Live music was hit hard by the pandemic. After managing years of cancellations, quick thinking and reimagining the live music experience, some are feeling hopeful as the summer festival season kicks off. But, some fans haven’t returned and inflation is taking a toll for concert goers and venue owners as well.
Christina Fuller is the owner of Fuller Events and festival director for the Waterfront Blues Festival which kicks off on July 1. Jim Brunberg is a musician, and the founder and co-owner of Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall in Portland. They join us with a pulse check on the live event industry.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Jenn Chávez: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Jenn Chávez. Like many performing arts industries, live music took a big hit earlier in the pandemic. But the summer of 2023 is upon us and with more people getting back out to shows and festivals, leaders in live music are feeling cautiously optimistic. To end the show today, we’re taking the pulse of Oregon’s live music industry with two people deeply involved in bringing live events to the community. Christina Fuller is the owner of Fuller Events and a festival director for the Waterfront Blues Festival. Jim Brunberg is a musician and the founder and co-owner of Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall in Portland. Jim and Christina, welcome to both of you to the show.
Jim Brunberg: Hi Jenn.
Christina Fuller: Thanks so much.
Chávez: Thanks so much for being here. So Jim, I want to start with you. You are not only a venue owner yourself, but you’re also an advocate for independent venues more broadly. Could you start by giving us a look at just how venues in Oregon are doing at this point in 2023?
Brunberg: Sure thing. Thanks for asking the question. You said, ‘cautiously optimistic’ and that sums it up. It’s a very long recovery. We were closed here in Oregon longer than any other state was closed. Multnomah County in particular was closed longer than any county in the entire United States. So, live performing arts institutions – not just venues but the symphonies, the Salem Orchestra, the Newport Symphony – they were all shut down for anywhere from 14 to 18 months. Any business that’s shut down for that long is gonna be hurting for a long time. It’s a five year recovery really.
While people are starting to come back, we’re missing a couple key components. One is that we’ve lost this intergenerational aspect. I used to love to go see shows with my parents. We went to see John Prine when I was a kid. We went to see Johnny Cash. It was a great thing to do with your parents. Now, the parents of people my age and a little younger than me are out of the picture. In large part, they’ve left, they’ve been re-habituated, they’ve discovered streaming. The golden oldies are more cautious about coming back, so some of these favorite perennial acts – people like Graham Nash that used to just pack them in – are not selling out, and we’re just not seeing the returns from some of our favorite patrons. The folks I love to play to as a musician, who understand things, who are sitting there rocking out, nodding their heads with their kids and their grandkids, they’re gone. They’re not part of it, which impacts the community greatly.
The other part that’s missing is the government partnership. In Oregon in particular, spending on the arts is as low as it’s ever been. The government here is still spending on the arts what it spent in 2006. So the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Oregon Arts Commission are still using 2006 dollars to try to run, basically, an economy of nonprofits and businesses that are trying to operate and bring arts to Oregon, and it’s really hard. Imagine trying to run OPB on 2006 dollars. And also imagine if OPB were closed down. Jenn Chávez would be probably looking for a job in Florida somewhere after 18 months or so. But, that said, people are coming back. It’s just a long recovery. So that’s my view on it all.
Chávez: Yeah. And you know, I think one thing that you didn’t mention is staffing. Staffing shortages have impacted a number of different industries. How is that looking now in the live music industry?
Brunberg: The workforce redevelopment is our biggest hurdle. Some of the most talented people left the sector. They stopped working in venues or they moved to Texas or Ohio or Florida, where there was plenty of work. You know, a year into the pandemic, when we were still shut down, but things were just rocking out down in New Orleans and Dallas and Houston, I had tears in my eyes as I said goodbye to some of our favorite production managers and highly skilled people who… They’re not coming back. They found good work out there elsewhere.
So we have a new workforce here, which has its upsides and its downsides. Workforce development is expensive for any nonprofit or for any arts and entertainment business. It is a major hurdle. That’s probably true in all aspects of the service industry, restaurants and bars as well. Because we were closed for so long, we have a pretty green staff. We feel like we’ve got the best team we’ve ever had. They’re very eager, and they’re there for the right reasons, but we lost a whole lot of people during the pandemic.
Chávez: Christina Fuller, I want to turn to you. You are a festival director for the Waterfront Blues Festival. The last time you were a guest on Think Out Loud, you talked about the experience of canceling the 2020 festival and kind of coming to terms with the fact that the pandemic would be affecting this event for longer than you could have expected. But we’re in 2023. This year’s fest is coming up next weekend. How are you feeling going into this year’s event?
