Who could have predicted even a decade ago what the music festival scene in America would turn into? Festivals had always had a presence in the US — maybe not to the same extent as they existed in Europe — but in 2018, the proliferation of multi-day outdoor music events has reached what feels like a saturation point. Every metropolis in the country, it seems, has at least one major festival, while the bigger markets might have two, three or even four events all taking place in and around the city limits.
This is the case for Seattle anyway, a city that boasts a varied collection of festivals from Sasquatch out in the stunning Columbia River Valley; Bumbershoot, one of the longest-running festivals in the world, which takes place annually under the spire of the Space Needle in Seattle Center; and Capitol Hill Block Party, which is held in, you guessed it, Capitol Hill. The newest entrant into the scene is a festival called Upstream, which took place for the first time just last year, though it’s not a conventional festival as it’s come to be defined.
Upstream does have a main stage — and this year’s headliners Miguel, the Flaming Lips and Jawbreaker certainly make for an enticing collection of performers — but more emphasis is paid to the local venues dotted around one of Seattle’s oldest and most storied neighborhoods, Pioneer Square, rather than one centralized location. Breaking from the AEG-controlled Bumbershoot, and the Live Nation-aligned Sasquatch, Upstream is the product of a local benefactor, though a very wealthy, near-omnipresent one name Paul Allen. You might better recognize him as the owner of the Seattle Seahawks. He’s also a fierce lover of music, and a pre-eminently collector of Jimi Hendrix instruments, like his Woodstock Stratocaster that’s on display at Seattle’s MoPop Museum.
“It really just started percolating and grew out of conversations with my team,” Allen said. “Seattle’s arts scene has always been great and we have also always been a place for innovation. While there has never been a shortage of live shows to catch here, we thought there was an opportunity to create a festival that focuses and supports up-and-coming acts. We are excited to showcase emerging musicians across all genres—from jazz to R&B to electronic and rock.”
What that means, in essence, is an emphasis on booking a lot of local acts, which gives Puget Sound residents in particular, an incredible opportunity to discover new music being created right in their own backyard that maybe they were never even aware of before. That also means the opportunity to discover a diverse collection of bars and venues dotting Pioneer Square that you might never have given a second glance at before. It’s all part of a creating an ecosystem where you can discover some of the best that Seattle has to offer.
“By working with venues in the Pioneer Square neighborhood, we’ve created what I think is a unique music experience where fans can discover new artists, bands or genres just walking down the block,” Allen noted. “Many of the artists playing Upstream work and live here in the region, which means fans can continue to support them after Upstream ends.”
Certainly come to hear Miguel ooze out sultry ballads like “Sky Walker,” “Adorn,” and “Coffee.” Come to witness Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips in all his psychedelic glory belting out “Do You Realize?” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Definitely come to watch the recently-reunited Jawbreaker rage over “Boxcar” and “Accident Prone.” But also be sure to check out groups like Tacocat, Seattle’s pre-eminent purveyor of surf rock excellence along with over 200 other local bands and artists.
Additionally, there will be a wide and diverse Summit with industry professionals and music legends like Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who has also taken on the role of curator for the Fest. With so many venues to fill, Upstream has turned to a wide-range of tastemakers and music publications to help them decide who to book, when and where for a decidedly more human endeavor than you might catch elsewhere. In other words, when you hit a venue and see the lineup, there was some actual thought behind how it all came together.
Allen has some grand ideas on what Upstream could turn into in the coming years, but given his history and track record, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Festival could one day become a destination event for outsiders looking to immerse themselves in everything that makes the Pacific Northwest such an enticing region of the country.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the greats play and have some amazing experiences as a musician myself,” Allen said. “I love seeing live music and regularly attend concerts and music festivals, like New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival always leaves me feeling inspired. We want Upstream to do the same for the Northwest.”
Upstream Music Festival is set to take place from June 1-3 in Pioneer Square in Seattle. For ticketing information, you can visit their official website here.