With rapidly rising rents and strict liquor laws, many cities have struggled to sustain all-ages music venues. Portland in particular has seen a slew of its beloved all-ages spaces close in the last 15 years—from the Meow Meow in 2005 to Backspace and Laughing Horse more recently.
“Young people [are an] underserved population when it comes to the music industry,” points out Andre Middleton, a board member at the new Portland organization Friends of Noise and the community services coordinator at Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council. In this week’s podcast, Middleton speaks on behalf of Friends of Noise, which began as a coalition of nonprofits and community leaders that aims to “provide access to safe and productive spaces for all-ages concerts, focused arts education, and leadership opportunities for youth.”
Alongside Middleton in the studio was Todd Fadel, known for founding all-ages venue the Meow Meow, open from 2000 to 2005. In those five years, Fadel put on over 1,100 all-ages shows, hosting bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Deerhoof. Inspired by The X-Ray Cafe, Fadel wanted to recreate “the feeling of being in a room together... that electricity” and “community.” Middleton and Fadel discuss the pitfalls and logistics of running an all-ages venue.
For both, it comes down to affordable, available space. “Space is the biggest issue,” Middleton says—“money talks.” According to Fadel, organizers “have to think like they’re a kid again.”
“There needs to be a level of risk in any venture,” Middleton agrees. The two have devoted themselves to not only creating spaces for kids to have fun—but also a place for them to learn music-related skills and to value the arts.
So what makes a sustainable model? We talked with Seattle venue and art space The Vera Project’s talent buyer, Andrea Friedman, about what has made the organization feasible. Part of their success comes from offering educational courses and workshops, from engineering to screen printing—something guests Claire Gunville of Portland art collective Semi-OK and Sabonis guitarist Maya Stoner also emphasize in their discussion. For musicians, Friedman says, “being able to learn how to screen print their own T-shirts… [and] album art,” can make a big difference, especially in the DIY scene. Friedman sees a big market for this kind of space.
Stoner and Gunville, both in their early 20s, have felt the lack of all-ages space closely. Stoner recalls having to “stand outside and wait for your turn” to play a 21-and-over venue when she was underage. Gunville, who is still 20, edits her collective’s zine and puts on house shows with regional bands. “There are so many good bands still playing at places that aren’t bars,” she states. Still, for someone as active in the city’s music scene as Gunville, 21-and-over shows are a problem. She’ll find herself standing outside at Portland venue The Know: “You just hang out, and kind of pretend [you’re overage].”
Between youth-run collectives and organizations like Friends of Noise who are committed to fostering a more visible, inclusive arts community, the scene’s future looks bright—as long as there’s support from the community.