The Creative Economy Defined: Seattle Office of Economic Development Quantifies the Emerald City’s Prominent Creative Sector

Published on Aug 6, 2019

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

The Creative Economy Defined: Seattle Office of Economic Development Quantifies the Emerald City’s Prominent Creative Sector

Seattle is a powerhouse for innovation and creativity, and it’s got the reputation and icons to show for it. Jimmy Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos—these are just a few of the creative and business giants whose work is tied to the Emerald City in some way.

Today, tourists from around the world come to Seattle for its cultural and creative experience, which is rooted in its growing economy.

The Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) for the first time defined and quantified the city’s creative economy in a report entitled “There’s Something About Seattle: 2019 Creative Economy Report.”

OED, in conjunction with Seattle’s Office of Film & Music and Office of Arts & Culture, undertook the study not just to understand the city’s creative sector but also to inspire action from policymakers, creative advocacy organizations, creative workers, employers, and consumers of creative works.

As the authors note, “At a time of extraordinary change in our city—as the public debates the merits of our tech boom, as many worry about affordability for creative workers, and as we seek to prepare our workforce for the economy of the future—it is more important than ever that we deeply understand creative workers’ contributions to our community as well as the difficult challenges they face. This report is a major step toward building that understanding.”

Defining Creative Industries and Occupations

Image created by Wynn Barnard, City of Seattle Office of Economic Development

Defining and measuring the output of the creative economy is no easy task. Richard Florida popularized research of what he coined the creative class, a broad set of occupations that includes all knowledge workers, including healthcare, business, and legal occupations.

Seattle’s researchers, led by John Crawford-Gallagher, defined creative occupations more narrowly than Florida—but their definition was still more expansive than traditional arts occupations. They started with a list of occupations from the Creative Vitality Suite, a data suite created by the Western Arts Federation that relies in part on Emsi data. They then narrowed the CV Suited occupations while also including tech occupations.

Should people in tech occupations like software developers be considered creative workers? OED said yes because it didn’t want to miss out on the immense creative capacity it takes to design and develop computer programs. “Their medium may not be a stage, canvas, or movie screen,” the report says, “but it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that occupations that design and produce what are essentially audio/visual products are drastically different from the occupations included in the Arts, Design, Entertainment and Media job family.”

Key Findings

The creative industry has made Seattle a lot of what it is today, but how well is it performing in Seattle? Using Emsi data, OED found that growth in creative occupations (23%) outpaced overall job growth (15%) from 2012 to 2017 and accounts for 67,350 jobs. In addition, the creative industry has a major economic impact on Seattle: It contributes 18% of Seattle’s gross regional product compared to 4% of the U.S gross domestic product. And every time the city adds a new creative industry job, two additional jobs in other industries are added to the local economy (the jobs multiplier is 3.16, per Emsi’s input-output model).

Image created by Wynn Barnard, City of Seattle Office of Economic Development

This growth and impact haven’t led to major prosperity for all creatives in Seattle, however. The city has the lowest cost-of-living adjusted earnings in arts, design, entertainment and media-related occupations among 53 metros with at least one million people ($11.87 per hour). Contrast that to computer-related workers, whose median hourly wages are $48.88—more in Seattle any other major city (again on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis).

Across other creative job families, the wage picture is mixed in Seattle. The metro has the lowest median wages for business and financial workers … and the highest wages for construction and extraction workers.

The authors also used location quotient (LQ) analysis to show which occupations make up a larger or smaller share of jobs in Seattle compared to the total jobs in the U.S. From 2012 to 2017, all creative occupations in the computer job family increased their LQ while most arts, design, entertainment and media occupations saw a decline in concentration even while their job numbers increased. This means traditional creative occupations—artists, designers, actors—are becoming a smaller part of the Seattle economy over time. They’re growing, but not as fast as tech occupations.

Meanwhile, the study showed people of color and women face barriers in entering creative occupations. In some of the largest creative occupations, populations like females, Asian, and Hispanic or Latinos are underrepresented. Female workers are underrepresented in seven of the 10 largest creative occupations, Asian workers are underrepresented in five of the 10, and Hispanic or Latino workers are underrepresented in 8 of the 10. The authors cited 2017 Creative Vitality Suite research that shows decreasing barriers and increasing diversity in the workforce drives more creative and profitable income.

With these barriers in mind, jobseekers and students need to know what it takes to get into creative jobs. The authors used Emsi job postings data to show that while computer occupations require different technical skills than arts and design occupations, many employers are asking for the same common skills from both groups of workers.

What’s Next?

This detailed report is meant to inform future policy changes for the city and research for Seattle’s Office of Film & Music, Office of Economic Development, and Office of Arts & Culture. The authors outlined five focal areas for further action:

1. The future of work: With the risk of automation and the rise of nontraditional means of obtaining income, the city is focusing preparing youth to build transferable skills and competencies like empathy, entrepreneurship, and, yes, creativity.
2. Prioritize skills and competency-based education and workforce development: The focus has shifted from STEM to STEAM, which adds arts to the traditional emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math. Seattle is also investing in “programs and organizations that provide career-connected learning opportunities for students, youth, and teachers that range from career exposure, awareness and exploration activities to more intensive earn-and-learn models. This includes leveraging current partnerships, such as our relationship with the Creative Advantage, to bring more arts education into classrooms with a focus on building the skills and competencies needed for youth to be competitive in the changing economy.”
3. Further research on creative economy and barriers to entry: OED is joining forces with the Office of Arts & Culture to do more research to understand the experiences of creatives and more clearly understand the barriers to enter creative jobs by race, gender, and class.
4. Understand and communicate the connections between arts and computer occupations: The authors want to see where creativity shows up across occupations, and where gaming and virtual reality should be categorized in the occupational coding system. “Understanding how creative skills and competencies align to form a career pathway can help students and workers reach high-paying occupations.”
5. Collect more data: This first report on Seattle’s creative economy provides a baseline for action. The city wants to track year-over-year changes in creative jobs, wages, and demographics as well as monitor the shift in in-demand skills for creative workers and the economic impact of creative industries. “Continuing to collect and monitor trends will help us understand whether our efforts to increase equity and opportunity are having desired effects.”

Download the full study. And for more information on Emsi, the primary data source used by the authors of the report, contact Josh Wright at