Decibel Festival Stays Defiantly DIY Despite Seattle's Changing Tides
The techno-leaning electronic fest keeps it underground, no matter how many tech-bros flood the PNW.
Decibel, Seattle's five-day electronic music and new media festival, entered its 12th year when it opened last night with a series of lectures and electronic performances dotted around a two mile radius in the city's downtown center. Founder and curator Sean Horton has been a one-man force of nature in bringing the festival to fruition year after year. He's helped it grow tenfold from 2,500 attendees to a regular crowd of 25,000. In an era when EDM festivals are increasingly going the corporate route, Decibel holds the line as a volunteer-run, independent, grassroots affair. It's a very Seattle way of doing things in a city with a deeply ingrained reputation for a DIY, indie music culture.
"I admit I have been under a lot of stress the past few weeks" and "Rough weekend" were the apologetic text messages Horton sent my way following our interview. They were also totally unnecessary, as the indefatigable Horton was gracious enough to sacrifice his lunch hour from his day job – yes, the man putting on one of the premier electronic music festivals in the U.S. still clocks a 9-to-5 as music director for a marketing company – to meet me at a downtown restaurant mere days before Decibel's kickoff.
There is a deep-seated ethos behind Horton's relentless work ethic. He originally hails from the Motor City, and as any Movement attendee can tell you, the city slogan is "Detroit hustles harder." Horton embodies that spirit, so it's no surprise he holds himself to high standards. Horton cut his teeth going to industrial nights at the City Club and techno parties at the Packard Plant in the early-to-mid '90s. "Going to parties in Detroit was hugely influential," he says. "I love Detroit more than any other city in the world."
Horton ultimately landed a coveted record store job at Detroit chain Harmony House. "I wrote the first card insert that said 'Electronic' for our record displays," he recalls fondly, and he got first crack at imports on UK imprints like Warp and Orbital. When an aimless road trip found his car broken down in Seattle without the money to fix it, the Midwesterner found himself marooned on the Pacific coast. In an only-in-Seattle answer to his prayers, he took a seasonal job on an Alaskan fishing boat––think World's Deadliest Catch––and earned enough money not only to fix his car, but to put himself through college.
With a degree in audio engineering from Evergreen State College (notable alumni: Macklemore) in Washington state capital Olympia, Horton was exposed to the Pacific Northwest's vibrant indie rock scene, manning recording sessions for local staples like K Records and Kill Rock Stars. But Horton's musical taste lay elsewhere, so in 2002 he started a production company, Dreaming in Stereo, to put on live electronic shows for the post-rave crowd with a focus on city venues. "I'm an urban dweller," he explains. "I don't enjoy going out to a plot of land to hear music. I like intimate venues."
Horton's epiphany came with a pilgrimage to Montreal's Mutek in 2003. "Mutek is North America's best festival," he purports, "And seeing what they put together in terms of an urban, techno-based festival allowed me to formulate and imagine what Decibel could be."
The first edition of Decibel was held the next year, and has grown to incorporate 11 venues in a two-mile radius, from 21+ nightclubs to an all-ages outdoor event in a park to a boat party (with some unofficial off-Decibel afterparty raves in the South of Dome – SoDo – warehouse district sprinkled in for good measure). Decibel is clearly a kindred spirit to its Québécois inspiration. Together, the two events are charter members of International Cities of Advanced Sound, a network of similarly minded urban music festivals.
While Seattle grunge and indie-rock have long since been celebrated internationally, the Pacific Northwest has also played a role in the national growth of electronic dance music. Michelangelo Matos dedicates a whole chapter to Seattle, much of it on Decibel, in his book The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America.
"People tend to forget about us, especially since the fascination with grunge in the '90s, but we've been creating and doing so much in the last 15 years from metal to hip-hop to electronics with the DIY scene, noise, dance etc.," says Chloe Harris, a Seattle native who performs as Raica and performed on the Optical showcase bill on Wednesday night. "There really seems to be a massive interest across the board with electronic music and creating it and building something new."
Decibel's curatorial ethos has subsequently relied on nurturing the Seattle scene, while bringing in the crème de la crème of cutting-edge electronic and dance music, many of whom return year after year. "We're always rooted in the local but aiming for the national and international," Horton says, pointing out that roughly one-quarter of this year's lineup has played in previous years.
John Tejada is one of the returnees: "Decibel is really unique as it really is about the music first. Not a big field with crossing sound systems, but different venues, curated in a way to fit each showcase and which gives it a very special feel and lets audiences properly enjoy the performances," he says. "This also allows different music styles to work together in a great way. It's the kind of festival where an artist can really present their vision as intended."
