By Elana Pidgeon
For the Bellingham Business Journal
In the basement of a building on Flora Street, a band sets up on a low stage as people file down the stairs and into the dimly lit space. The singer taps the mic. Some of the crowd moves closer to the front; others hang back on the couches lining either side of the room. A sign at the entrance reads “No Drugs. No Booze. No Jerks.”
Make.Shift, a nonprofit in downtown Bellingham, started the venue as an outlet for all-ages shows. Now Make.Shift’s space at 306 Flora St. boasts an art gallery and studios available to rent by visual artists and musicians, in addition to the all-ages venue. They just received a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to start a low-power FM community radio station in Bellingham.
Make.Shift is always looking for new and creative ways to generate revenue, executive director Cat Sieh said. Finding those creative ways has helped the organization succeed at its mission of helping and fostering a community of emerging musicians and artists.
“The reason Make.Shift is successful and sustainable is because we worked really hard to diversify our income,” Sieh said. “If we tried to live off show income, we would not be here.”
This past year, Make.Shift’s income was 61 percent from public support – individual donations and business sponsorships – and 39 percent program income – merchandise sales, commission on art sales and studio rent income. They also hold annual fundraisers including Block Party in the summer and a haunted house in the fall.
Their newest venture, the community radio station will operate on 100 watts, meaning it will reach a radius of 3 to 7 miles. The Make.Shift staff wants it to be a “true community radio station,” where input is welcome, Sieh said.
Make.Shift held a community meeting Oct. 11 to get an idea of what people in the area wanted to see happen with the radio station. Sieh said about 25 people came to the meeting and lots of them were interested in seeing local news, radio theatre and serialized fiction, or wanting to know how they could DJ.
The staff has a lot to learn about radio, but they have a good idea of how other people have done it, she said. Their timeline for getting the station up-and-running depends on how interested the community is in seeing it happen.
Starting the radio station will cost between $10,000 and $20,000, which will pay for equipment such as a transmitter, an antenna and turntables, Sieh said. After that, they hope to fund ongoing operational costs with things including an annual fund drive, underwriting and private donations.
The staff of Make.Shift also hired a new executive director at the end of November: Jessica Harbert, a member of Make.Shift’s board of directors. Sieh, the current director, is moving on to spend more time working on her 10-acre homestead north of town, she said. Harbert will train with her over December and take over by the end of January.
“What the organization needs is somebody who isn’t just going to do a good job keeping the operation going,” Sieh said. “They need to also have vision and drive. We need someone who’s inspired.”
They were looking for someone who also sees the potential Make.Shift has for more things such as youth outreach and fundraising. Harbert will be a great fit because she’s so motivated and already knows the organization’s inner workings, Sieh said.
“She’s going to be a great person to jump in and hit the ground running,” Sieh said. “Jessica knows what we do really well and she wants to expand on those things.”
Harbert has been on Make.Shift’s board of directors for more than a year. She’s a journalism alumna from Western Washington University and has worked at marketing firm Fifthonsixth, managed Bayou on Bay and served on the board for the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.
“I’m so proud of what Make.Shift has accomplished since I helped found the organization in 2008,” Sieh said. “We’ve really shown the community the value of an all-ages art and music hub.”
Make.Shift began as a van-share. When gas prices soared in 2008, bands were losing money and couldn’t afford to go on tour anymore. The founders of Make.Shift, including Sieh, wanted to support musicians and lighten the environmental impact, so they bought a van and let bands use it to go on tour for free. They operated out of peoples’ homes for almost three years.
They now have three paid staff members and hundreds of volunteers a year, Sieh said. Their focus changed naturally – from a free tour van to what they are now – based on what they thought artists and musicians in the area needed to succeed.
Make.Shift hosts about 60 all-ages shows and 12 visual art exhibitions every year. Their concert space fits more than 200 people, and they have to think outside the box about ways to survive financially because usually drink sales are essential for music venues’ income.
Make.Shift houses studios they rent out on monthly leases to bands and visual artists. Sieh said a lot of the bands renting studio space from them are the “louder genres,” including metal and punk bands, because they need a space to practice without getting in trouble with neighbors or a landlord about noise.
Initially Make.Shift wanted to create an all-ages space because there weren’t really any in Bellingham and they thought it was important for young people to have a safe place to hang out and get involved with local music, Sieh said.
But all-ages shows aren’t just for people under 21, Sieh said. Depending on the band playing, the audience can be high school students, college students, people over 21 who don’t like the bar scene or parents with little kids.
Make.Shift is trying to attract a varied audience. Sieh said. They hope to connect young people who want to get involved in music and art with people who already are.
“I think Bellingham is really unique; the community is different, and it seems more family-oriented. People are more willing to make more connections across different age groups than other places,” said Anne Lenau, after playing a show at Make.Shift last month.
There’s a blending of art and music at Make.Shift. Jess Flegel, the gallery director at Make.Shift, said people coming for a show might see the gallery and be inspired to start promoting their art, or parents who come for the gallery and wouldn’t seek out a rock show venue might realize their kids would want to volunteer with the music side of things.
Their gallery isn’t just about helping artists sell work, Sieh said. They help new artists with “all those things you don’t think about when you go in a gallery:” how to price work, how to hang it and so on.
“We give them the skills to go to the next gallery and feel confident,” Sieh said. “If you don’t have a place for experiential learning, how are you going to learn?”
Flegel said they aim for high standards of presentation in the gallery so artists are prepared when they go onto other shows.
“There’s something about seeing your work on a gallery wall that’s really exciting,” Flegel said. “Getting that momentum is important for artists.”