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Alaska Music Census: The Bottom Line of Show Business

by May 28, 2024Magazine, Media & Arts

Photos courtesy of True North Photography and Alaska Music Zine

While talented musicians are found all over the world, those living in Alaska believe there’s something special about the sounds from their home state.

“Music and performances are inevitably unique because we live in a unique place,” says Kat Moore, a pianist and singer in Anchorage. “It’s inspiring and beautiful and intense in ways that react with our emotions, maybe more so than for those who live in more temperate climates. I feel like there is an intensity to living in Alaska in general, and for me as an emotional writer, that becomes manifested in my writing.”

The midnight sun provides an opportunity to interact with other performers in summer, and the colder months provide time for introspection. “The isolation factor in winter makes music more impactful when people do get together,” Moore says.

Not only does Alaska breed some extremely talented musicians, but the local culture engenders respect for those who perform.

“Fact is, we’re up here on an island, so to speak, so we have to provide our own 365 degrees of entertainment,” says Kurt Riemann, owner of Surreal Studios, which has produced more than 1,000 albums for Alaska musicians since 1982. “We don’t have people drifting into town from the next state over and performing; our isolation provides a more community-oriented type of music.”

Riemann believes the strength of Alaska’s music scene is shown by the number of people who attend performances. But how many attendees or performances are there?

Counting In

The Alaska Music Census sheds light on how important performers are to the state’s culture and economy. The census is led by the Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative (AKIMI), a nonprofit formed in 2016 to elevate Alaska music and support Alaska musicians.

Last summer, AKIMI surveyed 1,330 music makers. Of that group, 2 percent make a living as music teachers but not artists, 68 percent are musical artists but not teachers, and 30 percent are both.

“We found that many musicians play three or more different roles for which they get paid—for example, as performers, educators, and recording artists releasing music, or as agents booking music for someone else,” says Marian Call, a singer and songwriter based in Juneau with nearly a dozen albums to her credit. Call is also AKIMI’s program director.

The census found roughly 62 percent of musicians surveyed earned money over the last four years from music, and 25 percent said more than half of their income comes from music. Another finding is that music activity supports 1 percent of Anchorage’s total workforce.

“What AKIMI has done with this survey is let musicians know that they are genuinely providing a service; that they have a marketable skill,” says Moore. “Secondly, they are showing that our work is valuable to the economy.”

Moore stays busy performing as a solo artist under the name The Forest that Never Sleeps. She is also part of the five-piece Super Saturated Sugar Strings.

“It is the hardest thing to put a quantifiable fiscal value on art; for us as artists, it feels soulless to say, ‘I’m worth this much,’” Moore says. “An arts organization that has funding may offer us $1,500 for one performance; another less-funded venue may offer $500. So ‘worth’ becomes a constantly fluid and sliding scale.”

Yet quantifying economic impact was part of the goal of the Alaska Music Census, so dollar figures must be counted.

“It’s strange, because you create art because you want to and need to—it’s a beautiful esoteric thing,” Moore says. “But you do have to earn money in order to survive; you have to be able to make it financially.”

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All Together Now

According to Call, the AKIMI survey tried to reach as many people as possible in Alaska’s music ecosystem.

“I know that ‘ecosystem’ sounds like a buzzword, but it’s also the best way to describe this tangled and very organic system,” she says. “People make music for money or for free, they teach music, and a lot of times these are all the same people in different spaces.”

Call adds that the ecosystem includes small businesses, such as venue owners, and the support industry of music retailers, recording studios, and instructors.

“It’s very hard to know exactly how many musicians are in Alaska because so many people do it without pay, yet it still adds value—both economic and cultural—to the community,” Call says.

AKIMI is using census data to generate various reports, starting with a special focus on Anchorage and Juneau released in January.

“With the information we have now, we can generate more reports as people have time and access,” says Call, noting that the Anchorage/Juneau report was funded by those municipalities. “We’d like to do a lot more in different communities, depending on funding, time, and the ability of communities to engage with us.”

“We want to encourage playing Alaska music in the background at hotels or using it in heliskiing operations—anywhere in spaces where tourists congregate. We also want to center Alaska music festivals in travel calendars.”

—Marian Call, Program Director, Alaska Independent

In addition to the survey, AKIMI monitors the music scene, discovering which artists are playing in the state and sharing that information. It collates artists’ work so that it can be used in retail, tourism, and filmmaking, and the organization is working on a statewide directory of musicians and venues.

AKIMI also takes part in music export, identifying Alaska performers of national caliber who can be boosted to higher visibility in state or Outside. “We also collate music and playlists to get it out into public spaces and offer professionalization, workshops, connections, and mentoring for musicians,” Call says.

High Notes

While many musicians choose to stay in Alaska and take advantage of the local scene, others go Outside to attempt a regional or national career. While Jewel (born and raised in Homer) and Portugal. The Man (formed in Wasilla) come to mind as successful artists, many others play throughout the Pacific Northwest or nationwide.

True North Photography and Alaska Music Zine

“Alaska musicians are players on the national scene, and while being from Alaska doesn’t bar us from that, it does take a lot of work,” says Moore. “It costs so much to get out, especially when traveling on an airplane with large instruments. Then you have to rent a vehicle and find places to stay.” She adds that she has seen a resurgence of young artists on tour outside the state, most especially on the West Coast and in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.

