- Written by Jon Shadel
- Published in Arts and Entertainment
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How Portland has grown into one the boldest and most diverse music scenes in the nation.
If you haven’t tuned in lately, Portland’s music scene has changed — and it’s booming.
At all hours of the day, you can hear made-here sounds reverberating throughout the city: on the stages of acclaimed clubs such as the music venue Doug Fir, on the corners of Pioneer Courthouse Square, even on fast-food chain Burgerville’s in-house BV Radio station.
“Portland can arguably be called the most music-dense city in the country,” Meara McLaughlin tells me. A former technology executive turned music-biz advocate, McLaughlin now directs MusicPortland, the only trade association of its kind in a state that appears to teem with melodic talent. By at least one metric, Oregon outranks musically famous states such as California, Texas and Tennessee for per-capita employment of musicians and singers, according to the latest occupational data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
And McLaughlin’s organization represents far more than obscure garage bands. A small but well-connected music economy thrives here, with companies spanning artist services, music licensing and publishing, gear manufacturing, physical media, and record labels.
While getting a clear statistical picture of the region’s vibrant music sector is tricky, one thing seems obvious: Portland does not size up to Los Angeles — a major-label behemoth and the capital of the U.S. entertainment business — but it certainly punches above its weight. The metro area’s population may rank only 25th in the U.S., but it claims at least 1,100 music businesses, around 2,000 performing acts, nearly 300 live venues and 200-plus promoted concerts a week — putting it near the top of any of these categories on a per-capita basis.
Meara McLaughlin, director of MusicPortland, at Mississippi Studios, Portland Credit: Jason Kaplan
As the city develops and diversifies, an up-and-coming wave of talent and a cluster of musician-focused businesses are reestablishing Portland’s scene as an alternative cultural force — one quickly gaining national recognition.
Portland, of course, has a deep-rooted musical heritage, and its stars have long had an unsung influence on its economy: In the ’90s and ’00s, rock bands put Portland on the map as an epicenter of West Coast cool. National media framed the City of Roses as a Brooklynite mecca of counterculture, home to acts including Elliott Smith, The Shins, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney and M. Ward, to name a few. These musical exports together raised the city’s profile and made Portland appear enviable to a much wider audience — likely a contributing factor to the rapid influx of new residents.
But in the past decade or so, Portland had slipped off the radar of America’s music critics, as the indie sounds of the early-’00s fell out of favor. A younger, stylistically and demographically diverse cohort seems set on shifting that narrative.
Today a fresh generation of talent — from breakout rap star Aminé to Grammy-winning pop band Portugal. The Man to Billboard-charting R&B band Chanti Darling — pushes Portland to the edge of what’s trending musically. In the process, they’re reshaping the culture of a changing city that was formerly known more for straight white dudes with guitars than neon-clad, synth-backed crooners.
This new wave of Portland musicians is better categorized for a genre-crossing reflex than any one particular sound. Unlike country in Nashville, grunge in Seattle or Motown in Detroit, Portland never earned fame for a particular style of music. That makes this a fertile breeding ground for the fluidity that increasingly defines the music-streaming era.
Concertgoers line up to see Animé at the Roseland Theater in Portland last December Credit: Jason Kaplan
As of yet, no precise dollar figures exist to contextualize the broad scope of the regional music industry. But MusicPortland is currently working with researchers at Portland State University on a study to measure the economic impact of the metro area’s music businesses, which McLaughlin expects to surpass many other sectors of the economy.
“The Portland public has kind of built into their DNA a pride of place about our music culture,” she says. “It’s an underestimated economic center, and it’s everywhere you look.”
Impromptu concerts pop up in streetcars, in verdant parks and in at least one hotel lobby. I recently witnessed a PA system transform the newly opened Hoxton hotel into an intimate venue — one that showcased how much the local scene has evolved in the past several years.
“We feel like there’s always been a ton of talent here that’s just never gotten the shine it deserves. We launched the label to play a part in really growing the local scene.” Taylor Dutton, president of EYRST
When the U.K.-based lodging brand opened in Old Town/Chinatown this fall, news stories hailed the district’s first luxury lodging property as a harbinger of gentrification — a glimmer of cosmopolitan “New Portland” in a troubled neighborhood known more for crime and boarded-up storefronts. Even before it accepted bookings for its 119 rooms, the Hoxton was already positioning itself to appeal to the so-called creative class, hosting a series of artist-spotlight events with some of Portland’s most promising up-and-coming musicians.
