- Kelly O
- Sean Horton: What a slacker.
The 10th annual Decibel Festival starts today and we have an interview with founder Sean Horton in the paper. However, not everything worthwhile from the Q&A session made it into print, so I’m going to run the highlights from the outtakes on Line Out. (You can read about The Stranger’s must-see acts here. Note: There are many more must-see acts than we could fit in that space.)
What artists have you badly wanted to book but who have eluded you so far?
Horton: There are literally hundreds of offers that I make each year that we simply don’t work out for based on timing or finances. People often have this perception that I can book whomever I want, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Only about 15 percent of the offers I made this year actually came together, which, with all the other festivals that have popped up over the past decade, it’s easy to see why. My dB bucket list always has and always will include a shortlist of Björk, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, Massive Attack, Portishead, Thom Yorke, Brian Eno, and Philip Glass, all of whom I sent offers to each year. I’ve made incredibly generous offers to Nicolas Jaar and Alva Noto for the past four years, so I’m incredibly happy to finally have Nico on board this year.
What are some of the most outrageous rider demands your staff has had to deal with? Who has been the biggest pain in the ass?
Not the most demanding, but perhaps the funniest rider story came from Deadmau5 in 2007. I remember being on the main floor at Neumos and wondering why he hadn’t started. I worked my way through the crowd downstairs to find Joel Zimmerman aka Deadmau5 crouched into a corner with his face buried in his arms. I honestly thought he was sick based on the body language and demeanor. I asked him if everything was all right, to which he responded, “No, because you obviously didn’t read my rider.” Memorizing 120-plus riders is not something I ever plan to do, so I responded with “I’m not sure what you need, but I’m happy to go get it if it means having you perform.”
At this point the audience was chanting his name and we were about 30 minutes past his start time. He responded aggressively with “I need a can of Coke.” Though the request is quite minor, the club itself didn’t supply any canned beverages outside of beer, so I had to run across the street to the gas station to purchase a can of Coke. I returned in minutes, handed it to Joel and he slowly opened the can and took one sip. He then put the can down and slowly walked out onto the stage. It was one of my first “rockstar” moments and definitely left a lasting impression. He went on to become the most prominent figure in electronic dance music and is arguably the godfather of contemporary EDM, spawning not only a massive solo career, but helping spawn the careers of EDM icons Skrillex, Kaskade, Excision—all of whom released seminal work on his label Mau5trap. [Of course], a lot has changed since 2007.
Putting on a festival of this magnitude must be a huge headache—in addition, of course, to being abundantly rewarding. Please discuss some of the logistical nightmares Decibel has encountered.
You have no idea. It’s by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever accomplished and I spent two winters working on fishing boats in Alaska, working 20 hours a day. Now multiply that effort times 20 and you can begin to see what our dedicated team of directors and managers are putting into the monumental effort, involving 150+ artists, a dozen plus venues, 50+ showcases, over 200 volunteers, an entire staff of audio techs, and entire staff of video/light techs, an entire staff of drivers, an entire team of street promoters, six solid months of marketing through every possible channel, dozens of flight itineraries, dozens of hotel itineraries, dozens of will call lists, guest lists, 500+ emails a day strictly coming into my own inbox.
I start booking the festival out in January and I don’t stop until October. During the most frenetic months (June through September) much of our staff are working 30+ hours a week on the festival. What’s more, we all have day jobs and careers that exist entirely outside of Decibel, which basically makes it an insanely expensive and time-consuming hobby. The part that always gets me choked up though is that everyone volunteers. Decibel is probably the only festival on the planet driven entirely out of passion. Not a day goes by that I don’t think, “What would I do without my staff?” Vance Galloway, Cody Morrison, Jessica Brockish, Katie Harkins, Matt Clark, David Kwan, Kate Lesta, Kristyn Brown, Crystal Fritz, Blake Peterson, Matthew Krall, Tony Gavilanes, Trevor Walker, Matt Dressman, Mollie Bryan, Cameron Jessup, Melenie Yep, Carlos Ruiz, Zach Bohnson, Ian Todd, Katie Paige, and Brooke Bendewish are all saints. Decibel would be nothing without them and the dozens of other volunteers who fuel Decibel.
