By Tanya Silverman
Seattle’s Tacocat playing at Make.Shift’s music venue. Photo courtesy of Kevin Lowdon.
In the far west and the far north of the United States is Bellingham, “the unsung little music community north of Seattle that is incredibly vibrant” for its size. At least that’s how Cat Sieh sees the small Washington city.
Sieh has an intimate understanding of Bellingham’s culture not only because she lives there, but because she’s the co-founder of Make.Shift, the local nonprofit DIY spot that’s dedicated to alternative, innovative, and unusual art and music.
Inside Make.Shift’s 8,000 square feet, there’s an art gallery and a live all-ages music venue, not to mention over a dozen studios for resident artists and musicians to explore their creativity. Some businesses, like a Documentary Center and Mellis Photo, also operate in its facilities.
On a typical day at Make.Shift, artists stay busy working in the studios while customers stop by the onsite drum or guitar repairs shops–all on the same level where the administration keeps things in order. When the clock hits 5 pm, bands start practicing in the lower level, where they can play until midnight.
Sieh describes the evening’s auditory ambiance excitedly: “You can have one, two, or three bands practicing at the same time in the basement. It feels really alive and really different than it does during the day.”
Make.Shift’s mission of musical perseverance is now set to stretch into a new hemisphere: the airwaves. Earlier this year, the Bellingham organization received FCC permission to install a low-power FM community radio station. Common Frequency, which Sieh describes as a “nationwide nonprofit that advocates for small communities getting their own station,” assisted Make.Shift with the application process.
Sieh and other community members are currently busy putting together the backend administrative and infrastructural work for the radio station, as well as organizing the fundraising campaign.
“We’re looking at raising roughly $20,000 to get the station off the ground,” explains Sieh, “and that’s almost exclusively equipment, including the transmitter, the antennae, rent for antennae space, and all the studio [tools].”
In October, community members gathered to consider the types of programming to feature. Sieh says that in addition to featuring DJ sets and talk programs, some prospects include live broadcasting of Make.Shift’s all-ages shows or re-broadcasting of other house shows from around Bellingham.
The radio project’s organizers are also interested in providing a media voice to local under-represented parties, for instance, the LGBT community. Reaching out to members of Bellingham’s Russian population and perhaps offering Spanish lessons were also ideas they discussed at the meeting.
“Everything is on the board right now, we’re not committed to a certain type of programming,” describes Sieh. “We’re very open to brainstorming and ideas from the community because it’s still so early on.”
Until the station launches, there are plenty of musical endeavors active at Make.Shift. For one, there’s the Bellingham Music Library that resident expert Eric Holl continuously compiles.
“It’s been a lot of fun hearing so many things I never knew existed in my community,” Holl tells BTR.
The burgeoning Pacific Northwest music library currently consists of 668 artists and 1,294 songs–figures that Holl confirms by checking his database during the interview. To cultivate the chronicles, Holl filters through LPs, master tapes, cassettes, or sound board recordings of concerts to research which 60s garage bands, 70s Christian folk acts, or early 2000s indie demos to feature.
What are some recent acquisitions?
“I found another album by a local band called Motherlode, which basically consists of four mothers who wrote and played songs together,” describes Holl, “plus another album from a band from the late ‘80s called The Ducks.”
Sieh says that the people present in the Make.Shift gallery play selections from the Bellingham Music Library through an iPad on a daily basis. The touch screen technology allows any present listeners to pick whatever available song they desire.
In terms of live music, the all-ages shows take place at Make.Shift about four or five nights a month. The concert space usually fills up with a high school crowd if a fellow classmate is onstage, whereas more college students tend to come by if there’s a hip-hop act.
Monthly, the folks at Make.Shift put on a gallery opening as part of Bellingham’s Art Walk event. Sieh says that these openings attract hundreds of visitors, including parents “with their small children”, high school students, as well as “people at Make.Shift who are coming to see the artwork,” plus older art collectors.
Given the mix of happenings that take place within Make.Shift’s physical space, perhaps transferring its creative DIY essence to the FM frequency is the perfect next step.
“I’m very excited about this radio project because it just fits in so well with all these other art and music related projects that we have going on,” says Sieh. “It gives people a new way to get involved at Make.Shift as well.”