Seattle's famously known for being the birthplace of grunge, the scene that spawned bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the '90s. But as time goes on, Seattle grows closer and closer to becoming an electronic music hotspot. With a number of decent clubs and promoters who are increasingly willing to take risks, the scene appears healthy, especially compared to its closest neighbours, Vancouver and Portland, who have a shortage of these things. And as respected local artists like Pezzner and Lusine rub elbows with promising newcomers like Kid Smpl, the city is earning its artistic stripes as well.
This wasn't always the case. When Decibel founder Sean Horton moved back to Seattle in 2002, he found a scene not only disinterested in electronic music, but maybe even hostile to it. "There wasn't much really going on at all in the way of electronic music events," he says. "We first started throwing events back in 2002 under the name Dreaming In Stereo. The people that were coming out were basically thanking me and saying there was no other way for them to experience this music live. Those people are still what I'd consider to be our core audience today."
The idea for a festival was inspired by the overwhelming response to the Dreaming In Stereo parties, and a desire to foster communications. "Part of the impetus for me was to create a community of people that would appreciate electronic music events," Horton says. "I wanted to live in a city that had world class talent and that as an artist, as a DJ, as a producer myself, I wanted to feel inspired by Seattle. I didn't know at the time if we were going to make it past the first year. It was definitely an experiment."
That first year was 2004, and the format was remarkably close to the shape Decibel takes today—a testament to the endurance of Horton's strong initial vision. "It was quite small," he recalls, "we had just over 2500 people, and four venues, one of which we're still using this year, Chop Suey. We did have workshops and a sort of makeshift conference that we would do on Friday and Saturday, and we did what we're now calling our Optical series of experimental music programming." The lineup wasn't all that different either—with John Tejada, Lusine, Richard Devine, Bruno Pronsato and Portable in tow, it was every bit as varied as it is today.
The obvious thing that sets Decibel apart from other big festivals in the US is that it's not just a rave-up weekend in a field or a giant hangar—it's all about the nightclub, which organizers see as dance music's natural habitat. "That was a debate that came up early on," says Horton, "before Decibel even had a name. We were just calling it the Northwest Electronic Music Festival." It's a decision that has contributed to Decibel's reputation as a mature and civilized festival; you won't see much of the outlandish clothing and glowing accessories that characterize the recent wave of American EDM events.
"There was talk of trying to grow Decibel to the point where we could do something similar to Movement or Ultra, where we would take over the Seattle Centre," Horton says. But that's an idea that's grown less and less appealing, even as Decibel grows larger. "The problem with that is our core audience," says Horton. "The audience that we've been cultivating since 2002 is more of a club-based audience. They're typically older. Our core audience is between the ages of 25 and 40. These are people that have been involved with electronic music going back to the early '90s in some cases. Having a large outdoor family-style free-for-all during the day just didn't appeal to our core audience. They prefer late night events, and that became our MO from year one."
Having that many venues is no mean feat, especially when you consider that they install or custom enhance existing soundsystems at clubs—a logistical nightmare in the planning stage alone. "From a technical standpoint, you can only imagine the amount of volunteers, staffing and backline coordination that goes into booking 120 artists to cross 11 venues over five days, and this isn't just a music festival, it's a visual arts festival, so much of our production is based around projections, video mapping, installation art, even fine art," says Horton.
That's where Vance Galloway, the festival's technical wizard since (almost) the very beginning, comes in. He's the man in charge of making sure things sound right and run smoothly. "The first year, Decibel had an experimental artist, Richard Chartier, playing at a bar. It was completely the wrong venue for him," says Galloway with a laugh. "The sound was all off, and I went in and thought, 'I'm never going to let this happen again.' I went to the decompression party that year and, re-meeting Sean, I said, 'Next year, we're doing things differently'—and that's the first time I ever said 'we.' It's been we since then."
Galloway is a technology buff, talking in measured but excited tones about all the equipment he uses, listing names and brands like a grocery list. He decides which systems go where, and how each club needs to be set up; he also has to keep the operation cost-effective. "We evaluate each venue and its needs based on the artists and showcases we'll have there. We are getting a lot of these systems sponsored, but my challenge is pairing them with a particular venue," he says. "It's a puzzle and a juggling game between what the sponsors can give to us and what we need in any given venue. Much of what I do is eliminating pieces of equipment in the venues that are normally for the safety of the system, because I know we're gonna be staffing it with people who won't blow shit up."
