From Austin to New Orleans to Nashville, it’s often said certain cities have “thriving” music scenes. But what does that really mean and how does Portland measure up?
Here’s What’s Needed to Thrive
Talent with compelling songs, performances and production that reach national prominence
Portland certainly has its fair share of talent, although many of the most popular bands have either relocated to or from other cities, or are not currently relevant at the national level. Portland is hip on many levels, but is still not widely considered a live music powerhouse.
Fans who support live music with dollars and social capital
This is one of the biggest shortcomings with the Portland music scene. The fans we do have are committed, but seeing local live music doesn’t seem to make the average Portlander’s top 10 list of things to do on any given night.
Venues that have natural draw, provide fair compensation, and offer music as a core product
It wasn’t always this way, but nowadays there are increasingly fewer venues in the Portland area that draw both solid talent and a dedicated fan base on a nightly basis. Most places that offer live music use it as a marketing tool to attract customers, but fail miserably in creating a consistent, compelling live music experience.
Paid gigs in high enough volume for musicians to be able to earn a living primarily based on musical endeavors
Just about everyone will agree that there are not enough well-paying gigs in town to support a thriving music scene—especially for original artists. Most artists who are “making it” are doing so by creating related businesses to supplement their music income, like promoting or booking gigs, teaching lessons or recording music.
Media that are active, engaged and provide a breadth of coverage
We are fortunate to have a handful of local music-focused publications (like this one!), but the larger media outlets generally lack the resources to report on local music in any sort of depth.
Diversity of music representing a wide variety of styles and cultures
Portland is widely recognized as one of the least diverse major cities in the U.S., and the music scene tends to follow suit. One encouraging development is the launch of the Portland Black Music Festival, which aims to provide a much-needed shot of diversity into our scene.
Liveability for the creative class that includes affordable housing and a reasonable cost of living
Music festivals that draw national and international attention
All-ages scene that creates opportunities for future generations
One of the biggest complaints I hear as a promoter is that Portland lacks all-ages shows and venues. It’s often said that “alcohol is the currency of live music.” I believe that is true, and until it changes, we will continue to struggle in the all-ages department. That said, organizations like Friends of Noise, Portland Notes and School of Rock are making strides to create more youth music opportunities.
So, Is Local Music Thriving in Portland?
My answer: Not yet—if for no other reason than it is really difficult for the average working musician to earn a living wage. Beyond that, we don’t have a critical mass of venues that provide compelling live music experiences or nearly enough fans consuming local live music for the market to flourish.
What Needs to Change?
The three most important components of a music scene are talent, venues and fans. Without those three, there is no live music scene. In order to thrive, we need more opportunities for talent to blossom, more venues that offer live music as a core product with fair compensation for musicians, and way more people going out to see local live music.
One of my personal initiatives in an attempt to grow the Portland scene is the MOGO Music Festival, which features all local artists playing numerous area venues. The goal is to shine a spotlight on a diverse cross section of Portland talent and venues, and help make seeing live music become the thing to do in our city.
What do you think? Are those the attributes of a thriving music scene? How's the Portland music scene doing today?
Jason Fellman runs the promotion and booking agency J-Fell Presents, which produces Harefest and MOGO Music Festival—the all local fest takes place across a variety of venues on March 3 and 4. Win tickets here!