Tacoma’s Musical Saving Grace

As the lights begin to dim, everyone makes their way toward the stage. Matt Baloogz and DJ Dodo silence their turntables as Ralph Dozer’s DJ begins his set. Alex Schelhammer, the show organizer, is moving quickly through the crowd. Not to check ticket sales, not to check product placement, and not to check profit margins. He’s making sure everyone is having a great time. His smile proves he’s there not for the money; he’s there for the music, the musicians, and the venue: Real Art Tacoma.

Real Art is looking to revive a once vibrant music community in Tacoma by opening an all-ages venue; the only one of its kind in the city. An area once known for its constant flow of music both in and out, Tacoma has suffered what many other smaller venues suffer in the music industry. When even the smaller bands need to maximize profit, the drive to play smaller venues drops substantially. Couple that with a music industry that is moving more towards streaming and less towards record sales, and smaller cities like Tacoma become forgotten. Katy Evans’ article “Rock in a hard place: Tacoma’s struggling independent music scenes” from the Post Defiance sums it up perfectly: “This change marginalizes—penalizes, really—areas that can’t guarantee predictable profits.”

Real Art Tacoma is looking to turn that trend around, however, by creating a music venue that not only caters to the artists, but also caters to the one demographic capable of revitalizing the music scene in the city: the young Tacoma artists.

“For me, the most fulfilling aspect of being a part of Real [Art] is my chance to help the next generation. My mission is to change the world for the better, and I see Real Art and Thunderdome as a vehicle for positive chance in Tacoma,” says Schelhammer.

Real Art, located on South Tacoma Way, is the perfect place to plant a music venue aiming to rejuvenate a city. Many of the surrounding buildings are closed down, but Real Art’s renovation feels like new life in an older, more forgotten part of Tacoma. The crowds hanging out in front of Real Art also create a buzz in the area, as patrons, young and old, hang out and talk life, music, or business.

One of Tacoma’s biggest hurdles historically has been opening an all ages venue… and keeping it open. Until Real Art opened their doors last October, Tacoma lacked a stable venue that allowed anyone below the drinking age to attend. Kate Jaeger, who’s lived in both Seattle and Tacoma, said the scene here always struggled with booking all-ages shows.

“I wished I had that opportunity when I was young in that they’re kids and they want to be in music,” says Jaeger.

To further the issue, Tacoma continued to lose its reliability—and its connections—with venues. Since the early ‘90s, many of the music connections here in Tacoma moved on, leaving a generational void in the city’s musical youth. Ryan Daley, a member of the Tacoma-born band Random Orbits, says he’d love to play Tacoma, but finds it easier to go up and play in Seattle. “It just has a lack of contacts,” says Daley.

PHOTO BY “KAVIER” LUT YIN LO

Evans has also been around the music scene in Tacoma for most her life, and actually witnessed the decline firsthand:

“I grew up going to shows in the late nineties in South King County and Seattle, venturing into Tacoma for the occasional house show or all ages show that booked in a random, here today-gone tomorrow venue. Throughout the early 2000s, Olympia and Seattle were way more reliable when it came to seeing shows regularly than Tacoma. Tacoma has not found a way to embrace any indie music and its subcultures, particularly where that subculture intersects with youth.”

Luckily for the Tacoma music scene, Real Art has set its sights on rectifying that issue.

“I’ve always noticed that Tacoma lacks a hierarchy in music; it seems most brands or people move on and then the city doesn’t have an older generation to teach and be the example to the new upcoming musicians,” says Schelhammer. “I would say the best way to fix that is to have a venue that promotes music and musicians. We try to provide a safe environment for kids to see shows and in turn be inspired to start their own bands.”

Real Art has two significant advantages over its predecessors. First, the creators of Real Art have always been dedicated to the music scene here in Tacoma. As opposed to building a venue that focuses on profit, Real Art focuses on the musicians and the community. Even the building itself was updated and renovated by community volunteers. “We have a whole team of people that help out; it’s a community thing,” says Schelhammer.

The other significant advantage for Real Art is that the original five that signed the lease for the venue have roots here in Tacoma. Alex Schelhammer, Tom Long, Josh Brumley, Brian Skiffington, and Phil Peterson have either played in bands or groups here in Tacoma or are connected to the local community in one way or another. Schelhammer and Long operate Thunderdome, Real Art’s clothing store, and Schelhammer also used to be in a local hip-hop group. Long operates his local clothing line, Electric Sex, out of Thunderdome. Josh Brumley has co-owned a couple venues, and is currently working to pass the Washington State bar exam. Phil Peterson has a history of working with all-age venues in the area, and Brian Skiffington has been a show promoter in Tacoma for many years.

