Census seeks better evidence of music’s economic impact in Alaska

Ukulele players strum for ship visitors in Sitka on a sunny September day. (Meredith Reddick/KCAW)

In cities like Austin, Nashville and Seattle, music is a major driver of the economy. Alaska isn’t a music destination like those places — but a group of independent musicians wants to change that. They launched Alaska’s first music survey in an effort to obtain the first real data on the impact of music on the state’s economy. They hope it will spark a new conversation about how best to support the state’s vibrant music scene.

Most days during the summer tourist season, John Ingman plays the Uillien bagpipes on Lincoln Street in Sitka on his lunch break next to a life-size teddy bear. Some days he makes about $35 an hour, other days not so much. Ingman, who works full-time at the University of Alaska-Southeast, doesn’t do it for the money.

„It’s my first chance to play in front of people, and that’s what drives me to play,” Ingman said. „Just trying to get comfortable playing in front of people again.”

Ingman makes music in Alaska, but his contributions to economics are few. According to the Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative (AKIMI), which organized this year’s music census. Marion Call is a Juneau-based singer-songwriter and the program director of AKIMI. He says traditional metrics don’t accurately capture the economic contribution of Alaska’s music scene — and without that information, musicians aren’t getting the resources they deserve.

„When musicians work, often the only way the work is measured economically is through the profits of other industries,” Call said. „So when musicians fill a bar at night, it looks like bars and restaurants are making money. When musicians play at a wedding reception, which can be the most expensive item in a wedding reception, it still looks like the wedding industry.

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John Ingman plays the Willian bagpipes on Lincoln Street in Sitka. (Meredith Reddick/KCAW)

A full-time musician since 2007, Cal asked how he could make the Alaska music industry more visible. Mira McLoughlin, executive director of Music Portland, had a simple answer.

„We need data,” McLoughlin said.

McLaughlin, who helped compile Oregon’s first music survey in 2022, says having data on how many people are involved in music and how much money they make makes it easier for policymakers to support the industry. He worked with Cal to design Alaska’s first music survey.

„Music is like Jell-O, you know,” McLaughlin said. „It’s out there, it’s great, and we love it. But loving music is different than supporting music, and you don’t give policymakers the ability to support music if you don’t have the data to quantify what it is.”

While Oregon’s census focused on commercial music, Cal wanted Alaska’s version to include full-time performers, part-time musicians and even those who play for fun.

The Alaska Census begins in July and runs through September 2. The online survey asked musicians how often they play and how much money they make from music. The call says it received more than 1,500 responses, including many from far-flung communities.

„The biggest surprise was the overwhelmingly positive response,” Call said. „I think I was prepared for some skepticism or cynicism, but people really appreciate and understand what we’re doing.”

Call hopes the final data, which is still being analyzed, will help policymakers understand why and how to support Alaska music — such as offering small grants to musicians to tour the Alaska Airlines „Milk Run” route in Southeast Alaska. Big festivals have lounges or install sound systems in a rural school that doubles as a music center.

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The full data analysis will be released in January at the Alaska Music Summit, a statewide gathering of musicians and community advocates.

Meanwhile, Alaskans like Jody Hassell, a punk rock musician from Fairbanks, will continue to perform. Hassel works as an educator and yoga teacher, but her band “Three Chord Ho!” playing with She brings joy like no other.

„There’s a moment, a present intimacy, that I get in playing music that I don’t have in my artistry, my teaching or any other area of ​​my life,” Hassell said.

Hassell says he would like to be a full-time musician if he is financially stable. She hopes the Alaska Music Census will help chart a path to get her there.

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