As Housing Prices Rise, Seattle’s Underground Music Scene Feels the Strain

The denizens of Seattle’s DIY spaces say the new economy is making it harder to host the kind of shows that foster young bands and create space for marginalized music fans.

Selena Whitaker-Paquiet is used to making something from nothing. As we sit at a table behind the MiLKy Way House, the house she owns and operates as a venue, she tells me about the 10 years she has spent running the house’s flagship event, Hoodstock, out of her backyard.

According to Whitaker-Paquiet, the one-day festival, complete with food, DJs, and a full festival-style lineup, grew out of her experiences playing shows at similar spaces that embrace a do-it-yourself ethic. “When my band started performing, the easiest way to get exposure were the house parties and the house shows,” she says. “I didn’t know there was such a big underground network of DIY events and venues like that. It was like, ‘I’ve got this big house and I’m on a double lot—I could do that.’ ” Hoodstock and the MiLKy Way House are part of a larger Seattle tradition of DIY shows—concerts in private residences or nontraditional spaces rather than commercial music venues. But a sense of alarm is growing among the musicians and fans who frequent these spaces. Seattle’s house shows, they say, are disappearing.

Whitaker-Paquiet and her band have been performing in Seattle for more than 10 years, and during that time, she says, “I just don’t think there are a lot of house venues anymore, compared to when my band started . . . ,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of the smaller venues and the DIY public venues close.” To help combat this phenomenon, she launched Hoodstock as a platform to showcase the kind of young, up-and-coming artists who, she says, have been most affected by the loss of these spaces.

Madeline Franks, who makes and performs electronic music under the name Lilac, echoes that sentiment. “Rent going up really high? That’s a huge setback for DIY spaces,” she says. Franks notes that since she moved here six years ago, more venues seem to be cropping up on the edges of town as people are forced out of the city center. (According to the nonpartisan online platform, almost half of Seattle’s residents currently spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Per the online real-estate database Zillow, the median price for a house in the city is somewhere around $670,000.) “Now they’re either way north or way south,” she says. “There’s nothing in the middle.”

Of the 11 people I spoke to about this phenomenon, all were quick to point out that while economic changes have created major obstacles for DIY venues in the city, there was a good chance that they simply didn’t know about new spaces. Their concern, they say, is that the city is undergoing a geographic siloing of these spaces. “It seems like rather than just having big hubs, it’s more like pockets,” says Franks. “Sometimes I think Seattle can become very closed off into these factions that aren’t really connected.” If these spaces are indeed migrating, the ability to widely disseminate information about events weakens. Since almost all these spaces operate extralegally, the channels through which they are able to promote events are limited. Thus, information about DIY venues is often relayed by word-of-mouth—an increasingly unreliable method as scenes become geographically isolated.

One potential solution is more diversified lineups. At a music and politics panel hosted by Capitol Hill Block Party last weekend, all five panelists—local musicians and artists—spoke about the importance of mixed bills to connect Seattle’s musical communities. But Franks points out that this approach doesn’t address the core problem. “There was a DIY space recently that I felt like was really circulating a lot of different musicians from all over, and [it] seemed like it was doing pretty well.” But when the house was sold to developers, she says, “It still closed.”

To the uninitiated, the overall state of the DIY network might seem unimportant, minor collateral damage in the tectonic movement of Seattle’s economy. But many young bands get their start on the house-show circuit. Many people cited Seattle’s liquor laws as a major reason these artists, who are often underage, might prefer DIY spaces. “When you go to an all-ages show, you see all of the kids in these cattle cages to the side of the stage,” says Emily Nokes, lead singer of local band Tacocat. “When we go on tour, we see places where the people who are underage just have Xs on their wrists and are allowed to walk around. That encourages a more diverse community of people going to shows.” In addition, DIY spaces are often more comfortable for people who feel erased from the music scene at large. “The queer shows are the ones I mostly go to in Seattle,” says Chi Gbayea Dejonge, who volunteers at DIY venues around town. “Here, at least with queer rock music, there’s an emphasis on femme people. As a trans woman, going to shows outside of that can be a lot. The amount of trans women—particularly trans women of color—is very limited in the larger music scene.”

Additionally, these venues are often invaluable for touring independent acts. “A lot of the time we’d rather play house shows,” says Leah Miller, bassist of local punk band Mommy Long Legs, whose recent tour included multiple shows at DIY and house venues. “They’re more fun, and we’ve made more money playing those kinds of gigs than we have at some real venues,” she says. Even established indie artists like David Bazan and Rocky Votolato have recently embarked on nationwide house-only tours.

But while the DIY network is invaluable, it can be difficult to maintain at the best of times. The consensus among those I interviewed is that the lack of tangible return often makes it hard to create and maintain these spaces—particularly as the cost of living increases. “It’s funny that you’re asking me about this,” says Whitaker-Paquiet, “because, after this Hoodstock, I’ve decided that I’m not going to do it next year. I need a break so I’m going to take a year off and reconsider when I’m going to start up again or continue on. It’s so much work—it’s a labor of love—but we don’t charge; we’re not making money off of it. It’s hard to keep doing.”

Many people I spoke to say the necessity of day jobs is a major barrier for those who might otherwise create or maintain DIY spaces. According to a analysis published last year, the income required to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle is around $98,000—far more than most working artists and musicians make from their art alone. “If you’re exhausted from working at your day job all day,” says Miller, “you want to go home and hang out. The last thing you want to do is deal with having to put on a show and cleaning up after.”

Leaving the MiLKy Way House with the knowledge that this year’s Hoodstock might be the last, it’s difficult not to feel sad, like something essential is evaporating from the landscape. If DIY spaces continue to disappear or be displaced, a major chunk of that community goes with it. Musicians need stages. Young, poor, queer, and non-white fans need comfortable places to see and hear the music they love. Young bands need opportunities to grow and develop. Communities need space in which to unfold, to grow tall, and bloom. If they cannot find it, some part of Seattle, however small, will wilt for good.

Despite this, many people within the DIY network, somewhat surprisingly, maintain hope that things could improve for these venues and the people who frequent them. “In Seattle there’s so much wealth, and I feel like there should be more of a push to help foster creativity,” says Franks. “It doesn’t really feel like that right now, but I don’t want to give up on it.”