For the Love of Music: The Artist’s Guide to KEXP

Words by Jake Hanson
Photos by Jake Hanson

If this isn’t the first day you’ve stepped foot into Seattle, chances are extremely slim that you’ve never tuned in to or overheard a conversation about KEXP. At the very least, you’ve spotted the countless yellow stickers slapped on the tail-ends of surrounding vehicles. The heavyweight non-profit radio station has deep roots not only in the northwest but also in the global music community; KEXP has helped to kickstart countless successful music careers by exposing listeners to an exceptionally curated selection of recordings and live performances from bands around the globe. That said, KEXP is equally well known for its support of Seattle musicians. If you’re tuned into 90.3 FM on a regular basis, you’re likely aware of the fact that KEXP’s full-time and volunteer staff include several active musicians. As a volunteer photographer for KEXP, I have had an inspiring opportunity to work alongside several of these individuals and recently invited them to share why they’ve chosen to dedicate their working hours to helping the station thrive. 

ARTISTS INTERVIEWED:

Eva Walker [Audioasis DJ; VOX/Guitars for The Black Tones]

OCNotes [Sunday Soul DJ; Emcee/DJ at OCnotes, various projects]

Alaia D’Alessandro [Videographer; VOX/Keys/Guitars/Drums for Tres Leches, ALAIA]

Robert Dale [Data Specialist; VOX/Guitars for Belgian Fog]

Brady Harvey [DJ Assistant, Volunteer Photographer; VOX/Guitars for Tea Cozies]

Kevin Suggs [Audio Engineer; Guitar/Pedal Steel Guitar for Modern Relics]

Julian Martlew [Audio Engineer; Composer, Singer/Songwriter at FarFetcher]

Alaia D’Alessandro (left); KEXP Video Crew (right)

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians seeking to catch KEXP’s attention?

BRADY HARVEY: There’s a great article on the KEXP site called Getting Airplay, which is the number one place I’d start. If you’re looking to get played on KEXP, once you’ve got a decent recording you need to send your music to the Musical Director. That can be either CD, vinyl or mp3, but make sure if you’re sending music digitally it’s a link to a stream and not a download. DJs get a deluge of emails every day and they don’t have time to download every single track in their inbox. You’ll also need a one sheet – a quick and easy breakdown of your tracks, calling out which ones you think are singles. These are the songs DJs will listen to first. With that in mind, think about which DJs play music similar to yours. It doesn’t hurt to send your music to directly to those DJs too. One of them might become a huge fan and begin playing you regularly. As a note, if you’re not already being played on the station, wait until you have an EP or an album coming out before you send in your music. KEXP doesn’t generally pick up one off singles unless you’re Phantogram or something. Another Hot Tip: DON’T send them a CD in a package full of glitter so you “stand out.” That just makes a mess and will likely piss them off. Be professional, while being true to the spirit of your band.

ALAIA D’ALESSANDRO: I’ve learned a lot both from the DJs and the bands that have come through the station.  Sharlese Metcalf, Cheryl Waters, Larry Rose, Kevin Cole – all those DJs were really kind in giving me advice and insight on what goes into being a DJ and how to reach out in a way that is not overbearing or underwhelming. Have an appreciation for what the DJs are doing as fellow artists, acknowledge that and be honest about why you’re writing. Also, if that DJ didn’t respond to what you sent them, it doesn’t mean you can’t keep sending them new work. Troy Nelson also taught me how to make a kick-ass one-sheet. A photo of the band, a couple links to your best press features, the tracks you like best, a short description of your album/band with any milestones thrown in – all of these things saved into PDF format and attached to your email goes a long way!

IDLES (left); Courtney Barnett (right)

As someone who surely wanted your own personal work on the airwaves, how does it feel to give someone else their own space on the radio?

EVA WALKER: Really good! I always thought I’d be a pretty good curator of music, but I hope I’m living up to that. It’s awesome to give people that platform – there’s a lot of underrepresented voices and I feel a responsibility to advocate for and present those voices.

BRADY HARVEY: After years of being in a band (Tea Cozies) who was heavily supported by KEXP, it’s an honor to watch up-and-coming bands receive airplay from the station. You know that scene in That Thing You Do where they freak out and run down the street when they hear themselves on the radio? That’s exactly what getting played on the air for the first time feels like! It’s awesome to watch that happen for others and to know that it’s helping them gain fans from ALL OVER THE WORLD. It’s absolutely insane when someone emails your band from a country you’ve never even been to wanting merch or wondering when you’ll tour there. I am more than happy to champion others and help share Seattle’s musical talent over the airwaves.