“It’s a tough thing to be up against the Pacific Northwest and the bright, shining light that is Washington state,” says Riemann of the nearest competition, “so you have to have realistic ambitions. While Jewel, Portugal. The Man, and Nick Carpenter of Medium Build emerged out of here, it’s not easy to get label support.”

Talent alone cannot launch an artist into a successful career without the resources of a skilled marketing department.

“If you’re successful as a band elsewhere, it’s usually because a label is supporting you, which helps with touring, distribution, and getting stuff to radio stations,” says Riemann. “That core of support can help get the word out, which doesn’t really happen up here.”

“Because most musicians are individually employed, it takes a lot of work to get together and advocate for ourselves in that space,” says Marian Call, program director of the Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative.

True North Photography and Alaska Music Zine

Take It to the Bridge

Several individuals and organizations provide that support in Alaska, helping musicians find grants, venues, connections, and more. Riemann, for example, curates the Alaska Music Archives, a collaboration with UAA that’s been collecting music recorded in Alaska over the past eighty years.

“People send us their music, and there’s some amazing stuff out there,” he says. “A woman sent me a number of very short songs she wrote before and after a home birth, and they are gorgeous.”

Riemann has a soft spot for underdogs without wide exposure. “Success nationally doesn’t necessarily mean that you did something great; it means that you’re working on the commercial aspect of the craft,” he says. “But what I’m after with the music archives is interconnection; that’s the way a community works. The archive’s music will soon be available from the library and there is a Band Wiki on our website so that people know what’s been going on up here, and so ‘homemade’ musicians won’t get discouraged.”

Moore used to organize her tours by searching venue websites, gradually building a name with outside markets. Moore and her band then connected with the Anchorage Concert Association and Arts Northwest to get the ball rolling for higher-tier gigs. Along the same lines, AKIMI is creating informational conferences and meetings so artists can understand their options to travel Outside.

“They provide ways to do it that are more intelligent and calculated than winging it or cold-calling the state of Idaho to find venues,” Moore says with a laugh.

She adds that Parlor in the Round, a singer songwriter show in Anchorage founded by Kevin Worrell, is another channel for Alaska artists to meet artists from the Lower 48. “On each show, they have two artists from Alaska and one from the Lower 48, and a national artist may even cover your song,” says Moore. “It’s a great way to interface intimately with artists doing what we’d love to do: to spread music beyond Alaska.”

“If you’re successful as a band elsewhere, it’s usually because a label is supporting you, which helps with touring, distribution, and getting stuff to radio stations… That core of support can help get the word out, which doesn’t really happen up here.”

—Kurt Riemann, Owner, Surreal Studios

One More Chorus

AKIMI is helping to expand artists’ reach with its Alaska Playlist Project, which includes two dozen curated Spotify playlists featuring local performers. “The content is so good, and you can search for genre, region, Black Alaska artists, Indigenous performers, and more,” says Call. “Most people don’t even know how much Alaska music is out there, and now they can just hit play and hear musicians who are all from here, making incredible stuff.”

AKIMI also formally partnered with Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to form the Cascadia Music Corridor. Working with the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the initiative helps musicians apply for grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and other donors and local arts agencies like the Valley Arts Alliance, Fairbanks Arts Association, and Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.

“This year, we are also participating in the Alaska Travel Industry Association conference to bring music information to tourism outlets,” says Call. “We want to encourage playing Alaska music in the background at hotels or using it in heliskiing operations—anywhere in spaces where tourists congregate. We also want to center Alaska music festivals in travel calendars.”

Call compares musicians with graphic artists, who receive exposure every day from murals, stickers, or logos on apparel. She asks, “Everyone has t-shirts that show our Alaska pride—what if we expanded that to music as a matter of course, showing that we’re proud of our Alaska musicians and want to share our music with the world?”

“It’s very hard to know exactly how many musicians are in Alaska because so many people do it without pay,” says Juneau singer Marian Call, “yet it still adds value—both economic and cultural—to the community.”

True North Photography and Alaska Music Zine

Next Measures

While many people are working to individually advance Alaska’s music, AKIMI hopes that the census will encourage musicians to, so to speak, band together and advocate for their work and its economic impact.

“We want to use these numbers to advocate for arts as a sector because we are mostly invisible. Aside from dining, things that happen after 5 p.m. tend to get forgotten from economic reports in general,” says Call. “We want to remind municipalities and the state that we exist and remind them that we are a business sector—one that is bigger than some of the smaller sectors that often get more attention from lawmakers and economists.”

The sector includes, after all, not just professional musicians but performers with day jobs, all of whom stimulate business at restaurants, bars, clubs, and festivals.

“Because most musicians are individually employed, it takes a lot of work to get together and advocate for ourselves in that space,” Call adds. “But music offices in other states have successfully used this type of information to increase investment in music infrastructure, in building better festival grounds, in getting more support for festivals, and in creating music-friendly policies like good sound ordinances and fully funded arts education.”

Call hopes that the census also identifies opportunities for investment. “In Portland, Oregon, for example, they put together Portland Music Month which generated hundreds of thousands of dollars and increased tourism activities,” she says.

“There is tremendous music being made here, and it is creating a tremendous amount of value,” Call adds. “We just have to actively tend our music ecosystem.”

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