The indie ethic that defines Portland's music scene is reinventing how the industry does business.
BY JENNIFER NETHERBY
PHOTO COURTESY OF PINK MARTINI
When Portland’s eclectic lounge group Pink Martini decided in the mid 1990s to release its music independently, the CD market was strong and using a major label might have helped sell hundreds of thousands more records. But founder Thomas Lauderdale wanted to keep control of the band’s music and work with local companies he knew.
The group next month will release its fourth album, Splendor in the Grass, through its own Heinz Records label, and the album is expected to push the band’s total album sales beyond 2 million. Local music insiders estimate Pink Martini has made five times as much as it would have if it had been with a major label.
Perhaps more importantly, the group also has become one of the biggest drivers of the local music business along the way. Pink Martini’s decision to remain independent was prescient and has made the band a defining icon of the do-it-yourself attitude that pervades Portland and its music business. Bookers double as label owners to get music out from smaller unsigned musicians, record store owners start their own labels to bring music from artists they like into stores, club owners are musicians and musicians become club owners. That independence is reinventing the music business everywhere, but especially here, as major labels sign fewer artists and musicians find new ways to thrive in a fractured business.
Portland has one of the country’s most vibrant music scenes and what ties the scene together, more than its sound or location, is the predominance of independent bands, music labels, distributors, record stores and other related music businesses. Hundreds of bands are based here, from the well-known Decemberists, Spoon and the Shins, to indie bands on the verge of breaking big, such as Blind Pilot and Deer Tick. Clubs, bars and coffeehouses across the city host local and touring musicians nightly. Then there’s the whole support industry underneath the visible creatives, from CD manufacturers to music distributors to licensors. It’s a sector that officially generates statewide about $158 million annually in earnings and employs about 4,500, but those figures don’t capture the constant influx of artists coming here to be part of the scene.
Bill Tennant, label manager for Heinz Records, says technology has made it easier and cheaper for artists to record their own albums, and the business downturn has given artists a greater incentive to do things their own way.
“It’s something that’s happening everywhere,” he says. “People sort of organically — more here than elsewhere — have done their own things and formed their own labels.”
Dave Sanford, owner of music licensing company Spectre Entertainment Group, a company he relocated to Portland in 2004, says more and more individual artists (rather than labels) are contacting his company to get their music promoted. “There’s a proliferation of people doing everything themselves,” he says.
Blue Giant, a Portland band that includes the Decemberists’ Chris Funk and husband and wife rock duo Viva Voce, decided to start its own label, Amore!Phonics, to distribute its first album after fielding offers from bigger independent labels at this year’s South by Southwest music festival. The deals all would have forced the group to hand over recording rights, giving the label a cut of everything they earn, says frontman Kevin Robinson. At the same time, Blue Giant wouldn’t get an advance on record sales, one of the main reasons bands often go with bigger labels.
“We looked at all the offers,” Robinson says. “[We decided] we should just do this ourselves.”
Even those bands that choose to sign with labels are getting smarter about holding onto their intellectual property. “Musicians are not as willing to sign over their rights,” says Nate Snell, label manager for blues label Burnside Records, Americana label Sideburn Records and jazz label 18th and Vine, which are all part of Portland-based Allegro Music.
Musicians who retain their rights get a bigger cut of touring revenues, where most indie musicians make money, and from any licensing deal they sign. Those deals, though harder to come by with the recession, can be a major pot of gold for musicians who score them.
Portland Cello Project
PHOTO COURTESY OF KILL ROCK STARS
Independent musicians — those without major record deals — actually have done better the last few years than the rest of the industry, says Slim Moon, the founder of Portland-based label Kill Rock Stars, who now manages local bands such as the Portland Cello Project. The Internet opened up new ways for smaller groups and labels to gain followings and sell CDs and downloads without radio play. The Internet and the fallout at major labels have returned some of the industry’s power to musicians who have become more business savvy, holding onto their recording rights when they sign label deals, licensing songs for films and commercials, and becoming their own label.
“The playing field is changing every day,” Moon says. “If you’re a band that’s willing to embrace new models and try new things, there are lots of opportunities.”
Local musicians increasingly putting out independent music also benefits the business side, since many bands such as Pink Martini end up working with local companies.
“One thing that’s fantastic about Portland is it’s a magnet for artists of all types. There are always new bands coming here,” says Mike Jones, CEO of CDForge/Cravedog, a Portland-based company that presses CDs for Pink Martini, Pearl Jam’s fan club and Seattle’s Barsuk Records. CDForge is working with more bands than ever because of the Portland scene and because more bands are self-releasing records. Though with CD sales falling, it’s pressing fewer discs, one of the reasons it merged in January with merchandiser Cravedog.