As an artist, how do you feel that KEXP stands out from other radio stations in regard to its support of musicians?

ALAIA D’ALESSANDRO: The Gathering Space is something very unique that I haven’t seen other stations offer. When I’m meeting a friend for a coffee in the gathering space, I’ll get to hear how meaningful it is that they can hang out at the station anytime they want and they can see the DJ right there in the booth. When I mention that I work at KEXP, most of the time the person I’m talking to will talk about an experience they’ve had at the station, whether it’s going to a Mastering The Hustle workshop, seeing an in-studio performance or viewing the rotating artist gallery in the gathering space. That’s pretty powerful.

OC NOTES: KEXP goes out of its way to support the local music community as well as artists from around the world/country in ways that have amazed me since I started working there.  As an artist & an employee, I’ve received and witnessed over the top love and understanding for what we do and the accommodations and respect musicians receive is ice cold gold.

Kevin Sugg (left); KEXP CD archive (right)

What have you learned about the music business from your time with KEXP that you didn’t know as an artist?

JULIAN MARTLEW: 16+ years of watching bands come through has given me a unique perspective – I think I learned that you need a balance of artistic vision and paying attention to your audience.  In other words, be precious when you are writing and creating, and be flexible and attentive when you are performing and recording.

ALAIA D’ALESSANDRO: Filming so many in-studio performances, I’ve had my mind opened up about what a band can be, especially performance-wise. I love when bands bring visuals along, like floating points, or when there’s performance art that’s a little off, like in Casual Hex’s latest session. I’m so lucky that a lot of the time when a band comes through and I hear a sound I can just ask them about how they did it and observe their equipment on the spot. Dinho’s vocals on The Boogarins session really caught me and it was the first time I explored using delay, which I’ve ended up implementing fairly regularly on my guitar in Tres Leches. I’m affected by the sessions unconsciously in ways that are hard to express and maybe that’s because I don’t understand the full scope of their impact myself.

Do you feel that KEXP works especially hard to promote local musicians? If so, how?

ALAIA D’ALESSANDRO: The local show [Audioasis] being run by an amazing local musician, Eva Walker of The Black Tones, speaks volumes to how KEXP has local support covered. Martin and Dusty keep blog content up to date and go to shows to keep in touch with the newest acts. The events team constantly has local bands in for events, such as Concerts at the Mural and other events in the gathering space. The Mastering the Hustle series provides information to musicians on how to survive as an artist. KEXP sponsors events put together by local acts and I hear local music played throughout the day on all of the shows. I love it when I hear a friend on the radio like DoNormaal. We are all learning though! What makes KEXP really great is the input from the community, which continues to affect the shape that KEXP takes.

BRADY HARVEY: One of my favorite things about the station is the connection and support it gives to the Seattle music community. They not only lend support over the air, but also let listeners experience live shows in the Gathering Space, and book shows at venues all over town. With radio shows like Audioasis, they’re bringing little known local bands to the masses. There are very few stations left that play smaller, independent bands these days.

Robert Dale (left); KEXP vinyl archive (right)

What artists have you learned about in your time with KEXP that have left a lasting impression?

BRADY HARVEY: Uh, too many? I’m finding new artists I enjoy ALL THE TIME. Some acts I’ve been really getting into in recent years are Courtney Barnett, Slowdive, POND, Thundercat… I’m also a total 80s freak and can definitely blame my newer obsessions with Gary Numan, Love and Rockets, and the first Ministry record on the station. Without KEXP, I’d probably still be listening to all the same records I was obsessed with in college and I’d be “that guy.” I’m so happy I’m not gonna end up like “that guy,” stuck in a musical listening rut for the rest of my life, and talking about that one time I saw so and so live when I was 22.

KEVIN SUGGS: To many to name. I am often asked what my favorite session was and I really can’t single out just one. I do know that some of the most enjoyable sessions for me have been from bands that I was not familiar with before they came in. It happens a lot. Some band that I have never heard of comes in and blows me away.

ROBERT DALE: Oh so many, Mitski, Car Seat Headrest, on and on.