As I arrived in the Hoxton, the ground-floor cocktail bar appeared packed to capacity for a performance by The Last Artful, Dodgr, as concertgoers lounged on velvet couches and crowded all available standing room. Bartenders mixed complimentary Dodgr-inspired cocktails. The openly queer rapper and singer stands out in Portland’s hip-hop scene for her limber voice and raspy flow. Throughout her set, Dodgr sat down for a conversational interview that delved into her genesis story and the growth of Portland music.
“A lot of people move to my hometown to make it,” Dodgr told the host of the evening’s event, explaining that she came of age in Los Angeles but was drawn to Portland’s laid-back lifestyle upon graduating college. “I decided to move to somebody else’s hometown to make it.”
Her plot appears to be working. Lately Dodgr has turned heads on the national stage, earning rave reviews for her first record, “Bone Music;” supporting another Portland hip-hop star on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; and making a guest appearance alongside Snoop Dogg on Anderson .Paak’s third major-label record.
Dodgr has previously collaborated with local producer Neill Von Tally of EYRST, a label that has released some of Portland’s most progressive sounds in the past few years. Former Trail Blazer player and rapper Martell Webster bankrolled the young hip-hop label, which Forbes has dubbed one of the most thriving music ventures in the Pacific Northwest. And while Webster has since stepped away from the business, EYRST keeps the spotlight on the city’s small but active hip-hop community. Recently, it has had some key breakthroughs, including Dodgr’s 2017 debut, which music magazine Pitchfork said puts her in a “lane that’s hers alone.”
“We feel like there’s always been a ton of talent here that’s just never gotten the shine it deserves,” says Taylor Dutton, president of EYRST. “We launched the label to play a part in really growing the local scene.”
Local producer Neill Von Tally of record label EYRST Credit: Connor Meyer
Operating an independent music business has always required fortitude — venues across the country are closing at a fever pace, and musicians have struggled to find a sustainable path to a career as the revenue from live performances and physical media has declined. Technology has disrupted few business models as much as the business of selling music, from CDs to file sharing to iTunes. The prevalence of streaming services Apple Music and Spotify has stabilized the industry in recent years, as it’s now the main way Americans consume music.
By adapting to the needs of independent musicians and labels, Portland’s leading rock-star businesses have flourished despite the quick metamorphosis of the industry. Startups such as Marmoset help musicians earn a living from licensing their audio to global brands from Apple to Cadillac — totaling more than $16 million for musicians and labels since 2011. And longstanding pioneers like CD Baby, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, continue to prosper by focusing on the myriad revenue streams contemporary artists rely on.
The “CD” in its name may have less relevance today than it did two decades ago. It still ships half a million discs, but 95% of the company’s revenue now comes from digital sources. CD Baby serves as a digital music distributor for its 600,000 active users and as a publisher representing near to 170,000 songwriters around the world.
“We’ve done really well despite the fact that Portland doesn’t have a major-label presence,” says Tracy Maddux, CD Baby’s CEO, who spoke to me from a taxi as he made his way to the company’s L.A. office, one of its several outposts around the world. “Over the years, we’ve grown from a punk-rock company to a global media brand.”
Tracy Maddux at CD Baby's new Portland office Credit: Jason Kaplan
And even as CD Baby expands, they keep investing locally. With a full-time staff of 130, totaling around $8 million annual payroll, CD Baby is Oregon’s single largest music employer. Maddux and his team recently moved into their new headquarters near the Portland International Airport. Maddux says this think-local mentality is one key to the city’s musical success.
“If you look at some of the acts that have a Portland connection, whether it’s Death Cab for Cutie or The Decemberists, they tend to kind of stay local, live local and invest local,” Maddux says. “Because of that, we’ve seen the community growing, and we love to be a part of it.”
Portland’s independent labels have found that survival requires a similar do-it-together mindset, Dutton tells me.
“A huge amount of collaboration is helping us,” says Dutton, a member of Portland Label Coalition, an informal group of executives from local labels such as EYRST and Kill Rock Stars, which kick-started Elliott Smith’s career. “We get together to share resources and music — and the music is all over the map.”
That daring sense of possibility — “disruptive, cross-genre innovation,” as McLaughlin puts it — may be the hallmark of the modern Portland music scene.
“With all of the shows we have per week, people are taking risks, and that’s where innovation comes from,” says McLaughlin. “We’re a mid-tier city in many ways, but we’re creative in the extreme.”
It’s what sets Portland apart. It draws musical talent here, and it helps form the culture that makes it a creative city other talented people want to inhabit as well.
“I saw one band the other day that played heavy-metal covers on the didgeridoo — God bless ’em,” McLaughlin laughs. “Some of the bold steps don’t work, but it’s a city where the bold step can be taken.”
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