Rooting for the Underdog: 6 Iconic Seattle Start-ups

Seattle is the iconic underdog city. It may not be as bustling as the Big Apple, or as glitzy as Hollywood, but it has undeniably carved out a special place for itself in American lore as a city of start-ups. Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon didn’t begin as household names. So what is it about Seattle that makes it ideal for kick starting independents?

Downtown Seattle has come a long way since its Pioneer days. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square has come a long way since its Pioneer days. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord.

Seattle was founded in November 1851 when the Denny pioneer party arrived and set up camp on Alki Point, although the settlement was moved to a more sheltered location on Elliott Bay the following year. Arthur A. Denny was one of the first commissioners of King County upon its creation in 1852. Soon, the fledgling Seattle was a vital part of the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest. Henry Yesler brought the first steam-powered sawmill to the city, which could make quick work of the area’s natural resources – 1,000 year old trees that could reach up to 400 feet tall. Seattle was built on a foundation of the adventurous, entrepreneurial spirits of pioneers, the will to not only survive against all odds but to flourish.

The Great Northern Railway reached Seattle in 1884, effectively creating a Wild West town. Schools were poorly run, liquor and gambling were rampant, and indoor plumbing was still a bit of a novelty. The city’s first union came in 1882 when printers formed the Seattle Typographical Union Local 202 chapter, followed over the next several years by the unionization of dockworkers, cigar makers, newsboys, musicians and brewers. Since the very beginning, Seattle has valued the individual workers who toil to run the city’s industries. Then, gold.

#1 – Mining the Miners   When gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon in August 1896, over 30,000 hopeful go-getters flooded into Seattle. Although only 13% of the prospectors eventually became wealthy, the city acted as a fueling station for supplies and transportation for the miners working in the gold fields in Alaska and the Klondike. The swell of immigration into the area between 1900 and 1915 created many of Seattle’s current neighborhoods, including the Jackson Regrade in Pioneer Square, the Lake Washington Ship Canal (including the Fremont and Montlake cuts) and the Ballard Government Locks. Overnight, Seattle became a prospering hub of independence. Not surprising since the city itself was founded by hard workers who weren’t afraid to get dirty in the hopes of becoming wildly successful.

A mural in a local business displays modern Seattle icons and independent brands, including a Boeing jet. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord

A mural in a local business displays modern Seattle icons and independent brands, including a Boeing jet. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord

#2 – Flying High   William E. Boeing built his first airplane factory on Lake Union in 1910, largely to take advantage of the region’s abundance of spruce trees. The first model built was the B&W seaplane in 1916, named after Boeing and his collaborator US Navy engineer George Westervelt. When the United States entered World War I, Boeing supplied seaplanes to the Navy. The Model Cs were so popular that the company created it’s first large-scale plant in 1917. Since then, Boeing has grown exponentially for the better part of the 20th century.

From 1933 to 1958, Boeing boomed. Among the company’s accomplishments: the 247, the first truly modern airliner with improved engine safety; the 314 Clipper, used for the first regularly scheduled transcontinental flight; many of the B-17 and B-29 bombers used in World War II; as well as the United States’ first commercial jet airliner – the iconic 707. In 2011, Lion Air placed an order with Boeing for over 200 planes, a $21.7 billion deal. This wasn’t luck; luck would be taking advantage of Seattle’s lumber resources and riding that wave as long as possible until it subsided. Boeing originally took advantage of the plentiful trees but didn’t stop there – the company used them as a jumping off point for innovation that revolutionized  travel for the 21st century.

#3 – Where the Music Matters   Independent music has always had a special place in hearts of Seattle. KEXP formed in 1972 as the student-run radio station at the University of Washington, and the 10-watt signal barely reached off-campus. When the University cut funding, the station had to turn to the community for support. KEXP always maintained that the student DJs could program whatever kind of music they wanted – it was a station for the people, by the people. As audiences and watt-signals grew, they added many regular specialty programs to its modern rock format, including hip hop, blues, world music, reggae and jazz.

Phone volunteers during the Fall 2013 fund drive. After more than 40 years, KEXP is still dependent on listener support.

Phone volunteers during the Fall 2013 fund drive. After more than 40 years, KEXP is still dependent on listener support.

In 2000, 90.3 FM (back then it was KCMU) was the first radio station in the world to offer high quality streaming audio online. Today, KEXP hosts over 300 live in-studio performances annually from locations like the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival in Reykjavik. KEXP has adapted to include web features; today they offer a streaming online broadcast, a Youtube channel of in-studio interviews, concert photos and podcasts. The station is so perfectly in-tune with Seattle’s adapting independent music world that it has helped launched artists such as Pearl Jam, Of Monsters and Men, Vampire Weekend and Pickwick to national fame. KEXP’s refusal to play mainstream music on an endless loop proves that it has stayed true to its mission of kick starting independent, passionate musicians.