Upgrading the venues for the festival isn't just a quest for the biggest and the loudest, though they're good at that, too. Last year Decibel had the only installation of the "ultra high-end" Avalon system, which went into Capitol Hill mainstay Neumos, one of the festival's biggest clubs. A full installation-style system, this one wasn't a simple matter of plug-and-play, but it paid off with a loud and crystal-clear sound that Galloway accurately describes as "mind-blowing." Above all, he embodies the festival's attention to detail and their passion for getting things just right—they know how their music should sound.
"It's difficult to get people to understand the needs of the various electronic music genres," Galloway says. "Trap and dubstep have different needs than techno does. If we have different showcases on different nights, I have to readjust things and I get quizzical looks from people who think that dance music just means crank up the bass and the highs. Someone not familiar with these genres is not going to know if it sounds right... but generally, the venues are very cooperative."
How does the team manage it all? Too many volunteers to count, Horton would assert. The community that the festival has built over the years is one that's willing to contribute. But, as Galloway claims, Decibel's core team is remarkably lean, owing to the cost of putting on events in so many different venues at once. "I will have myself as a lead engineer a lot of the time," he says, "and then I will hand this over to one of four other sound engineers who are working with Decibel at the time."
But things might be getting easier. "This year, we're gonna be working with more of the house sound engineers," says Galloway. "That's because here in Seattle some of the venues are starting to get some really nice soundsystems." And while he won't take the credit, Decibel's perfectionist passion for sound quality probably contributed to that fact.
Decibel essentially carved out a whole new scene in Seattle, then fostered it over ten years. "I remember before Decibel, there were distinct arms of the electronic music scene," says local stalwart Dave Pezzner. "Over here, we used to have the house music heads, and over there were the techno kids. On that side, the IDM, minimal and ambient fans, and over on the other side the trance and rave following. I've watched Seattle evolve into a well-educated electronic music base."
It's a respectful community. One thing you won't find at Decibel are unofficial parties capitalizing on the crowds it generates. While there are bound to be a few outliers, it seems as if most promoters would rather cooperate than compete. And Decibel has its arms open to them. "People like Uniting Souls, Shameless, High And Tight and Sweatbox, every one of those individual crews has produced shows at Decibel," explains Horton. "Whether that's an afterhours or a showcase through which they're getting to expose their brand. I don't see any competition at all."
"Decibel has been very flexible with the evolving scene," says Jeff McIlwain, who performs as Lusine, "It's kind of like a middle ground between the more intellectual MUTEK and the more party-centric Movement approach."
"I remember hearing about Decibel the first or second year that it started, and it reminded me a lot of Sónar," says Moby, who's returning this year to headline the festival. It's easily one of his most intimate gigs, and Decibel is one of only eight shows that he'll be playing all year.
A comparison to Barcelona's Sónar isn't too far off. Though the festivals differ in format, their approach to programming is one and the same, putting artists at the experimental vanguard next to dance floor fillers and bona fide pop stars, but always keeping things grounded in what's at the heart of Decibel: forward-thinking music. Though they make a point of not catering to the EDM crowd, Decibel has had its share of big room moments. "Last year we had Erykah Badu and Orbital headlining events at the Paramount, which is a very large venue, 3000 capacity," says Horton. "This year we're bringing back Moby, and we're also booking Zedd, which is probably the most confusing booking for people not too familiar with Decibel." He's not wrong. Zedd is a Lady Gaga collaborator who's often placed alongside producers like Avicii, far from the underground sounds that Decibel espouses elsewhere.
"My perspective is this: Zedd was on tour, it was offered to us as a package and it was something that we felt would increase exposure to a young audience, which we hope will grow into Decibel and into more of the emerging talent that we're booking," explains Horton. "If Decibel can help in that growth and progression, then I feel as though it's our obligation to include artists that appeal to a younger demographic."
