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Bellingham’s West Sound Records brings local rock to waiting ears

Musician Kai Ross founded local record label at age 16

Drayton band members Eddie Stipkala, right, and Jed Johnson perform on Jan. 27 at Make.Shift Art Space in Bellingham. West Sound Records works with local bands such as Drayton. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)
By Jemma Alexander News Intern

Established in early 2022, West Sound Records is a Bellingham-based label with a straightforward slogan: “rock local.” The label works with up-and-coming local musicians ranging from Girls Know to Drayton, as well as founder Kai Ross’ own band, Smithers. 

At an impressively young 16 years, Ross began the record label on Orcas Island, then moved the project to Bellingham when he began taking classes at Western Washington University.  

Now, his focus is on booking shows for bands and spreading the word about live gigs. In May, Ross will put on the largest event yet: a three-day music festival featuring more than 40 artists called West Sound Fest.  

“I think there’s a really good balance between the people who want to see the shows and the amount of bands that are playing,” Ross said. 

Jed Johnson, 17-year-old singer and guitarist of Drayton, joined West Sound Records a few months ago. Ross distributes the band’s music, promotes their shows and creates merch for their fans.  

“He’s so up to date with anything that’s going on in the music scene. It’s very impressive. I knew that he’d be a good person in charge of getting stuff done,” Johnson said. 

West Sound Records will be releasing Drayton’s EP on Friday, March 1. 

Kai Ross, owner of West Sound Records, works in the Herald Building on Jan. 29 in Bellingham. Ross founded the record label when he was just 16 years old. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

Ross began his music journey at a young age, performing in choir for a few years in elementary school and, starting at age 10, playing the viola in orchestra up until college. He has been writing music since the age of 13, including hip-hop made on his phone and released on SoundCloud. 

In February 2020, Ross played Carnegie Hall in New York, the height of his classical music career. 

“COVID put a pause on classical music. And right about that same time, I picked up guitar,” Ross said.  

Ross immediately began leaning into the grunge/rock sound. His favorite bands are Sublime, and classic Seattle grunge names such as Nirvana and Alice in Chains. 

West Sound Records’ Instagram posts a list of shows happening every week. Their locations, times and whether they are age-restricted inform followers where they can go see live music any day of the week.  

“College students have something to do that’s not going out and drinking, and the bands can make a decent amount of money doing it,” Ross said. Performing a show can make a band more money than getting a thousand streams on Spotify, he said.

Drayton previews new music midway through their set at the January Make.Shift Art Space concert. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

They “get off the ground and get actual live playing experience,” Ross said. Large venues also welcome smaller bands. Ross attributes this to Bellingham’s vibrant DIY scene.  

“It creates a space for bands to experiment, play when they’re less experienced, and work through everything in a low-stakes, low-risk environment,” he said.   

Johnson has noticed the music scene has developed a dedicated following, the same faces showing up at concerts. That encourages performers to be exactly who they are, Ross said — you can’t pretend on stage when people know you off it. 

“The people you’ll see at shows on stage are people that you see in your everyday life,” Ross said.  

Forrest Templin, owner of Modern Holistic Marketing Solutions and a personal and professional friend of Ross, has seen the record label gain the trust of the community’s music leaders and fans.   

Templin thinks he knows why: “He’s in it,” he said. Ross plays as much as he can and goes to as many concerts as possible. He is either taking photos, being part of the crowd or singing to the crowd.  

“I think that’s what’s going to take him off,” Templin said. 

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year Kai Ross performed at Carnegie Hall. The story was updated to reflect this change on Feb. 26, 2024, at 2:48 p.m. Cascadia Daily News regrets this error.

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