As Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith Kendrick Lamar once declared, “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe.” This is not a problem for Upstream Music Fest + Summit, for it is a vibe-free environment. Last weekend marked the second edition of Paul Allen’s sprawling, Northwest-centric music festival in Pioneer Square. As was the case the first go-around, the musical slate was solid, but the atmosphere lacked a discernible identity.
To put it bluntly, Pioneer Square is not a good place to hold a music festival. It lacks a lively neighborhood buzz that could keep things feeling interconnected. The venues just feel like their own little silos instead of threads in a larger tapestry. Once planted in one of the silos, it’s easy to enjoy whatever music’s playing, but they still feel like a disparate array of concerts instead of parts of a larger whole. With a lack of a semi-residential lived-in spirit, the non-traditional venues only feel more unnatural. If Upstream took place in, say, Ballard, it’d at least have more of a built-in identity of place.
While a cursory glance at Upstream’s model might bear some resemblance to Austin’s SXSW, the only real similarity is that there are a lot of acts spread across a lot of venues. But at SXSW there are so many more actual venues that regularly host live music (as opposed to pop-up stages), most artists play multiple sets over the week (so if you miss them once, you’re not out of luck), the fest draws from a much larger talent pool (instead of mostly regional acts), there’s less noticeable security/police presence, and it feels like the thing happening in the city—there’s the hustle and bustle of mass of humanity in the streets at all times.
The scheduling of Upstream really doesn’t help anyone. When the first full slate of acts don’t take the stage until 6 p.m., it’s almost impossible to feel festival immersion. If you can go about a full day before heading to the fest, things feel more like a typical concert rhythm (with some barhopping thrown in) than anything immersive.
The marginal turnout doesn’t help the immersion either. While headliners like The Flaming Lips and Miguel drew sizable crowds at the mainstage, there were plenty of times you could wander between stages and only pass a few people milling about. There’s not enough foot traffic between venues in Pioneer Square to make Upstream feel like a major event that’s taking over the neighborhood.
There are subtly discomforting aspects surveillance that add a dose of unease into the Upstream mix. The police/security presence seems wildly overdone for the amount of people in attendance. When you’re having to pass a few cop cars and a half dozen uniformed officials just to get between shows, it doesn’t scream “fun music times!” The fact that the first thing Upstream attendees have to do is give away their personal information (age, income, etc.) to activate their wristbands doesn’t quell the nagging feeling of corporate overwatch.
It’s also unclear what audience Upstream is targeting. The overwhelming majority of the showcases seem directed at the small community of frequent concertgoers, the type of people that have probably seen a lot of the local/regional bands play live before. When there’s not a vibe and most of the acts plays often around town, what’s the draw of Upstream if you’re not a big fan of one of the headliners?
On the most basic level, Upstream is simply overstretched. The best option for manufacturing a vibe would be downsizing. Instead of spreading across Pioneer Square, the fest could just take over blocks immediately surrounding CenturyLink’s parking lot (CenturyLink to King St between Occidental Ave and Stadium Place). That would still include CenturyLink’s 2 mainstages, Elysian Fields, Quality Athletics, 13 Coins, and the Embassy Suites ballroom. This change would allow the fest to pack people in, and the lack of stages could be made up by tweaking the schedule and making Upstream an all-day affair. They just need to strip things down in order to eventually build it back up.
It’s unclear if Upstream will change because Paul Allen has the money to continue funding the fest at a loss until it hopefully catches on. It’s just a shame, because there’s a chance for an SXSW-style fest to work in Seattle. But Upstream—at least in its current form—isn’t it.
With all that said, there were some noteworthy performances at Upstream 2018. Here are a few highlights in chronological photo recap form: