when we realized that there was more to music than the radio, and that the coffee shop downtown let bands play at an open mic. All of a sudden there was a way for music to be a part of our real, everyday lives, and most of us got hooked for life.
As Kayla puts it, “I feel like it is my unwritten duty as a music lover to increase local access to live music and help it thrive as much as possible; It just seems natural.” If you want to grow scenes, you can’t ignore the importance of that moment. You have to give the kids places to see good music, and places where they can play.
“Growing up in Minnesota I remember going to punk shows when I was 16 and how impactful in my own musical growth and personal expression,” Adam remembers. “I’ve seen the bar scene take hold of the scene and it robs younger artists of experiences they deserve. It ultimately hurts the overall scene when the younger generation can’t play shows with seasoned bands or be inspired by local, independent artists.”
I asked all five which bands they’d like to see come through Tacoma and although there were lots of great suggestions, Zach took it a step further and wanted to know, more importantly “who do students at Stadium, PLU, SOTA, Curtis, and TCC want to come to Tacoma?”
Further, I wonder what students at these schools are already in amazing bands that we have never seen?
Silver Linings and Solutions
I swear its not just one depressing, overwhelming scene-strangling miasma here in Tacoma. Kayla, Adam, Brian, Aaron, and Zach had positive observations and suggestions too. Specifically, they all appreciate collaboration and hospitality and these traits inspire their methods in organizing shows in Tacoma.
“I am a touring musician, so I like to treat bands and create shows that I would want to play.” states Brian. “I try my best to pair touring bands with local bands they fit with musically and philosophically. Even at the worst shows I’ve played, if the other bands are great and have good attitudes you end up making friends and finding a floor to crash on. Being nice to bands helps. Offer them a place to crash. Get a crock pot and make some soup. All the sudden there is a bridge from Tacoma to Dallas that wasn’t there before and a network is formed.”
Kayla agrees, “Despite hard times, there needs to be more attention to detail and hospitality. As someone who has experience in both scenes, respect and personability is something many venues in Seattle lack, and is a tactic Tacoma can use to level some of the playing field.”
Beyond respecting and caring for bands, Aaron and Adam emphasized the need to get organized and work together. “There is a lot of disorganization in town.” says Aaron “I don’t want the Tacoma perception to be that we can’t get our shit together and be organized and professional. If we are going to change the perception, we all, from the Tacoma Art Museum to The Warehouse, need to be a part of the conversation.”
Adam further emphasized the role collaboration already plays. “We’d love to see all the venues and promoters in Tacoma working together. We’ve loved our partnerships with Broadway Center, The Space, Feather & Oar, Andy Hyppa, O’Malley’s, Metronome, Urban Grace, Cadence Music Management, Artist Home, Barefoot Collective, MLK Ballet, Peabody Waldorf, and all the people who have opened their homes for shows.”
And despite Tacoma’s internal issues, bands are still touring and they still need a place to play. Brian experiences constant requests for shows that he just can’t meet. “These days I have to confine [booking help] to friends and friends of friends. I bet I get ten emails or phone calls a week asking for shows in Tacoma.”
All these promoters have found ways to embrace and overcome many of Tacoma’s challenges. The Warehouse is established on the premise of finding creative solutions for lacking venues; they will book shows in homes, backyards, restaurants, really anywhere that’s willing.
Although there are ways to create amazing musical experiences in Tacoma, we can’t ignore the lack of reliable, larger venues. Brian and Kayla agree that Tacoma needs an aesthetically neutral, mid-size venue willing to book in multiple genres, and offer all-ages shows.
“Somebody with some energy, time, and money needs to create a legal operating venue. Something like Neumos on Capitol Hill,” Brian explains. “If Tacoma could offer a cheaper room, with the same capacity, we could pull some serious tours here. Even a room in Tacoma with a 250 capacity could turn heads. The only rooms in Tacoma that could cater to this kind of show are more concerned with ladies night and cover bands.”
Plug In and Head Out
Hopefully you agree with Aaron that “we shouldn’t have to drive to Seattle every weekend in order to see a good show.” But what can you do? Adam has suggestions:
“Fans need to speak up, fight for their artists to come to Tacoma. Give shout outs on Facebook, Twitter, send emails, connect them to anyone doing music promotion in Tacoma. We’re a united front dedicated to bringing the best music possible to Tacoma as well as developing a place for local talent to sprout up. Hands down Tacoma is worth it. No question. We’re awesome.”
It’s true – one of my favorite Seattle bands, “Don’t Talk to the Cops” retweeted my mention of them a while back and with just a little overly enthusiastic Twitter prodding on my part, The Warehouse connected with their manager and they’ll be playing Tacoma this summer.
And for all of you who regularly get out to shows in Tacoma, pat yourself on the back: “I am continually surprised at how respectful the crowds are at shows in Tacoma,” says Adam. “They actually listen to the music. Every time I go to a show in Seattle I realize how spoiled we are. Sometimes I can’t even hear the music over all the people talking amongst themselves. I don’t get why people pay $20 per person to scream at each other over music.”
We also have great events that demonstrate Tacoma’s potential in cultivating a music scene. Kayla points out that “First Night felt like a music utopia. All of the groups involved in that event are people I consider major players (The Broadway Center, SOTA, The Warehouse, Campus MLK), and same with the Fall Free For All. We already have the utopia in small bursts at these various events, we just need to find a viable way to make it last year-round.”
Its a big, complicated challenge but one that many committed Tacomans are investigating right now. Music scenes are more than just a fun opportunity on a Saturday night – it’s serious business and its cultivation deserves real consideration. Just consider a recent report from the city of Austin, Texas “The measurable economic and fiscal impact of music in Austin is significant, as more than $616 million in economic activity, almost 11,200 jobs, and over $11 million in City tax revenues can be attributed to influence of music on the local economy.” Investing in local music scenes can have significant economic benefits.
I, for one, am keeping my chin up and looking forward to big things, especially from Aaron Stevens, the team at The Warehouse, Brian Skiffington, and Zach Powers. Now until we have a Neumos of our own, I’ll see you at the next house show!
Not sure where to start with local music? Luckily, with the power of our experts combined, we have a truly comprehensive list to get you started.
Aaron says you have to listen to up-and-coming singer-songwriter Ricky Reyes.
Adam has quite a few more artists you should check out: Rockwell Powers, Roswell, Shogun Barbie, Stripe Valley Sway, Colin Scott Reynolds (I Low), The Owl Parliament, A Leaf, Apartment Lights, and Tacoma Urban Orchestra, and both Adam and Aaron love Amelia Saakian.