Today, the Seattle International Film Festival has a year-round theater on the Seattle Center campus. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord

Today, the Seattle International Film Festival has a year-round theater on the Seattle Center campus. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord

#4 – America’s Largest Film Festival   Indie moviemakers know that true success doesn’t mean 4 daily show times at the downtown Cineplex. It comes from reaching out audiences on a personal level, to broaden their view of the world around them and inspire discussion. The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) made its debut in 1976 at the Moore Theater with 18 films. Since then, the event has gained a reputation as an “audience festival,” and has been instrumental in introducing US viewers to global cinema. When SIFF announced in 2006 its plans to have a permanent theater, the city of Seattle contributed 42% of the $350,000 cost, proving that cultivating a society of independent thinkers is an investment, rather than a threat to government. Films such as Ghost World and Ridley Scott’s Alien have made SIFF the scene for their world premiers. SIFF has made it easy to inspire others with film – they have spawned many other local film festivals including the Science Fiction Fantasy Short Film Festival, the Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival, and the National Film Festival for Talented Youth. If making movies brings you joy, Seattle is the place to be.

The 2013 Opening Night Gala featured Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, and broke SIFF box office records.

The 2013 Opening Night Gala featured Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and broke SIFF box office records.

#5 – The Seattle Sound   The best part about Seattle is that it’s not cookie-cutter. It’s not sleek and groomed and commercial; it’s rough and authentic, and not afraid to get a little bit dirty. It’s just who we are. So it’s no surprise that grunge, the hybrid offspring of metal and punk, was created here. Isolated from the big music labels in LA and New York, Seattle’s independent record label Sub Pop first assembled local artists around the grunge movement in the late 1980’s. When Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten albums topped the US Billboard charts in 1992, it officially put Seattle on the nation’s music map. Although popular grunge died out by the second half of the 1990’s, it remains a major influence in today’s music industry, especially to Seattle musicians like Mudhoney and Alice in Chains. The “Seattle sound” has become synonymous with a passion and drive for music.

True to his roots: Macklemore's song about Mariners announcer legend Dave Niehaus, whose voice is synonymous with baseball to every kid growing up in Seattle. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord

True to his roots: Macklemore’s song My Oh My! is about Mariners announcer legend Dave Niehaus, whose voice is synonymous with baseball to every kid growing up in Seattle. Photo credit: Louisa Gaylord

#6 – Can’t Hold Us   In 2013, for the first time in nearly 20 years, Macklemore’s first released single reached the #1 spot in the US Billboard Top 100 without the help of a major record label. And he did it again with his second single. Any major magazine can give you the details of his life and musical career, but Seattle is a footnote. To embody the city’s personality, Macklemore has to supplement his independent music with the start-up mentality that sets him apart. He has to do the hardest thing as a famous rock star: stay true to yourself and your beliefs. Many of Macklemore’s songs go against the grain of popular hip hop – Thrift Shop is about finding your own style, and Same Love supports LGBT rights. Macklemore has been extremely public about his struggles with substance abuse, and acknowledges that no one is perfect.

In a Youtube documentary, he explains: “I want to be respected in terms of the way that I treat people. That’s what’s important to me. Music is my creative outlet in terms of expressing what has importance, what has a value. And I want to be respected for that.” It’s this candid humility that makes Macklemore a perfect poster boy for Seattle’s independence from mainstream thinking.

Many of Macklemore's music videos prominently feature Seattle people and locations. Hundreds of fans wait for his arrival at Dick's Drive-In on Capitol Hill for the White Walls video.

Many of Macklemore’s music videos prominently feature Seattle people and locations. Hundreds of fans wait for his arrival at Dick’s Drive-In on Capitol Hill for the White Walls video.

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About lgaylord

Louisa believes in expanding horizons and learning - anything that broadens our minds beyond the here and now, allowing us to learn from the past and innovate for the future. She is particularly interested new and inventive methods of sustainability: city planning and green buildings, creating new objects from old trash, and ways that nature can provide examples for new materials and construction. She is also curious about new scientific breakthroughs, technology and discoveries, and how they will shape the future of consumerism and marketing. While science is important to advancing society, Louisa believes that music, art and culture are equally necessary, especially on a local community level. Louisa has published articles with many reputable sources, including Sustainable Business Oregon, Oregon Insider, Crosscut.com, and green engineering newsletter Sustainability Matters. She currently volunteers at KEXP 90.3 FM, a listener-powered nonprofit radio station. Louisa lives in Seattle, Washington.
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