The Youth Are Getting Restless: Seattle’s All-Ages Chasm

You know you’re at a good show when the cops get a call.

House shows and garage shows are special in that respect; there’s an act of defiance involved. That is punk rock; there is no apologizing involved when playing the music you love and playing it loud.

On a cool July day in Anacortes, WA, during the summer of 2010—the neighbors were not happy. The Lonely Forest brought their raucous brand of pop-rock to the garage of friends formerly known as Caulfield and His Magical Violin. As you could imagine, it didn’t take long before the cops were called. And that made it all the more special. You couldn’t get more real than that; a hometown band playing for the locals in one of the most down-to-earth spaces you could imagine. The entire town could hear it through their walls.

It was an experience unlike any other; kids came up to sing gang vocals to their favorite songs. They requested the b-sides, and the band would do their best to oblige, if they remembered how to play it. There was no set-list, no expectations, no rules. Just playing music for the sake of the experience. That’s where the music sounds the best; in a space where it can be allowed to be pure, untouched, and just plain loud.

Thank God for the venues that attempt to replicate that experience. The all-ages places that create safe spaces for everyone to come so that they might simply enjoy the music, and not be bogged down by bar crowds. Where no one has to feel ostracized or singled out. They are allowed to share in a musical experience with their favorite bands in an often very intimate setting. For the true music fan, these spaces can’t be beat.

Unfortunately, these venues are getting hard to come by. The last couple years have seen the closing of some of the most welcoming, unique spaces for music. In 2011 we saw the closing of the beloved Department of Safety (DOS) in Anacortes. Capitol Hill’s treasured Healthy Times Fun Club shut its doors that same year. And most recently, Bellingham’s Old Foundry announced last August that it would be shutting down. These closings are hitting the all-ages scene hard.

The Department of Safety, Anacortes, 2005 // Courtesy of the Department of Safety

The Department of Safety, Anacortes, 2005 // Courtesy of the Department of Safety

“The DOS gave me a chance to develop a taste and appreciation for live music and entertainment, and also to try my own hand as a performer on-stage. Without that […] I never would have written any songs. I never would have been in a band. And so much of that is part of my identity today,” remarks Stephen Steen, all-ages advocate and member of Bellingham band Specters.

Without these creative spaces for young talent, we are losing the very impetus for art itself. Some of the best music in Seattle today is coming from underage bands. For evidence, one need not look further than the EMP’s Sound Off! competition, where the maximum age limit is 21 and young bands are able to make a name for themselves. Those bands (see: the Lonely Forest, the Globes, Sol, Nude Pop, etc.) are going on to make names for themselves, partly in thanks to that initial exposure. When we lose spaces for that sort of outlet, we are denying young people the opportunity to build an identity in their music.  They need a place where they are encouraged, not where they provide background music to a night out at the bar.

More than anything, when all-ages venues die, not only do they lose the space itself, but they lose the passionate people that run them. These are the folks that support musicians through opportunity and encouragement. They aren’t bar owners looking to bring in cash by providing drinks; they are there for “the love of the game”: to encourage and inspire, to promote a shared passion.

Steen recognizes these folks as the heartbeat to the scene. “The most valuable part about the DOS was the team of folks who ran it. These were artists and volunteers who wanted me to succeed, who booked my bands, who gave me friendship, advice, and exactly the kind of support I needed when I was a teenager,” said Steen.

Granted, there have been attempts to salvage some sort of outlet for the young guns. The Crocodile recently implemented a new set-up, where those under 21 are allowed to view shows from a separated spot, usually from the balcony. While it’s a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough. Under-21ers shouldn’t have to feel ostracized because of their youth, and they certainly don’t belong in a playpen. Their youth is what keeps the music pure and untainted. They are there for the music and the music alone, and that is what fuels musicians to keep doing what they’re doing. Tell me the last time a musician was inspired by a chatty group of bar-mongers, and I’ll bite my tongue.

With the exception of the beloved Vera Project and the EMP’s Sound Off! competition, where all-ages are embraced and encouraged, there are very few spaces in Seattle and the surrounding region where young people can enjoy the music, safe from being ignored or looked down upon because of their age. There is a lack of genuineness in the 21+ crowds; sure, some are there for the tunes, but a large number of folks are there to chat with their friends over a beer; the music is just background noise.

Seattle is an undeniably special place, especially when it comes to fostering an environment for creativity. I hope this city can continue to cultivate that precedent, but also recognize the gaping hole that begs to be filled. Step up, Seattle. For the kids.

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