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

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

In cities like Austin, Nashville and Seattle, music is a key 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 census in an effort to get the first real data on the impact of music on the state’s economy. They hope it sparks a new conversation on how best to support the state’s vibrant music scene.

Most days during the summer tourist season, John Ingman spends his lunch breaks playing the Uilleann bagpipes next to a life-sized plush bear on Lincoln Street in Sitka. Some days he makes around $35 an hour, and other days not so much. Ingman, who works full-time at University of Alaska-Southeast, isn’t doing it for the money.

“This is kind of the first chance I’ve had to really play in front of people, and that’s really the driving force behind me playing,” Ingman said. “Just trying to get comfortable playing in front of people again.”

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

“When musicians do work, very often, the only way that work is measured economically is through the profits of other industries,” Call said. “So when musicians fill a bar for the night, that looks like bars and restaurants made money. When musicians play at a wedding reception and are maybe even the most expensive item at the wedding reception, that still looks like the wedding sector.”

a musician
John Ingman plays the Uilleann bagpipes on Sitka’s Lincoln Street. (Meredith Redick/KCAW)

Call, who has worked full-time as a musician since 2007, asked how to make the Alaska music industry more visible. Meara McLoughlin, the executive director of MusicPortland, gave her a simple answer.

“We need data,” McLoughlin said.

McLoughlin, who helped spearhead Oregon’s first music census in 2022, says that having data about how many people are involved in music, and how much money they’re earning, makes it easier for policymakers to support the industry. She worked with Call to design Alaska’s first music census.  

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

While the Oregon census focused on commercial music, Call wanted Alaska’s version to include full-time artists, as well as part-time musicians and even people who just play for fun. 

The Alaska census opened in July and ran through Sept. 2. The online survey asked musicians how often they play, and how much money they make from music. Call says they received over 1,500 responses, including many from remote communities. 

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

Call hopes that the final data, which is still being analyzed, will help policymakers understand why and how to support Alaska music — whether that means providing small grants for musicians to tour along the Alaska Airlines “milk run” route in Southeast Alaska, making sure that large festivals have functioning restrooms, or installing sound systems in a rural school that doubles as a music center. 

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

In the meantime, Alaskans like Jody Hassel, a punk rock musician from Fairbanks, will keep making music. Hassel works as an educator and yoga teacher, but playing with her band “Three Chord Ho!” brings her joy she doesn’t find elsewhere. 

“There’s just an in-the-moment, present intimacy that doesn’t exist in any other realm of my artistry, my teaching, or my life that that I get in playing music,” Hassel said. 

Hassel says she would love to be a full-time musician, if it were financially sustainable. She’s hopeful the Alaska Music Census might help chart a path to get her there. 

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