Fuller: We’re feeling good. The pandemic is not a distant memory. As Jim said, we are not out of it, and we are working through it. It is a slow recovery. At the same time, the sun is shining in Portland, Oregon and we’re building an event in Waterfront Park for thousands of people to come together. So, it is a new reality. It is not like how things used to be. To all the things that Jim was mentioning as well, things are expensive. The staff, you know, we’ve been lucky to keep and retain a lot of folks, but that is unique. So I think the outlook is optimistic. ‘Cautiously optimistic’ is the perfect way to phrase it. We are not there yet, but we are getting there. We’ve seen that through ticket sales, validating that, general attitude and morale. And I think Portland feels like it’s trending in the direction that we need it to, to be able to sustain community events, music festivals and venues.
Chávez: That’s awesome. What are you most excited about for this festival this year?
Fuller: I live for the feeling – and I think anybody in the industry knows that there’s some sort of magic fairy dust or something – that happens when you get together with tens or five people or 5,000 people or 15,000 people at once that are there for a shared experience and the community building and the sense of togetherness that we lost or had to figure it out virtually or whatever it looked like over the last several years.
The Waterfront Blues Festival came back to Waterfront Park last year in 2022. It was really a kind of a triumphant homecoming, but this year feels like there are less asterisks after it like, ‘well, what could also go wrong or go sideways or whatever it may be?’ I’m really looking forward to that shared experience of live music in downtown Portland with our community.
Chávez: I think in some ways, outdoor events in particular might appeal these days to people, for example, who might have health concerns about COVID. But what are some of the challenges that still exist for large outdoor events like this, particularly in downtown Portland?
Fuller: Yeah, I mean, downtown Portland is a challenge alone. I think we view it as an opportunity as much as we can, that the more we fill the streets in the city and the parks with good, with music, with activity; that is the good thing. We have a $15 to $20 million economic impact over the course of a four-day festival. That’s important. That is how things move and feel better. So I think downtown Portland is a challenge.
And things are expensive. That’s not a news flash. Inflation is real, and staffing is still real, and the rate into which the prices have increased is probably not sustainable for most folks. It is a matter of us collecting our thoughts, figuring out how we navigated the pandemic and what that did to our resources – being the industry broadly, what it did to our resources. Then trying to provide the same or better experience and product while our expenses are 30, 40, 50 percent more than they were pre-pandemic is a true and proper challenge for any business owner.
Chávez: You were talking about some of the issues of downtown Portland. Does an event like this bring visibility to that? Does it bring a microscope to the broader issues happening in our city?
Fuller: I think it does. I mean, I think it puts eyeballs on a situation. But I think the visibility provides clarity, too. I think it also gives our city marching orders and a goal to like: Let’s be on our best behavior. Let’s get Portland looking as good as it can for [the] July Fourth weekend because we’ve got people coming in from out of town. We’ve got our neighbors that live near and far. Let’s put our best foot forward. Let’s be our best version of Portland. So it does shine a light on Portland, but I think that motivates us to do our best and not just ignore the problems and not work towards short-term solutions, but figure out how we move the needle to move through these really complicated problems and challenging years that don’t have quick solutions. I don’t know how to navigate many of these things, but…
Brunberg: Everything you’re saying is so true. I just want to add that the punchline is that live performance events can save downtown areas. Not just in Portland but elsewhere. One of the independent venues is out in Elgin, the Elgin Opera House. When they’re having an event, the whole town is vibrant. It feels like there’s hummingbirds in the air, and there’s flowers everywhere. And when they’re not having an event, it’s real quiet. The Blues Fest and Christina’s other events are the types of things that can revitalize downtown. When people come to see the symphony, the Oregon Symphony, that entire corridor is alive. It’s full of people walking around doing some afternoon shopping before they go out to get an afternoon bite to eat. They’re visiting town, they go to the symphony, they stay in a hotel – heads in beds.
The economic impact is one thing. But also, as we’ve been talking about, live performing arts… this is our living room. These are our town centers, they’re our village centers. It’s where we learn empathy towards the other. It’s not just seeing the problem and putting a magnifying glass on it. It’s seeing the problem, understanding it, how to navigate it and being part of the solution at the same time. Go spend money downtown somewhere, near where you live. Or travel to a town in Oregon. Find out what events are happening there. Spend the night. And you’re part of the solution. That’s what I really feel.