Can we count on Actress finally appearing this year after two cancellations?
The previous cancellations, both to due to visa issues, were disappointing, to say the least. Since 9/11, the visa process and just making it to the US as a foreign artist has been increasingly difficult. Each year we see the pressure increase and with emerging artists that don’t have North American agents and or representation, there’s a great deal of confusion surrounding the visa process, which does often fall on the artist themselves to contend with. It’s also incredibly expensive (minimum $1,000 and as much as $4,000 to expedite the visa). The US is by far the most difficult and expensive country to tour as an artist. As someone who runs a largely international festival, I’m amazed there aren’t more of these cancellations (knock on wood). It’s arguably our biggest challenge each year. Luckily, we have Kate Lesta on staff, who saw the need and has started a company dedicated to educating international artists and agents on the obtaining visas. Kate actually has been working on Actress’ visa for the past couple years and has assured me that we’re a go.
What developments do you foresee for Decibel’s future? What do you hope to achieve that you haven’t attained so far?
I’d say financial stability would be up there. After a decade, I’m still using credit cards, loans, volunteers, and a lot of pleading to keep the ship afloat. I’ve lost well over a quarter of a million dollars over the years, which may seem like a small amount for a festival the size of Decibel, but for me it’s a significant amount. It’s tough to think big picture when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. I keep saying, if we can’t pull it off as a tenth anniversary, we never will. If we do, finding a way to downsize the production needs, while increasing attendance and the overall quality is the direction we need to go. That might mean fewer venues and ultimately less intimate spaces, but if it will allow us to continue, then I’ll make those difficult decisions as they come. I still dream of doing something large scale in terms of events (e.g., my bucket list) but that would have to replace most of not all of our club showcases, which are honestly some of my favorite events.
Given how big Decibel has become, it seems like you would have given up your day job to concentrate exclusively on it. But you continue to work as a Director of Music Strategy and Senior Music Supervisor at PlayNetwork. How do you manage to accomplish so much, in addition to being married and making your own music and DJing? Do you have people helping you with the booking? Do you only sleep two hours a night?
My typical weekday has me getting up around 6 am and knocking out 25-50 emails largely to European agents, managers and media partners. I leave for work around 7 am and after an often grueling commute I arrive at PlayNetwork deep in Redmond around 8 am. At that point, I completely divorce myself from Decibel until lunch around noon, at which time I knock out another hour’s worth of emails, typically from North American agents, managers, and partners on the East Coast. From 1 pm to 6 pm I’m back on with PlayNetwork activity, which always keeps me busy.
On the commute home, I put in my earpiece and get through as many voice mail calls and call backs that I can squeeze into the hour-long commute back to Seattle. Depending on the day, from 7pm to midnight I’m either at Decibel staff meetings, partner meetings, or working on Decibel marketing, promotions, curation, and overall logistics. If I’m behind, I’ll work until 1 am or 2 am. During the months of August and September, it’s not uncommon for me to function on three to four hours of sleep, which definitely takes its toll. My wife Diana definitely has helped keep me alive over the past four years. I owe a lot to her and to my friends who provide a constant support network. Weekends offer more solitary work and meeting schedules, which I’d say take up between 10 and 12 hours a day, leaving some room for movies, DJing, and the occasional night out with Diana or friends.
In terms of my own music ambitions as a composer, engineer, producer, and DJ, they’ve all had to take a backseat to the festival, which is really the worst part of it all. I got into this world as a musician, collector, and DJ, which to me is still what inspires me as an individual. I have been DJing a lot more lately, which has me traveling and continuing to hone a skill that I’ve been cultivating since I was 16. I’ll never stop DJing, composing, producing, and manipulating sound in some fashion. I long for the day that I can return to the studio for an extended period of time and work though the past decade of my life, which in some ways has been lost. Overall, the rewards outweigh the sacrifices I make each day.