Seattle, San Diego, and Atlanta are turning to live music to bring cheer to travel.
When commanded to "go to their happy place," most people don't envision airport terminals. The lines at security check points alone are likely to strike fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned travelers. Just try standing behind someone who's yet to fully grasp the gthree ounces or less liquid rule, or can't figure out how to unlace their knee-high boots.
Attempting to revive the glory days of air travel, or at least help travelers grind their teeth a little less during the mad sprint to their gate, a clutch of airports, including San Diego International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport have turned to live music. Obviously the idea of musicians in the airport isn't a new one. Anyone who has flown into Austin, Texas during SXSW has been greeted by live music even before they smell their first Cinnabon. But all three locations view their year-around investment in live performance as serving several important functions.
"We see the art program as a customer service first and foremost," says Katherine Marbury. As the art program manager at Atlanta Airport she employees fifteen musicians who perform on a rotating schedule, seven days a week. "It's an opportunity to share Atlanta's culture with passengers," she explains. "For us, it's another way to enhance the experience for passengers. We think that our music provides a shakeup in the schedule. Gotta get here, gotta get there. It gives everybody a chance to relax for a second and distract from that agenda."
For Seattle-Tacoma, it was an extension of their continued support for the local artistic community. The airport's soundtrack is comprised exclusively of local musicians, and, if you listen closely, you can hear the likes of Macklemore, Ben Gibbard, and Heart's Ann Wilson making announcements over the loudspeaker. Adding live music three years ago, in the form of seventy soloists, felt like a no-brainer. Although, as Tami Kuiken, the airport's dining & retail program manager explains, at first it was tricky to maintain a functional flow and while creating a sense of discovery.
"We really didn't know exactly how we were going to spin this whole thing," she explains. "This airport wasn't designed to have any stages or anything like that. Basically I had to take this program and really try to figure out a way that we could put musicians in various pop-up locations where a traveler stumbles across them—almost to the point where, if you're familiar with the Seattle area, Pike's Place market and the buskers who perform there. So as you're walking by you're stumbling on these really cool great musicians who are playing to the people."
For those selected in the airport's pilot program, the benefits have been multi-fold—so much in fact, that Kuiken jokes they call it the "best gig in the city." Gretchen Yanover, a Seattle-based cellist who has performed as a busker, part of rock bands, and in orchestras agrees. She says that SeaTac's program has changed both her bank account (musicians are allowed to accept tips and sell merch in addition to receiving a paycheck) and her life.
"The airport is such a unique venue because I am touring the world without leaving Seattle," she notes. "All these people are coming across me that would normally not have any inclination toward my kind of music. Whatever kind of music it would be called. But people are open to hearing it because it's right there in front of them and they don't feel like 'Oh, it's cello! I need to be in a concert hall.' My music tends to create a space for people where they can slow down just a little bit and remember to breathe and take a pause and emotionally connect."
Emotional resonance is an idea that's brought up repeatedly—and it's the reason that all three locations say that they'd like to continue and expand their programs over the next few years.
"What you see is a lot of unexpected looks of happiness," says Chris Chalupsky, who oversees San Diego International Airport's artists in residence, Fern Street Circus, which had their first baggage claim area performance last month. "People coming down the escalator, getting ready to grab a suitcase, getting ready to grab a car, taking off from the airport, turn their heads to see clown," he says. "Nine times out of ten people are smiling people are really happy and responsive. Especially kids. We saw a lot of kids at the kick-off event. They were really overjoyed. It makes it easier on the traveler's parents to have situations like this."
Stories like this abound. Travelers slowing down, breathing, gleaning a bit of inspiration in an environment that usually encourages hustle. But as Yanover notes, the emotional benefits of airport music programs go both ways.
"Sometimes people will give me notes, which is really sweet," she says. "They'll put them in my box. They'll say something like, 'Thank you for your sea of calm.' Just the other day a woman came up to me who was moved my music. She was going to see her mom who was in hospice. And she started crying. I was there and we had a moment together...it gives me so much motivation to keep doing it and put out more albums."