What’s Up Turns 15

The last 15 years have brought a lot of change to the Bellingham music scene and I’ve been able to be part its growth, from a young, talented scene to one that is on par with some big cities. The magazine and the town have both come a long way since 1998.

What’s Up! Magazine began as a fun little project with myself, Sean Spain and Amy Marchegiani. I had been thinking about doing a music magazine after graduating from college the year before, but never really got it off the ground, probably because I didn’t have any clue what I was doing, just a love music mags. At the time, Seattle had The Rocket, which has always been the inspiration for What’s Up!, and I knew I wanted to make a mag like that, but just for the Bellingham area. Amy and I also knew that it’d fly, the town had a bunch of fantastic musicians, but a bunch of them didn’t know each other or didn’t like each other and there were tons of music fans, but no central resource to help bring everyone together. I wanted to put something out that could center the music scene.

In the middle of January 1998 Sean gave me a ring (he’d been a booker at local clubs including the Royal – which had some amazing shows in the mid-90’s) saying he wanted to do a music mag. I said, “Cool, me too.” Six weeks later, our first issue was out on the stands. No business plan, a computer that didn’t have the right layout program, very little back up money and virtually no publishing experience whatsoever. Sean was the only one with some published local writing under his belt, and Amy and I were both green. Our college degrees were not journalism-related, far from anything nearly relevant enough to think we could pull off putting out a magazine.

At the time, we had an office on Cornwall, but the first issue was done up on campus at night and the second edition we published using computers from Travis at Casa (he now owns The Horseshoe) and my high school friend Megan. Within six months, Sean was no longer in the picture, the office was gone and the realities of putting out the magazine without any experience had just begun. Within a couple years, I had so much magazine debt, that the thought of stopping What’s Up! was impossible. I didn’t want to be straddled with the debt, so we just kept plugging along, doing the best that we could, knowing little but still loving the music. (Incidentally, that large debt was finally paid off in 2007. Hallelujah!)

In those early years, Bellingham’s music scene, while overflowing with talent, was severely lacking in venues. The calendar for that first issue is a little sad, there were two real music venues – the 3B and Russell’s, as well as four places doing jazz a few nights a week and a few places hosting DJs. The Wild Buffalo hadn’t opened yet (and when it did, a year or so later, it was primarily an older blues crowd), neither had Boundary or The Factory (where The Shakedown currently is). Russell’s, which had a great show with Harvey Danger, was located kitty corner to Boomers and closed a month or two later (the town had just gone through the closure of Cosmos, which is now Perch in Play – a few great bands played there like Trey Gunn from King Crimson, but the venue was around for less than a year). The 3B was located approximately where Wise Buys lives on State Street and was home to all that was awesome in the music community – great place for good local bands to play as well as cool touring bands. On any given weekend night, you knew there would be good music at the 3B. When we started there was also the Showoff Gallery, a fantastic “not legit” art gallery located on Holly Street a couple blocks up from the Mission, but they weren’t legal and shows would or wouldn’t happen depending on who was living there.

And that was it. That was the Bellingham music scene in March of 1998. We actually thought about putting a picture of the Titanic sinking on the cover of the second issue with the words “Bellingham Music Scene” over the picture. That kind of snarky would be saved for later on. But it was that dire situation, which made the town perfect for what we wanted to do. We wanted to foster a cool scene, wanted to bring people to shows and get music fans to see these incredible bands. Most times there were 30-50 people at a Death Cab show, same for Sharpie, Eureka Farm (which included Jason McGerr from Death Cab on drums), My Friends and I (amazing soul/funk), Pacer (Lucas Hicks’s jazz freak out) and many more. We wanted folks to know how cool it was here, so we started a music magazine to tell them. It was frustrating because these amazing shows were playing, and the turnout should have been much higher.

At the time, bands rarely played weekday shows – the 3B kept shows on the weekends and DJ themed nights during the week, rarely breaking from the formula. If a band played on a Sunday, like Doo Rag (featuring Bob Log III), there might be 40 people in attendance.

Incidentally, while there were great bands here, there wasn’t a touring culture in the music scene. Death Cab for Cutie started hitting the road early, they played SxSW in May of 1999 and Federation X went on an amazing nine date, cross country tour in the summer of 1998. The Mono Men had toured, but they had broken up and Watts was now playing a lot, doing small tours. But, that was it. No touring, not many venues, but lots of great bands.

Look at Bellingham now. For our March 2 event, there were 16 venues for local music (at night) covering all different types and styles of music. With each venue, they were already hosting music on Saturday night, so we just organized the date and coordinated the venues. A few bands had to cancel or couldn’t do it because they were touring (Black Beast Revival for example). And while 62 bands are playing (more accurately, 57 bands with five DJs), there were another seven who were asked and couldn’t do it and another 20 we wanted to play. That’s approximately 80 good bands in Bellingham – 80 good bands in a town with 80,000 people, nearly 1/8th Seattle population and 2.5% of the Seattle Metro area population.

And while I often hear about petty aspects within the music scene (this band doesn’t like that band, that guy takes all the credit, this person should have been at my show, or whatever)I’m amazed that when asked, 62 bands said, “Sure, we’ll play for free.” For 95% of ‘em, it wasn’t even a question – the idea of being part of an amazing event was all the bands needed.

What’s all this mean? In the 15 years of What’s Up!, we have seen the town go from a plucky little scene with lots of talent, one great venue and little else to a place where professional musicians call home. These days, bands make a living with their music, there are tons of bands and, most importantly, an astounding amount of fans. It doesn’t matter what day of the week a show is now, if it’s a good show, there will be a good crowd. Last year Julian MacDonough was telling me that 60 people came out on a Tuesday night to the Blue Horse to see Ian Hendrickson-Smith, former member of the Dap Kings and a successful touring saxaphonist. Ian was floored that so many folks would come out on a Tuesday night and he asked if the Blue Horse was the only game in town. Julian told him what Bellingham is about, and that there are lots of venues and big shows can happen every night. Ian couldn’t believe it.

What’s my point with all this? I’m one of the few people who’ve really gotten to see this town’s music scene grow over the years and I’m constantly amazed by Bellingham (and the county as a whole). Take some time to pat yourself on the back, your love of music – from fans to musicians to venue owners and everyone in between – has made this an incredible place to be. I mean, seriously, where else could a small town music magazine not just survive, but grow? Ya’ll rule, thanks for allowing me to be part of something so special. Thanks again to all the writers, photographers, and advertisers, and Becca (see page 5) as well as Carey Ross. She had a HUGE impact early on and am always thankful for what she accomplished with the magazine, as well as our friendship, which has survived for 12 years!

Lastly, as we celebrate and see all that has happened since 1998, I am struck at how different our worlds are from then and now. There was no high speed internet, people used floppy disks, I got my first email address to use for the magazine, there was no iTunes, no social media, no cell phones with apps, no iPod, photographers still used film, etc. Through the years and changes, we appreciate and love our local music.

Here’s to the next 15 years!