Hanging out with Mississippi Studios owners, Jim Brunberg and Alicia J. Rose, is like being in the middle of the ideal Portland music business sandwich. “She does all the music, I’m more of the nuts and bolts guy,” Jim says. And he means that literally. “You can’t legally pour your own concrete, or do the wiring, but almost everything else, yeah, I did.” We’re standing on the ground floor of the incredibly remodeled 200 plus capacity North Portland venue that he now co-owns with music industry genius, Alicia J. Rose.
The two went through the details of exactly how they became partners, why their venue kicks so much ass, and what the big-picture challenges of live music look like.
Jim’s eyes sparkle and his voice quickens as he explains the acoustics of the room. “See,” he says while clapping his hands once. “There’s no echo.” He’s demonstrating how the sound behaves in the large main room. There’s a small stage, an open floor, a small balcony with tiered seating and standing room along the edge of the mezzanine. The bar is located near the entrance of the main floor. The design of the space appears simple, but Alicia assures that “many debates” went into each construction decision. “The sight lines are amazing, the sound is amazing; people who care about music built this room,” she says. The cascading mahogany walls appear as if they’re going straight back, but when you get closer, Jim points out how they’re actually subtlety paneled, resulting in the clearest sound possible. When asked what part of the remodel he’s most proud of, Jim responds confidently. “The first row balcony seats. There’s no better place in Portland to hear and see music.” Sitting in those seats will easily give those words meaning. The sound is so clear, so intimate, it’s almost as if the performer is whispering into your ear.
Alicia loves the lighting… and the booths… and pretty much every thing about her newest move in her independent music career. “This part is very dear to me,” she says with passionate conviction. She is referring to the ability to showcase live music, as opposed to working in the various other arms of the music industry. And with over two decades in the music business, Alicia understands exactly what it takes for every piece of the indie music scene to work. She’s been a college radio deejay; toured as an accordion player; ran a distribution company; photographed (and filmed, and directed) dozens of bands; booked clubs all over San Francisco; and infamously bought talent for the Doug Fir from it’s inception until late last year.
She and Jim knew each other casually but their relationship progressed when Alicia began advising him on how to make his venue better. “I kept saying, ‘Ya know, if it was a bigger room…’ He was like, “I could never afford you,’ and I’m like, (pause) ‘No — but I could be an owner.’ And what do Portlanders do when they want to leave a job or loose a job? They start their own business. The next thing I know, he’s like, ‘Well, here’s the plans.’ I’m like, ‘Holy shit, this guy’s completely for real.’”
Although not a Portland native (LA gets that title), Alicia has been here since 1995 and is veraciously dedicated to supporting and evolving the local scene.
“It’s a huge battle. Keeping live music independent, interesting, and low-cost… that’s what’s hard. Loving music is easy. But live music, to me, is the absolute final hold on what will be awesome forever. Even if things explode and burn up, there’ll be some dude with a guitar, or a ukulele,” she laughs, “okay, maybe that’d burn up – let’s just say a flute.” Hearing her articulate her acute vision for Portland’s music scene not only is easily convincing, but gives you hope amongst the pessimistic news of the shrinking music economy.
“You have to ask, is there an economy to support it? I think there is. I try to secure that by keeping it a similar price to a movie. Most of our shows are less than a movie. And you get three bands. It’s crazy. It’s longer than a movie, with more beer. And actual live people; you could make friends! You don’t have to be cool to come here, but you might be cooler if you do.”
She knows that a basic principle of her job is to get people off their asses (and off their computers), and while there are always plenty of entertainment options, she’s confident that Mississippi Studios already has the support it needs to succeed.
“The micro arena is becoming the wave of the future and we are that. The end all isn’t to end up at the Rose Garden anymore. The middle class in music is succeeding. Venues like the Doug Fir and the holocene didn’t exist five years ago. This is all a natural progression of our scene growing. I think there’s a lot to be said for Portland being a mecca for music’s middle class. We exist because we can.”
Visit mississippistudios.com for calendar and ticketing information. Also look out for their “virtual venue” updates, featuring streaming video and live show downloads.