Seattle is home to plenty of musical talent. This talent includes; Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana to today’s Macklemore, not to mention an ever growing underground community. Local summer festivals like Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot astound us yearly with impressive lineups. Our music venues draw in world renowned voices as well as new and upcoming artists.
How the social environment of the rainy city influences music and dance culture
Sean O’Leary on far right at Barboza | Photo by Alan Danilo
Despite a vivacious and diverse art scene, the city is also known for its ‘standoffish’ and ‘cold’ social atmosphere affectionately referred to as the ‘Seattle Freeze’. For those new to town, it can be difficult to forge one’s own community in this somewhat antisocial culture. The personality of a city is unique to its people and their ability to engage in the act of cultural exchange, social interaction and a willingness to let loose. These qualities are the fuel to the success and vitality of music and culture. While Seattle may have a strong musical platform, the participation in the culture surrounding the music, the dance community, appears to be constricted by the city’s social awkwardness.
Local DJ, Sean O’Leary, stage name Soffos, [shown above] is familiar to Seattle’s music and club scene, having been DJing in the area for 7 years. Born and raised in Tokyo, Sean moved to Bellingham, Washington to attend Western Washington University. The move was a huge adjustment but the culture shock was lessened after the discovery of Bellingham’s vibrant music community. After watching a techno DJ set by a duo called Justice in 2007, Sean was determined to pursue and practice DJ culture himself. Upon return to Japan for a summer vacation, Sean performed his first set for an after party sparking an interest in dubstep. He quickly acquired turntables and started practicing on vinyl, keeping close to the authentic practice of DJ culture.
Sean O’Leary on far left | Photo by Alan Danilo
It’s important for a DJ, or any artist, to find their signature sound and style. An artist needs to differentiate themselves from others and stay true to themselves. However, DJing is a dynamic form of expression because not only do DJs have to adhere to their own vision, it is equally as important for them to respond to the energy and tastes of the crowd they are performing for. To DJ is to curate, to select, based off of the fluid and dynamic energy of their environment.
“People want to hear something that’s kind of familiar but maybe has a little twist to it. That draws me to play a lot of stuff that’s stripped down because when there’s fewer elements in each song you can [blend] them together so much more easily and it doesn’t sound overwhelming. It’s almost like you’re making your own remixes on the spot”
“When you hit a good blend right, that’s such a good feeling and people really respond really well.”
Being a successful artist and pleasing a crowd is not only about chasing the right blend, or delivering the right music, but also about performance and stage presence.
“So much of it comes down to the performers energy and how they present themselves on stage as well. […] I’ve been DJing with three guys on a regular basis; all up there joking with each other and having a blast. […] When we’re having a great time other people feel like they’re having a great time too. […] I’m really drawn to artists I think I’d be friends with.”
The music and arts community of a city is not singularly fuelled by the talent it produces but by the cohesiveness of its community members.
“Most people are friends or at least cool with each other. Most people know […] what different people are doing. It’s fun because it feels like an extended family. […] You go to shows, run into people you know and it’s completely friendly.”
However, even with an inclusive artistic community, Seattle still lacks the thriving pull of other west coast cities like Los Angeles. We have sophisticated lineups at festivals and local venues yet fall short on an exciting night life. We still are not known for a lively social climate.
“L.A. has an up on Seattle because they are established as having underground music there and they have venues that are known for that. […] they have Low End Theory. These venues that people flock to, and if they're in L.A. they know to go there and what to expect. I don’t think that we really have that in Seattle. There’s not really the attention to music. I don’t think people are as invested in seeking out music here.”
We have the artists. We have inclusive artistic communities. What is it that holds Seattle’s music culture back from its true potential?
“In my mind the Seattle Freeze isn’t so much about meeting people it’s more about [people asking themselves:] “Oh, am I gonna go out or not?” and most of the time the answer is no.”
Our music and arts communities are inclusive enough and there is not a shortage of shows or events. So why are Seattleites deciding to stay in?
“[A] lack of dance culture. People like music but they don’t necessarily like dancing. […] You’re at a really tight show and […] no one’s moving.”
Whether people are dancing at a show is dependent on various factors: what music is playing, the personality of the venue, and most importantly, what kind of crowd is present.
Sean explains that promotors essentially have to “curate an experience” and aim to filter the general public to a specific, select group of people, whose personalities and tastes will influence the atmosphere of the event.
“That’s where we get a lot of push back from venues. A lot of venues won’t agree to have [a show] on a really hot night, those are their money making nights. They have to play music that’s going to bring people in […]. So their shows get pushed to Monday through Wednesday. It’s hard for people to come out on those nights. Especially if they have jobs.”
There is often a combination of why our shows and events don’t get the best turn out, even if they are bringing in all the best talent. First, we don’t have famous, signature venues that are known to locals and tourists alike. Second, some promotors refuse to take a risk on a newer artist on popular nights in order to make more money and ensure a bigger turnout. Subsequently, artists are bumped to less popular nights during the week, limiting working people from always being able to attend these shows. Third, people aren’t dancing. Seattle lacks a dance culture which animates shows and enriches the crowds with movement. Whether we need to pour a little more juice in our cups or take dancing lessons, our music and club culture will not reach its potential unless we are willing to break down the barriers of the ‘Seattle Freeze’.
Special thank you to Sean O’Learly for his time and wisdom.
- WRITER - VIBE CREATOR -