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 started 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 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 spends his lunch breaks playing the Uilleann bagpipes next to a life-sized teddy bear on Lincoln Street in Sitka. 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.
“This is the first chance I’ve had to really play in front of people, and it’s really been the driving force behind my game,” Ingman said. “I’m just trying to get comfortable playing in front of people again.”
Ingman makes music in Alaska, but his contribution to the economy is underestimated. That’s according to the Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative (AKIMI), which is organizing a music census this year. Marian Kahl is a Juneau-based singer-songwriter and program director of AKIMI. She 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, very often the only way the work is measured economically is through the profits of other industries,” Kahl said. “So when musicians fill a bar for the night, it looks like the bars and restaurants have made money. When musicians play at a wedding party and are perhaps even the most expensive item in the wedding party, it still looks like a wedding sector.
Cal, who has been working full-time as a musician since 2007, asked how to make Alaska’s music industry more visible. Meara McLoughlin, executive director of MusicPortland, gave her a simple answer.
“We need data,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin, who helped spearhead Oregon’s first music census 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. She worked with Call to create the first music census in Alaska.
“Music is a bit like spoiled jelly, you know,” McLaughlin said. “It’s there, it’s great, we love it. But loving music is different from supporting it, and you don’t allow politicians to support it if you don’t have the data to quantify what it is.”
While the Oregon census focused on commercial music, Cal wanted the Alaska version to include full-time performers as well as part-time musicians and even people who just play for fun.
The census in Alaska began in July and continued until September 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,” Kahl said. “I think I was prepared for some skepticism or cynicism, but people seemed to really appreciate and understand what we were doing.”
Call hopes the final data, which is still being analyzed, will help policymakers understand why and how to support Alaskan music — whether that means giving small grants to musicians to tour on Alaska Airlines’ milk run route ‘ in Southeast Alaska, ensuring major festivals have functioning restrooms or installing sound systems in a rural school that doubles as a music center.
The full analysis of the data will be released in January at the Alaska Music Summit, a statewide gathering of musicians and community supporters.
Meanwhile, Alaskans like Jody Hassell, a punk rock musician from Fairbanks, will continue to make music. Hassel works as an educator and yoga teacher, but playing with his band “Three Chord Ho!” it brings her a joy she doesn’t find anywhere else.
“There’s just a momentary, present intimacy that doesn’t exist in any other area of my art or my teaching or my life that I get when I play music,” Hassell said.
Hassell says she would like to be a full-time musician if it were financially sustainable. She hopes that the Alaska Music Census can help her chart the path that will lead her there.