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SEA Airport Music Program Strikes a Chord with Travelers

April 13, 2023

Performing in the hustle and bustle of a busy airport is a unique experience for most musicians. At first it may appear that no one is paying attention to their sweet or soothing beats. Airports can bring sensory overload for travelers juggling several things at once. But in the midst of the chaos, many travelers find a slice of happiness as they stop to listen to sounds played by some of the top PNW artists.

“Over time the musicians learn that people are in fact paying attention. Travelers walk over to them and spill their guts on how much they enjoyed them, how they made them laugh and cry,” said Ed Beeson, Founder and CEO of Gigs4U, which partners with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to present the airport music program.

These interactions with travelers from all over the world is part of what makes performing at the airport so special for both musicians and travelers. In one case, Gretchen Yanover, a celloist and composer, was performing at SEA Airport when a young couple and their three-year-old son stopped to watch. Their son was fascinated by Yanover’s performance and didn’t want to leave when the family had to catch their flight. Before leaving, they bought a record from Yanover, which had her contact info included on the case. Several years later Yanover received an email from the couple that included a photo of their son, now five or six years old, playing the cello. They wrote that he still listened to her CD almost every day.

This March, SEA celebrated a decade of its live music program which brings the best of Seattle’s music scene to the front door of the Pacific Northwest. Since 2013, more than 200 Pacific Northwest performers played over 28,700 hours of live music in concourses around the airport. Live music is also back to its pre-pandemic schedule of seven days a week throughout the airport.

Groovy beginningsdecorative

The live music program played its first notes at SEA Airport in 2013 as part of a citywide effort to showcase the diversity of the music culture in the Northwest and create a calming and joyful environment. They started with an overhead music program to highlight local artists, filling the airport with the beat of the city.

Ed Beeson has produced live music events throughout the Northwest for over 35 years. In 2013 he began a partnership with the airport to launch a 12-week pilot music program, starting with just 10 musicians. Due to its instant popularity, by 2014 it had become a permanent program. As a result, Beeson formed Gigs4U which he now runs with his wife Ramona. Gigs4U has since expanded to provide gigs for the Northwest’s top performers through the Downtown Seattle Association, the City of Seattle’s Busker Programs, Friends of Waterfront Seattle, Seafair, corporate events, and many other places. Gigs4U’s scheduling system and a roster of the best musicians in the city has helped them easily expand into other venues throughout the city.

Keeping the beat

From the beginning, Gigs4U and SEA had the goal to bring musicians representing a variety of music genres, ethnicity, and age groups to the airport. It gave local musicians a reliable income stream during daytime hours, a time there aren’t traditionally many performance opportunities. Musicians tend to make most of their money in the evenings playing gigs and teaching lessons. Daytime performances at the airport on a regular basis often provide enough additional income that they don't have to get a second job. Performers are compensated $108 per two-hour performance and are encouraged to sell their artist merchandise and CDs for travelers to purchase.

High notesdecorative

As a result of the airport music program, many musicians have found new opportunities and had impactful interactions with world famous musicians.

Here are some highlights:

  • A handful of airport musicians are now living and performing full time in major music cities — Nashville, Los Angeles, and Austin
  • The youngest musician to participate in the program, Nolan Garrett, started at 15. He landed a full scholarship to the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, a music school that Paul McCartney founded, which included a one-on-one interview with McCartney
  • Champagne Sunday began performing at the airport after moving to Tacoma from California and were rebranding. They were very successful at the airport and in the Tacoma music scene, and have become so successful they no longer have time to play the airport
  • Stevie Wonder introduced himself to Sara Christine and told her "she had a beautiful voice"
  • Tekla Waterfield was hired to perform and act in a Hollywood movie
  • Geoffrey Castle was hired to perform in China
  • Eddie Vedder tipped Jason Kertson $100 and some guitar picks
  • Dave Matthews has often tipped artists well and posed for selfies
  • Jeff Goldblum asked Whitney Lyman to "sit-in" with him at his standing gig in Hollywood
  • Seal sat in with Fleur Wood and Dave Grohl stopped by to say hello

Drop the mic

Here are a few standout moments over the last few years of the program: 

  • In 2019, Washington State native soul and R&B singer Allen Stone performed a live concert on stage at the Central Terminal as part of the SEA  Airport’s expanding music program. Read an interview with Allen Stone
  • To support musicians who could not perform live during the pandemic, SEA participated in the JetStream Music Festival in 2020, an online celebration by 23 North American airports featuring local musicians. Watch the livestream
  • In 2021, with live music at the airport still on a pandemic pause, SEA launched a digital music wall in the C Concourse — a 12x7 feet LED screen that played a two-hour program highlighting over 30 musicians who performed live at the airport
  • SEA continues to grow its music program, recently adding three permanent performance spaces in Central Terminal, Concourse A, and a marquee performance stage in the N Concourse

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