Real Art’s coming of age story may truly be amazing, but it’s their events and shows that are really spectacular. Real Art does everything it can to support the local community outside of music, and their Beyond Thunderdome event is the perfect example. Beyond Thunderdome is an event held periodically where local clothing lines and artists get to set up shop in Real Art and showcase their work. After the swap meet is complete, Thunderdome hosts a music show where the clothing vendors and artists can continue to sell product and enjoy the show. Walking into the Beyond Thunderdome swap meet instantly gives you a perspective on how much Real Art works to support the community. While talking to each vendor, you start to notice a trend: Real Art contacted them about the swap meet, not the other way around. Typically, trying to get spots at a local swap meet is met with a waitlist. At Real Art, however, the waitlist comes to you. Everyone there was invited to join— something you don’t normally see. Additionally, every venue was from the local area (or within 45 minutes). Some vendors knew Schelhammer and Long personally, others were sought out by the Thunderdome managers.

As you walk around the swap meet, you see how truly dedicated the vendors are to their work. Some of them have been making clothes for years now, while others were getting a chance to showcase their product for the first time. James and Mike from Creeps Clothing (Instagram @ Creepsnw) told me, “We just made our first sale.”

PHOTO BY “KAVIER” LUT YIN LO

One really creative aspect of Real Art’s swap meet is it’s not just clothing. Mara (Instagram @MaraOhara), a local artist, brought tons of artwork for display. Amanda (Instagram @ The_Nerdy_Girl_Crafter), makes artwork, buttons, and magnets centered around video games, TV shows, and comics.

After the swap meet completes, all the vendors move their tables to make room for the show. Beyond Thunderdome nights are different, because alcohol is allowed in the Thunderdome store (only 21 and over can get into Thunderdome, and the alcohol has to stay in the store). Sluggo Brewing donates—not sells—a couple kegs for the event, and beers are free with any donation or purchase at the store.

As the crowd begins to grow, the crowd gives off a vibe almost like a family reunion. After getting into some conversations with the crowd, it becomes very apparent this group really is a family. “A lot of us hang outside the venue and try to support each other, and a lot of people at the event are musicians or artists themselves,” says Schelhammer.

A truly great feature about Real Art is the shows they book. This venue steers clear from the cover band scene. In fact, they welcome pretty much every other type of music in their venue. On the night of Beyond Thunderdome, it’s hip-hop night.

Anyone that has never seen a hiphop show live should definitely attend one at Real Art. The venue isn’t the biggest (it holds about 400 people), but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in sound quality. Nearly every musician attested to the quality of the acoustics.

Real Art also does a great job at booking quality shows. Ralph Dozer, the first act on for the evening, hails from Seattle and is a big up-and comer in the Pacific Northwest music scene. Sleepsteady’s video, Fight Kicks, was featured by Seattle magazine, and two of their tracks appear on the recently released video game, EA Sports UFC 2. Ugly Frank, a former member of the group ILLFIGHTYOU, has his own album up on hotnewhiphop.com, and Peasant Boys just released a new album.

When the show begins, you immediately get a sense of what Real Art is trying to accomplish. You see it in the musicians on stage, putting their hearts into each song. You see it the look of the crowd, charging up between each set. You see it in the fans, singing the lyrics with the artists as they perform. As each song is played, more and more crowd members get in on the action. A once empty floor becomes a place where dancing, singing, and cheering consumes everyone. Even the wallflowers standing in the corner can’t help but give an occasional head bob.

It’s at this point you get what Real Art is aiming to accomplish. The venue almost feels like it’s coming to life, as if years of a dying music scene are suddenly pumped away with each beat. With each new track, with each new artist, and with each new crowd member, the forgotten Tacoma music scene receives a rush of young, vibrant energy.

Real Art may have history fighting against their cause, but they have many calculated tools to win the war. They have a vibrant fan base ready to put Tacoma back on the map, they have a venue primed to pull great artists, and they have an ownership dedicated to preserving a delicate music scene here in Tacoma. Each event at Real Art gives musicians, young and old, a chance to express themselves. “It gives a lot of hope for kids to get into the scene,” says Jaeger.

In the coming years, Real Art has a very significant uphill battle. With the help of the community and the help of the owners, Real Art can truly be what music fans in Tacoma have been searching for: a venue that allows them to play their music to a crowd ready to listen. Is there a way to measure success at Real Art? Keeping the doors open is a start, but when the owners want to see the venue succeed for others and not themselves, it’s easy to think this venue could actually break the cycle of the past.

PHOTO BY “KAVIER” LUT YIN LO

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