On Oct. 29, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels took the stage at the Paramount Theatre and announced "the formation of [a] city music commission and [a] collective 12-year strategy to solidify Seattle as a home to music business, musicians and live music."
The plan includes building a broader infrastructure to make Seattle friendly for business-related ventures, while aiming for a higher retention rate of musicians themselves, ostensibly alleviating the need for artists to relocate to larger music markets such as Los Angeles, Nashville or New York City. Furthermore, the plan aims to engender the city's residents with a sense that music and Seattle are one in the same — beginning with more comprehensive music programs in schools. Seattle will not only be about music; it will be music.
In the early 1990s, when a giant flannel shirt called Grunge blanketed the nation, most music fans would have pointed to Seattle as a (if not the) vital music center. But even before Nirvana, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and the like took hold of our imagination, Seattle had a rich, if not wholly celebrated, history of jazz and blues music. And let's not forget Jimi Hendrix. Plus, most Pacific Northwesterners know that Quincy Jones and Bing Crosby grew up in these parts, a fact we're proud of, to say the least.
Since the '90s, though Seattle and the labels therein (from Sub Pop to Barsuk) have been impressive with both their business acumen and their ability to unearth new sounds, the music industry has changed, to say the least. For one, the notion of place has become diffuse. Sure, some might associate Death Cab for Cutie or Fleet Foxes with Seattle, but technology makes everywhere feel like nowhere. Music seems to exist out in the ether and right at our fingertips at the same time. So the first thought that comes to mind for me with Mayor Nickels' plan is that it's putting a stake in the ground — it aims to establish a sense of locality in a time when the necessity of origin is questionable.
On a practical level, the plan brings more jobs to the city, and more creative ones at that. That's fantastic, but as an identity, how can Seattle: City of Music™ avoid the pitfall of kitsch? The self-consciousness of the idea runs the risk of turning Seattle into an attraction, as opposed to merely making it more attractive. Tourism helps economies, but does it help art? Haven't Seattle and other Northwest bands thrived precisely because they're creating from outside the industry, as opposed to from within it? What will all the musicians and music-business folks do when Seattle starts to feel more like the Hollywood of Washington State? And where will they go? Wait, I just realized what this is going to mean. Welcome to Portland.