A coalition of businesses, venues and artists is coming together to speak out on issues affecting Portland’s storied music scene.
United under the slogan “Independent Together,” director Meara McLaughlin said the group MusicPortland will bring together labels, instrument makers, artists, fans, venue owners and others to advocate on livability and economic issues.
As the city’s growth has driven costs up, the scene that produced bands like Sleater-Kinney, Aminé and the Decemberists often feels under fire because of issues like housing affordability, zoning codes and seismic building regulations.
MusicPortland will host an open-door kickoff event Wednesday night at the club Holocene. McLaughlin said all are welcome.
OPB sat down with McLaughlin, whose family owns the boutique microphone maker Ear Trumpet Labs, and MusicPortland board chair Portia Sabin, president of the iconic Kill Rock Stars record label.
Q&A with Meara McLaughlin and Portia Sabin
April Baer: Have there been times, Portia, when it would have been useful to have someone amplify the issues you’ve been dealing with?
Portia Sabin: Absolutely. Up until now, all the advocacy I’ve done in Portland — whenever I’ve gone to see our elected officials — it feels really fragmented. It’s me and maybe someone from the musicians’ union. We don’t feel like we have clout. We need an organization that advocates for the whole music industry.
Baer: There have been efforts to advocate on various issues affecting artists and venues before. What’s been missing?
Meara McLaughlin: Successful music city initiatives have to be data-driven. To represent a creative culture is a very squishy thing. You [need to] get information that says, “Here’s who we are, here’s how much we generate in direct revenue, here’s what we do in terms of employment.” The creative ecosystem is an incredibly important part of Portland’s brand. Our goal is to make sure it actually sustains the people creating it.
Baer: What’s on the agenda?
McLaughlin: The initial thing is we’re doing an economic impact study in coordination with Portland State University to get our hands around these numbers that we can use to advocate and lobby to make all the boats rise. There’s also a whole area on our website where we’re collecting artists’ profiles. The initial assembly of information has already accrued benefits with policy makers. They’d never seen a plotted map with all the places where live music occurs.
Baer: There’s not just one agenda on your website, but several: You propose working on affordable housing and rehearsal space, negotiating to define enforcement in clubs, loading zone changes. Do you have a staff of like 20?
McLaughlin: I wish! I’m the only full-time staffer. Two years ago, a variety of folks started ranting. We were lucky enough to find each other. Chris Young of Vortex magazine and Dominik Schmidt of ROLA Music and I started getting together and moved from ranting to saying, “We could do something about this.” We set up a census online and got 600 responses with no promotion. Connecting with Portia and our board, we incorporated in late December last year as a 501(c)6 [a business group, as defined for tax purposes]. We really want to focus on making this a sustainable culture.
Baer: Some issues, like cost of living, affect everyone in similar ways. But you’ve brought up stuff like pay rates for musicians, where artists, venues and labels might see things very differently. Is it realistic to think one organization can advocate for everyone?
McLaughlin: We are connecting the dots between communities. What we’ve seen in research we’ve done is there are lots of ways to solve this problem. Our goal is to gather the community and align our objectives.
Baer: Musicians are the only members right now who don’t pay dues. How can musicians be sure their interests are centered?
McLaughlin: Fair enough. As with all organizations, in the first year, we have something to prove.
Sabin: I just want to point out, right now there are at least three musicians on our board (DJ O.G.ONE, Sutro and Bim Ditson) — people who make their full-time living as musicians. Those people are not going to be overlooked. Twelve years ago, when the American Association of Independent Music started — the indie label trade association — I remember having conversations with other indie label owners who were like, “Oh no, I’m not a joiner.” AAIM now has almost 600 labels as members. What ended up happening is it proved its worth over time.