Decibel's emphasis on live performance is also what gets Horton's juices flowing. This year's Optical showcases, a series of live audiovisual shows, will be a dinner theater setting with Montreal experimentalist Tim Hecker on Friday and Portland ambient maestro Strategy on Sunday. But it's the opening night bash with Nicolas Jaar on a live A/V programmed just for the occasion that really has him salivating. The Acid and Bob Moses, the latter of whom is responsible for Horton's favorite album thus far in 2015, co-headlining at venerable Capitol Hill club Neumos, are a close second.
The out-of-town talent bringing live sets is in turn just a reflection of what the local scene is experiencing. "In the last few years we've had a big transition to live electronics, ranging from noise, experimental, to full on heady techno and house," Harris says. The result is then steeped in the unique climate of the Pacific Northwest – yes, a lot of rain and clouds, but also sweeping landscapes of glacial volcanoes, temperate rainforest, and expansive waterways, all visible on a downtown lunch break. It creates a sound that Horton describes as "melodic, emotive, somewhat melancholy, with a bittersweet quality – not brash or over the top, more subtle."
Seattle's growing electronic music scene now must contend with the city's new love-hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, the high concentration of technically savvy residents has made for some very adept audio-visual designers. Ableton Live was released the same year as the first Decibel and co-founder Robert Henke was a speaker at the inaugural festival. Horton drummed up interest in the first Decibel at workshops featuring Randy Jones, the founder of Seattle tech-house label Orac, who taught aspiring geeks how to program Ableton laptop battles and Max/MSP audiovisual shows.
Back then, Microsoft was the big game in town. But they set up shop in the Seattle 'burbs, while Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla gobbling up downtown real estate and sucking in highly paid engineers from around the world who are driving up rents. "Housing costs have doubled in the last five years, which has devastated the arts community," Horton laments.
"Seattle used to be a gritty, arty, weed-smoking city," he says. "Now with Amazon, a new audience has come into the city and it's affecting the culture in a negative way." The influx of tech bros – overpaid, overworked males straight out of college – operate with "a sense of entitlement" according to Horton, especially in weekend nightlife settings.
"They're just not astute on the cultural etiquette of Seattle," Horton complains. "Tech bros are responsible for an aggressive misogyny that I haven't seen in my 20 years here." In other words, that infamous Pacific Northwest passive-aggressiveness means that forward approaches on the dancefloor don't go over well. To combat the culture clash, Decibel launched an anti-sexual harassment campaign this year, with posters and digital projections at venues, as well as pocket-sized cards that can be handed to an unwelcome dance partner. They say, in much politer Seattle lingo, something to the effect of "Back the fuck off, I'm just here to dance not sleep with you, ok?"
While Horton readily acknowledges that street and club harassment are way worse in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, even the slightest affront is unacceptable in the area that gave birth to riotgrrrl. Horton proudly points out that 22% of Decibel performers this year are women – a huge improvement over the average EDM festival.
"Women have always been an integral part our music scene here," Harris affirms. "There feels like there's a different sense of equality here than some other states. Decibel is right on track with females being a huge part of performance art as well as a huge part of our audience. We like to dance, we like to experience, and we like to be inspired by it all."
In the midst of a changing city, Decibel has been an anchor for the local electronic music community. Like the best urban festivals, it gives back the other 300-odd days of the year when not in festival mode. "One thing that is great about the festival is the fact that you get Decibel-sponsored shows all year round and a lot of the artists that have played here in the past stop through on tours to play these shows," says Lusine, a Ghostly recording artist based in Seattle.
The challenge is keeping it all going. Even though Decibel is all-volunteer run, Horton readily admits to ending up in the red for the last four years – in part because of his curatorial appetite exceeding his budget – and relying on his day job to keep the event afloat. While his peers like Mutek have access to lavish public arts funding, U.S. festivals south of the Canadian border aren't so lucky. Horton has avoided the EDM gold rush like the plague, probably a wise move now that mega-festival promoters like SFX Entertainment are facing bankruptcy.
Experimental and underground events have also made aggressive business moves to cement their place in the festival landscape, like Barcelona's Sónar, albeit at the loss of a meaningful connection with the local scene. "Sónar is a corporate machine," Horton says bluntly, and its approach – moving from intimate venues to a massive convention center and franchising worldwide – is not his vision.
It's an attitude that also brands this native Detroiter as an adopted Seattleite for staying true to Decibel's programmatic ethos after a decade of growth. As Chloe Harris says, "We're not trying to be Berlin or New York or Chicago or Detroit, we're just trying to be us."
Decibel Festival runs from Wednesday, Sept 23 to Sunday, Sept 27