In October 2004, a month after Seattle's first Decibel Festival, Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote in his article "The Long Tail" that the "future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream." The M3 electronic music and multimedia festival in Miami based this year's program on that idea—the ways in which artists and businesspeople bring specialized entertainment to mini-masses around the world—but Anderson's statement more accurately re-lates to Decibel. It's a grassroots festival—powered only by people and passion—that is helping to galvanize Seattle's small but rabid circle of dance music devotees. "Funded entirely by Sean's wallet," jokes festival communications director Tanya Lutman about director/curator Sean Horton's deep devotion to the cause. However, at the festival's tender age of two, sponsors are now piling on. Numbering just nine in 2004, there are now 21, including Northwest-based companies like PlayNetwork, Reason, and Rane. True, sponsorships still only account for 10 percent to 20 percent of the festival's budget, but promotional wrangling this year gained support from KEXP and a new ally in KBCS, where electronic-based shows have recently blossomed. And while 2005 saw magazines scrambling to cover Decibel after the fact, this time even the Mayor's Office of Film and Music has recognized its potential up front by becoming a government sponsor. "In a regional way, we're using corporate America to fund a very cool multimedia event, with music, visual art, and workshops," says Horton. There'll be industry discussions and technology workshops, and the emphasis on visual art translates to compelling optical illusions at nearly every showcase, but the musical lineup remains the center of attention. With everything from revered house prankster Green Velvet to electro-minimal master Alex Smoke to the techno/Norteño hybrid of Mexico's Nortec Collective, it rivals any of those listed on The Wire's database of international fests. The well-respected magazine is sending a rep from England to cover the proceedings, which has fest organizers stoked. Decibel's focus on electronic music is diverse, including subgenres of techno, house, glitch, electro-pop, ambient, and experimental (another weekend, trance fiends: even Junkie XL is spinning quality tunes at Element on this one). Modeled after the success of Montreal's Mutek, Barcelona's Sonar, and the Detroit Electronic Music Fest, Decibel fills a West Coast void for fans of forward-looking dance music. "I want Decibel to be an end-of-summer vacation for artists and concertgoers," says Horton. Seven thousand people from around the region and world attended the four-day event in 2005, with Seattle's mini-mass (some dedicated, some hard to get off the couch) turning out in droves. Chiefly organized by a tight-knit group of promoters, DJs, producers, and communications types, this year's theme is collaboration, and it shows. If you frequent local techno weeklies or one-offs, Horton's name will be as familiar as these: education director Kris Moon, creative director Jerry Abstract, and sponsorship coordinator Kristina Childs. This core organizational group works year-round, hosting Decibel-sponsored events and raising the profile—along with many passionate volunteers. Radio reps, writers, editors, engineers, artist managers, and a five-person Web team have joined the fold. Lutman worked last year as a volunteer, and has since become indispensable to the staff. "I interviewed as marketing assistant, and did 1,000 small things," says Lutman, whose duties now are a dizzying addition to her already-hectic day job and social schedule. "Everyone multitasks. Kristina is also editing, doing PR, graphics," says Horton. "We learned the first year. Now we see the development taking form with Tanya, [audio engineer] Vance Galloway—the sophomore team that saw what did and didn't work are on point this year with creative solutions." As festival attendance and sponsorship grow, it's clear that the staff may be doing many things at once, but they're doing something right. If there's one word to describe Decibel's organizers, it's savvy. They're ambitious, but not delusional, about the marketability of the esoteric acts they book. Rafael Irisarri is a new volunteer who works at a PR firm and manages international sponsorships/label relations for Decibel when not working on his own Kupei Musika label. He's aware of the music's limited audience, and uses Brian Eno's Music for Airports as a reference point. "Everyone considers [it] an ambient masterpiece, but it probably sold 5,000 copies in 27 years," he says. But Irisarri implies—as all of Decibel's coordinators do through their tireless scheming—that there's a higher goal at hand than simply moving units. "Maybe it didn't 'sell', but everyone who bought it started making music." firstname.lastname@example.org
Decibel Festival Various venues, see www.decibelfestival.com for schedule details and www.ticketwindowonline.com for tickets, 206-325-6500. Individual shows $10–$17/club pass $50/pro pass $75/ all-access pass $100. 9 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 14–Sun., Sept 17.
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