Pink Martini’s success has been a boon to local business. Through Heinz Records, the band employs three staffers who run the business from a loft in downtown Portland that also houses the band’s studio and serves as Lauderdale’s home. The group has its CDs made through Portland-based manufacturer CDForge and then sells them at a wholesale price to Portland CD distributor NAIL, a division of Allegro Music.
NAIL, which originally stood for Northwest Alliance of Independent Labels, was itself a DIY project started in the mid ’90s when a group of local bands needed a way to get their CDs into stores. Since being acquired by Allegro in 2001, NAIL has evolved beyond the Northwest, though half of the music it distributes is from the region, says label and product manager Chris Scofield. These days, NAIL works with more independent artists as more bands self-release their music and, more importantly, generate enough buzz online to sell a significant number of CDs. One example is Portland-based Blitzen Trapper, which self-released its music through NAIL before signing a deal last year with Seattle-based Sub Pop.
Blitzen Trapper went big after Pitchfork Media gave the band’s self-released album Wild Mountain Nation its “Best New Music” designation in 2007, selling 3,000 albums within two weeks. The album has since sold 19,000 copies according to SoundScan, which measures music sales.
“We wouldn’t look at [bands] in the past if they were self-distributed or on their own label,” Scofield says. But now, watching blogs and buzz online is critical.
But they don’t guarantee sales, says Portia Sabin, owner of Kill Rock Stars, which she relocated to Portland from Olympia, Wash., in 2006 after taking it over from husband Slim Moon.
“You can put a video out and reach tens of thousands of people in a day,” she says. “The downside of that is it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales.”
Kill Rock Stars, which made its name in the ’90s putting out cutting-edge bands Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith, is still working the Internet to generate buzz for its latest roster, which includes local bands the Thermals and Portland Cello Project.
KRS gives away at least one free MP3 single from every album it puts out and, more often than not, those singles turn out to be the biggest sellers on iTunes. Whatever the label is doing works. Sabin says they’ve been more successful with certain acts than anticipated and will be able to put out another small record this year because of it.
Rico Micallef of Allegro Music, one of the biggest U.S. music distributors and one with an aggressive acquisition strategy.
PHOTO BY ANTHONY PIDGEON
Allegro, the fourth-largest music distributor in the country with $90 million in annual revenues, benefits from Portland’s growing scene and the demise of the traditional music business, and has expanded by putting out lots of different music, even as it sells fewer copies of each title it releases.
“As the market gets more and more fragmented, it’s the long tail, where you’re selling less of more,” says Allegro president Rico Micallef. “That means you need to represent more product to make it work.”
To do that, Allegro has acquired music labels ranging from New Age to blues to children’s and selling them everywhere, from music stores such as Music Millennium to Pilot truck stops and Dollar Tree stores. Allegro has made the most of the decline of major record labels. When major label EMI cut back and looked to offload its New Age label, Music Design, Allegro bought the label and also signed a distribution deal with EMI that will put its music in gift stores, a retail segment it hadn’t sold music in before.
Allegro also has bought local labels and distributors. Last year it acquired Burnside Records and Sideburn Records from Terry Currier, owner of Portland record store Music Millennium. But Micallef adds that he’s been careful not to rely too much on Portland business, something echoed by other companies who say it would limit their growth potential.
Dave Allen of Portland music blog Pampelmoose observes the number of bands playing clubs, coffeeshops and house parties and thinks Portland easily could challenge Austin’s claim as the live music capital of the world.
“We deserve that title,” says Allen, a former business development executive at music download site eMusic and former member of ’70s post-punk band Gang of Four.
But Portland forever has been a scene about to break. In the ’90s Portland was going to be the next big thing, with rock band Everclear signed to a major label and indies Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith putting the city on music minds.
No one’s bold enough to predict what the music business will look like once the Internet dust settles. Album sales continue to fall with no end in sight. Musicians and labels keep throwing ideas at the wall waiting to see if anything sticks, and big labels are less willing to take chances on different types of music because they can’t afford to add to their losses. Smaller labels don’t have the resources they once did.
Kill Rock Stars’ Sabin worries that the industry is turning its back on fringe artists. KRS cut its roster from 48 bands in 2006 to 14 in 2008 because of falling CD sales.
“The problem has become that we as a culture are closing the door on different kinds of artists,” Sabin says.
Others are more hopeful. It’s easier than ever for artists to do it themselves. Anyone can record a song in their basement and put it on MySpace for the world to discover.
Those who embrace that DIY attitude — Pink Martini, Blue Giant and countless other Portland bands — may just reinvent the music business in the process.