Whether you’re aware of it or not, you play an integral role in keeping the cogs of the music machine in Portland chugging along.
And the great thing is, you don’t even have to attend shows on a regular basis (although that would be recommended), buy a band’s records and merch (although that would be appreciated by said band), or have an active directory of Portland bands streaming through your subconscious (although you probably should). Any time you venture out into the wilds of the Portland metro area and spend money, you’re likely running into artists. They are your servers, your bartenders, your ticket-takers, your baristas, your bakers, your door people, your bussers. They are everywhere.
This alone isn’t hard to fathom—everyone needs to make ends meet. This is especially true for artists and musicians who can sometimes keep irregular hours, or need to take off extra time for rehearsal, touring or recording.
In Portland, many employers seem to be increasingly aware of how important flexibility is to artist employees, which means that, fortunately, being a working artist now doesn’t necessarily have to equal financial ruin. It’s a figure that’s somewhat impossible to quantify, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of local eateries, bars and coffee shops where your favorite Portland musicians net a paycheck.
And behind every artist’s hustle is an employer who gets it.
Entrepreneur, musician and Bladen County Records founder Matt Brown moved to Portland in 2000 from Raleigh, N.C. There, it had been easy for touring musicians to obtain gainful employment in all kinds of industries. In Portland, however, Brown found it more of a novelty.
“I was real surprised that I wasn’t meeting anybody working any jobs that had tour-friendly bosses,” Brown says.
In 2008, Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood opened the original Bunk Sandwiches. Two years later, the pair joined forces with Brown to launch Bunk Bar, the successful Water Avenue live music venue, sandwich eatery and drinkery. Brown approached his friends who were playing in bands to see if they wanted a job, understanding that he’d not only be helping his business by employing people he trusted, but also directly supporting and accommodating local musicians who needed flexible schedules.
“It’s paying it back,” Brown explains. “It was done for me, and there wasn’t much of a decision about it. It was just something I knew I would do.”
“I worked at Bunk because I wanted to surround myself with the music community,” McKenna says. “With three active bands, I have to take the time off for band business and travel. The thing about Bunk Bar that rules is most of us are artists and we support one another. I've been able to take weeks and months off for travel and tour. There aren't many places in my experience that are that relaxed about taking that much time off.”
The supportive, tour-friendly ethos isn’t limited to Bunk Sandwiches by any stretch. The equally venerable Mississippi Studios stamps its philosophy right into its logo: “Built, owned and run by and for musicians.”
Peter Condra has worked as a production manager and bartender at both Mississippi Studios and its sister venue, Revolution Hall, for the past five years. Condra explains that while supportive management is paramount, the ability to have a flexible schedule to tour and play shows is just as much due to the support and flexibility of coworkers, many of whom are also touring musicians, artists or actors.
“It’s not all management figuring it out for them; they like to accommodate people, and people leave and get rehired, but a lot of it is just staff figuring it out themselves, and managing time off for band activities,” explains Condra, who previously played in defunct Portland pop project Magic Mouth but now plays guitar in Notel. “I got into bartending because it was a flexible way to make fast cash and in a lot of ways it was replaceable—as in the business doesn’t fall apart if someone else is pouring a beer. There’s a lot of flexibility, and there’s an honor system of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’”
One of the more well-known Portland entities whose music aesthetic is unabashedly woven into the fabric of the business is the late-night, heavy metal pizza joint Sizzle Pie. Owned and operated by Relapse Records founder Matt Jacobson—along with business partner and artist Mikey McKennedy—Sizzle Pie typifies the synthesis of music and food working together in a way that’s appealing to both those who are into the musical imagery, and those who are just into great pizza.
“We’re proud that Sizzle Pie reflects who we are and what our interests are. We set out to do what we wanted and what we love and what our friends wanted,” says Jacobson, who’s also a partner in Wayfinder Beer, which was just voted Best New Brewery by the Oregon Brewers Guild.
With Jacobson’s long history of working with musicians (founding one of the world’s premier metal labels in 1990), creating a supportive occupational enclave for Portland artists was integral to the spirit of the business, he says.
“Clearly the things we’re into attracted a certain cross section of people, and a lot of those people are into music and art. And definitely from the beginning, one of our goals was to be as flexible and accommodating as possible to people who had other pursuits and dreams and aspirations, and to really try to be as supportive as we can and enabling of those things,” Jacobsen says. He adds that it’s not just about allowing flexible scheduling; Sizzle Pie has hosted fundraisers for employee passion projects and even given bonuses to employees who have a project that needs help getting off the ground.
“We don’t have a written policy; that whole side of things is really important to us as a music community and a local community,” Jacobson continues.
The staggering truth is that although the likes of Bunk, Mississippi Studios and Sizzle Pie may be a few of the most visible food and bar businesses with actively supportive criteria in place for working musicians, they’re really the tip of the iceberg.
McMenamins is a notable player in the regional industry with a large number of pubs, breweries, restaurants and hotels that offer not only performance space for local and touring musicians but also provide a hospitality paycheck to a significant number of independent artists. While there is no official count, talent buyer Lori Hughes Killen anecdotally cites regularly interacting with over a dozen employees across 10 or so Portland metro properties who are actively working in bands in the area.
Portland’s status as an artistic hub necessitates some wiggle room from employers who understand that sometimes a job is just a job, not a career.
“Part of the cultural explosion in Portland with restaurants and bars and everything, is that people are sort of taking this world too seriously,” Brown explains. “I like fun. I tell this to bartenders all the time: ‘Get your ego off of what you do in your life, not what you do at your job.’”