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Upstream Music Festival announced their full 2018 line up. Along with moving the dates to early June this year, the festival has also scaled down their overall size. There are fewer stages, which forced a decline in curators, and that led to significantly fewer performers. The Seattle hip-hop scene took a big hit, with 55 local hip-hop performers touching stages last year and only 18 this year.

upstream seattle hip-hop

Credit: Gary Campbell

Last year, Upstream used the following to describe the goal of the festival, “it has always been our mission to create a festival that would shine a light on the amazing sound of the Pacific Northwest.”

Since the full line up dropped, I’ve seen numerous local voices use their platforms to describe disappointment from watching another local festival “overlook” so much of the talent that surrounds them. While looking at the mission statement from last year, as well as the graphic above, one could easily see why local artists feel that way.

Let’s peel back a few layers and look at this objectively. What other large-scale music festival features 18 local hip-hop acts that are relatively unknown to the general public? I mean unknown in the way that people aren’t lining up to pay $65 to come watch. In no way is Upstream, Paul Allen, or anyone else responsible for putting their money and time into a festival that shows love to EVERY local musician.

Let alone putting unknown artists on a bill and having to market these artists to the general public while taking 100% of the financial risk. Artists should be marketing themselves, if there’s a demand to see said artists, platforms will pay attention. It’s pretty hard to miss the artists that are able to draw crowds and create revenue.

Last year, Upstream was good, but not truly great. I think they can do more when it comes to the lineup and marketing but I’ve yet to see another platform provide opportunity and empower local artists the way they have. I know they’re not trying to become another SXSW, but the format will draw comparisons regardless. SXSW has sustained incredible success in the hip-hop community due to being located less than two hours from a major rap music mecca, Houston, which has a legendary and thriving local scene.

In year two, we haven’t even seen the best version of Upstream. This could potentially be a national festival. If even five local acts from our city played a major festival, that would be a supreme win for the city and region as a whole. While no doubt, it is disappointing to hear about a local festival for the local scene and then see the “local” aspect dimish within one year, this doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. Sustainability is key, and where demand is low, adjustments must be made.

Seattle has long been holding itself back. Our local scene has been bubbling for YEARS, but we’ve never been able to fully reach that tipping point. There is a lack of infrastructure and high-level platforms no doubt. Yet, local artists feel entitled without spending the time and money to generate real demand. Many of our region’s “top artists” are unable to sell out a 300 person headlining show in their own city with all of their marketing efforts behind it. How can a platform bring heightened demand to 3o of these artists? Sure they can market them on a higher level and bring increased attention their way, but is that financially responsible or even what the people want?

Thinking that there’s a limited number of spots for people to blow up has lead many artists to knock, hate, and ignore fellow artists in fear that they’ll get the call-up to the majors while others will be forced to remain local. We have a severe issue with celebrating one another. When we finally get a win for the scene, those that feel overlooked often tear down artists and platforms that are built simply to build the local scene. “So and so is only on because of ___.” Insert budget, connections, music video director, Worldstar, investors, etc. Of course, no is booming simply because they are dope! Everyone needs an X-factor to hit the next level. Attempting to discredit a single artist for this X factor is simply ludicrous.

On the flip side, many “gatekeepers” in the city, or really anywhere in the world, don’t always play the best role they can. They play favorites, they may not have their ear unbiasedly to the streets, and occasionally are unable to look further than down the street. We’ve watched platforms, media outlets, and festivals overlook quality talent from all corners of the Northwest just to put on their friends or what seems “familiar” to them. Downtown Seattle is often recategorized as the Pacific Northwest. We’ve seen it time after time with festivals and media pieces about the “best in the PNW,” while clearly overlooking Portland, Spokane, Yakima, Olympia, and even Tacoma.

On the flip side, of the flip side. Whenever media outlets and platforms properly represent the Pacific Northwest and include a few artists from all corners of the upper-left, artists get left off and catch feelings. There’s no way to do a top 10 list, 18 person line-up, or even 60 person line-up and not MISS deserving artists.

There’s simply an over-abundance of artists making moves, and that’s a great problem to have. There are All-Star snubs every damn year in the NBA and it isn’t a disrespect to any particular ballplayer, it’s simply hard to narrow the playing field down. If we get upset at everything that excludes certain people, we’ll be left with nothing.

Most things in life aren’t all-inclusive. You certainly can be happy for those chosen and disappointed as a whole, that’s a perfectly logical point of view. I don’t think all the criticisms of Upstream are misguided, nor do I think the festival should be immune from public criticism and opinion, such is life.

I’m an opinionated person myself and have plenty of thoughts about Upstream and local music as a whole. Speak out, disrupt, but I also encourage the community to seek relationships with everyone and build up the entire scene! Upstream Music Festival can be great for our region. Celebrate local music and understand we’re all in this together. If one of us shines, we all shine.

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