ALAIA D’ALESSANDRO: Jo Passed, Kamasi Washington, Perfume Genius, Los Blenders, Floating Points and The Boogarins.

JULIAN MARTLEW: Too many! Favorites are John Doe, Antibalas, Sharon Jones, Christine and the Queens, Lucy Dacus. That list is ever changing and growing.

OC NOTES: Sick Sad World, tons of artists on Positive Vibrations & Chilli’s show. I stay on the playlist discovering artists.

Shame (left); Christine and the Queens (right)

Is there a standout experience you can describe from your time working with the station?

ROBERT DALE: I’m amazed at how much the people at KEXP genuinely care about each other and the listeners, and are enthusiastic about the work we do here; that’s a rarity in any workplace. It feels like a big family.

BRADY HARVEY: Photographing the in-studios is a once in a lifetime experience. There are only a few folks allowed in the live room to film each performance and it makes them feel extremely intimate. A few weeks back I got to do the Ty Segall & White Fence in-studio and it’s a little otherworldly to get that close to musicians whose work you admire. Musicians whose influence will still be around for decades to come. I’m so thankful they give opportunities like that to their volunteers. It’s humbling that they believe in your work and know you can take on the challenge of capturing moments like those.

ALAIA D’ALESSANDRO: I always wanted to live a life surrounded by and deeply involved in a community full of music. When my mom and dad would tell me stories about the times in New York that they would go to The Mud Club and there would be these amazing artists… I mean every person there was an artist, especially the people in the audience! At the performances, there’d be all kinds of weird things going on while the band played and I was so jealous of all the great bands that they saw and all the experiences they had. Their stories inspired me to find an arts community of my own. Working at KEXP has brought me closer to that feeling of living artistically, especially when my work overlaps with the communities my bands are a part of. I love when I see artists like DoNormaal or Guayaba playing an event or in-studio at KEXP or that someone has written an exclusive interview with a friend of mine. It’s incredible when I get to work with people who inspire me. I flipped out when Gabriel Teodros was hired at KEXP – I was a big fan of him ever since I saw him performing with Bocafloja at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center back in 2013 about a month before I started my first internship at KEXP. His art was an early example of a local musician who had the talent of combining intentionality with music to uplift the community. Another inspiring person that I get to work with is Eva Walker. We were friends before she joined KEXP and to work with her on Audioasis is a dream come true. The people at KEXP give me a lot of positive energy and I am so grateful for the life that I have.

KEVIN SUGGS: The early days doing out of town remotes. There was no crew – just me to make most of it happen.  We’ve come a long way since then. It’s fun to think back on the humble beginnings.

OC NOTES: I don’t have a particular stand out experience.  Everything is still crazy right now… I’m still amazed that I’m there and every moment I’m there I feel like a kid at a candy store. I’m livin’ my dream.

EVA WALKER: Two actually. Before my first show, Cheryl Waters told me about how on her first show 20 years ago, she had 2 minutes of dead air and Don ran in and hit the button that got the show running again! She then ended with “so if you mess up on your first show, make sure it’s a good one so you have a good story later!” *laughs*.

JULIAN MARTLEW: Perhaps the “peak experience” – I mixed the live broadcast performance of Mudhoney playing on top of the Space Needle. I’m still grinning years later!

KEXP live room (left): DJ Troy Nelson in the booth (right)

What do you love about KEXP, or what do you feel makes the station most unique?

KEVIN SUGGS: Our championing of the little guys. If it wasn’t for KEXP, some bands might never get heard. Musicians really are lucky to have a place like KEXP that will actually listen to them and give them airtime if they like it.  The programming team is amazing. The way they are able to move with what’s going on in the world and create a soundtrack for it… I know people really respond to that.

OC NOTES: I love the feedback I’ve gotten from listeners around the world & being directly connected to a world of listeners. I love knowing that someone is always listening. I also love the entire staff.  Everyone is so nice and the family vibe is a comforting and rewarding surprise that I didn’t expect.

JULIAN MARTLEW: Most of all I love the community that is built around this station.  I can find a bumper sticker in almost any city and know I can say hi to someone and have something to talk about.  I love the interaction with local bands and record labels that is pretty much conversational. I love the Music Heals series – heavy stuff, emotional, but also cathartic and impactful on real people’s lives. And of course, there’s the music…always the music.

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