Apparently it's working. As the festival enters its second decade, Horton has watched the crowd at Decibel diversify and their median age dip ever lower. "We've also booked Deadmau5, Diplo, Simian Mobile Disco and Justice going back to 2006," he says, "so I don't think it's really that unusual to have an artist with a more mainstream following, as long as the majority of the programming falls in line with underground electronic music."
Decibel is even more choosy about its sponsors than it is about the artists it books—their perspective on when, how and from whom it's OK to take money is yet another dimension of Horton's uncompromising vision. These issues are handled by Cody Morrison, a fellow Seattle promoter who became involved five years ago out of sheer good will. "I cold-called Sean Horton when I found his number on the Decibel website," he says. "I heard they had a tough time raising money and Sean was partially financing this through his personal credit cards. I said something to the effect of, 'You don't know me but I've been attending events over the years and I have a skill set you can use.' I took him out to dinner and we hit it off right away."
"It's such a balancing act," Morrison says, "the corporate involvement versus the integrity of the festival... our core audience is very independent and pushes back from too large of a corporate presence, or if we engage the wrong kind of partner. My first year as sponsorship director I signed a deal with a cigarette company and I took a ton of (warranted) shit for it, and learned my lesson there."
As a festival that largely rejects corporate intervention, Decibel doesn't exactly have oodles of money to play with; what makes it all the more impressive is that it's essentially a DIY undertaking. "It's still funded largely by myself, via credit cards and presale tickets," says Horton. "I personally still invest my own income, and anyone that knows me knows that I have a day job which is vital to the continuation of Decibel."
This also means that the financial status ends up as a nail-biter, making it uncertain as to whether the events will actually go ahead. "Most of our income actually comes from walk-up and end-of-day ticket sales, which is obviously, from my perspective, stressful," Horton explains. "Not really knowing whether you'll be solvent at the end and having to make decisions day-to-day based on what kind of income those individual showcases are bringing in can be very alarming at times."
"I definitely lose sleep over it each year," says business operations director Jessica Brockish. "We go over budget but I've gotten better at planning for that and minimizing the damage. Really though, making money is not our primary goal—the festival would be dramatically different if it were guided by profit. We do it because we love it, and we're a unique brand of crazy that powers us to do a lot of work because we're passionate about creating this experience in our community."
As Decibel continues to grow, entering its biggest year yet, it's a bittersweet endeavor for the man who started it all. "Decibel has become bigger than the original scope I had in mind, but I also feel an obligation to continue," Horton admits. "The greatest reason why I do it—there's a lot of reasons—is that I truly believe this music should be reaching the masses and this music is important, not just for the Pacific Northwest but on a global scale. I have such a strong connection to the music and the art that we bring to Decibel, and the more people that can view and experience that, the better."
As for whether or not it's time to scale down, Horton scoffs at the idea of taking a step back for the festival's tenth anniversary—but the future is a little less certain. "At the end of the year I will probably re-evaluate all the events that have taken place, and the size, and the budget, and the growth that we've had over the past decade and make a very difficult decision in terms of whether to scale back, or continue to grow the festival," says Horton, adding: "At this point in my life, I simply can't see it growing much more than where it's at today."
"Over the past five years we've stopped being the new kid on the block trying to find its way, to being a mature organization that's dealing with how to move forward strategically," says Morrison, when asked about his tenure at Decibel. "Independent festivals like ours—there's surprisingly not many left—have to work smart and hard to pull it off, but it's certainly worth it. It's all about being responsive and adaptable to the world around you. We were around long before the term EDM was coined, and I'm sure we'll be around long after EDM is a 'thing.'"
Ten years in and Horton has helped to fuel Seattle's development into the world-renowned artistic city that he wanted it to be in the first place—even if it means he has to personally fund an entire festival. But he wouldn't have it any other way, or in any other place. "Ultimately, the Pacific Northwest is a very beautiful place and the musical heritage of Seattle and the region is evident just looking at its history. Whether it's grunge, hip-hop, electronic music, we're blessed to live in a city that's growing every day on a creative scale. So between Seattle and the community that has grown out of Decibel, I don't think you'll find another festival like it. That's what keeps my heart in the game."