And we can’t do this without a government partnership. I can’t emphasize enough how, [in] the current session we saw some failures in prioritization of the symphony and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the ballet and opera and other entities that badly, badly needed funding and got none this biennium. So we’re looking at 2024. We wanna make sure that we let our legislators know that this is a worthy investment. We have something now that has been created with the leadership of Rob Nosse, the guy who thought of it and put together a huge arts caucus in Oregon. It’s 25 folks from both sides of the aisle and from both houses: Senate and House of Representatives. It’s bipartisan. It’s bicameral. It’s a long road, but I think in 2024 we will start to prioritize the arts.
The businesses like the Blues Fest and music venues, both nonprofit and for profit, will continue to do their job in helping to actually solve these problems. Whereas music used to be seen as sort of a noise nuisance or a thing that caused traffic snarls, I think we can see it for what it is now. It’s a huge economic motivator, and it’s something that brings people together. My dad and I couldn’t be further apart politically, but we both had tears in our eyes at the last concert we saw, which was John Prine… rest in peace – he died during COVID. Those days will come again. So this is a huge investment that we need to make now to make sure that these businesses that are here are sustained through the rest of this recovery.
Chávez: Jim, to stay with you for just a minute, Christina was talking about an outdoor music festival, and festivals are associated with summertime. You are working more in the indoor venue space. Is summer also a rush for you? What does that look like? What does the near future look like in that indoor venue space?
Brunberg: Well, the near future looks good. It’s just a matter of getting the businesses sustainable. People are out. I go over and look at the patio at Mississippi Studios, our accompanying bar that really supports…The Red Room, as we call it, is where the music happens, and then outside is this patio. The patio supports us whenever we have our mission-driven instincts to book music that we feel the world needs to hear, but maybe it doesn’t do so well, we make that up in concessions.
Like I said, another thing that’s missing is that people don’t stick around and make an evening of it like they used to. We want to encourage that, especially once people feel safe. Younger people are obviously feeling safer than older people, so that’s an upside of this is that there’s all kinds of new acts coming along, new musical acts and new performing…New plays are in the crucible right now that’re developing it for the small playhouses around the state, and we’re excited about that. That’s for sure the upside. But on the flip side of that…Whereas an act like Bruce Springsteen, he can afford to lose a couple of shows because somebody in his entourage has COVID and they cancel a couple of shows. His tour is gonna survive. But a lot of these newer, shoestring budget, independent acts that are out there trying to make a living in music, if they miss a couple of shows, that can be catastrophic to their entire tour. It may cause the cancellation of an entire tour, and then we have a dark night. Nobody comes. So, we still have our ups and downs.
There’s still a lot of question marks hanging in the air. Whenever we plan for next month and then the month after that, a lot of staffing considerations come with that. There’s always been seasonal fluctuations. Summer is kind of slow indoors and big successes outdoors. But, it’s just a lot harder to plan things now because we don’t know what the winds are going to bring.
Chávez: Christina, I want to turn back to you. You were kind of talking about what you are most excited about, about a big event like the Waterfront Blues Festival coming up. What do you think the role live music is playing in people’s lives right now after the trauma of the past few years? What do live events like the Blues Festival do for morale and community building in your view?
Fuller: I think they’re at the heart of morale and community building. As Jim said, music is this rare and unique thing that crosses politics. It’s universal, and it’s shared. There frankly aren’t that many things that are for everybody, and music is for everybody. I think it needs to be celebrated, encouraged, funded…all of those things. I think music and the celebration of music and getting people together go hand in hand with progress and with recovery and with memory building and community building and place making and all of the things that we are working hard towards and value in a whole new way after all of us experienced the pandemic and understand now what it means for this to be taken away. Music lays at the center of it for everybody’s life. Whether it be metal or blues, there is something shared for everybody. There really just aren’t that many things out there that can connect with every human on this planet like music does.
Brunberg: Yeah. Like punk and folk and opera. If you go see [inaudible] right now, you’re seeing somebody who’s doing it because they love it; they’re passionate about it. Nobody got into music over the past three years to get rich. They’re all there and they’re continuing their careers because that’s what they believe in. It is the thing that brings us all together.
Chávez: All right. Well, thank you so much. We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me, and happy summer to you both.
Fuller: Thanks so much, Jenn.
Brunberg: Thanks, Jenn.
Chávez: Christina Fuller is the owner of Fuller Events and a festival director for the Waterfront Blues Festival. Jim Brunberg is a musician and the founder and co-owner of Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall in Portland.
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