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Portland's Independent Music Industry 'Devastated' By Pandemic


Mo Troper watched nervously last week as event bans rolled out across the nation in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. “It’s been a little hectic,” said the musician.

“It’s escalated really quickly. Not just within the music industry, but I just feel like everything has.”

Like most independent musicians and the vast majority of the businesses that make up Portland’s music industry, Troper and his bandmates rely on touring and the ecosystem around live performances for most of the money they bring in. But faced with mounting cancellations, he scrapped his U.S. tour on Tuesday.

“I wouldn’t want to drive all the way across the country and then have two or three shows cancel on the East Coast,” he said. “That just wouldn’t make any sense, financially or geographically.”

Mo Troper at his video game and music store, Hawthorne Game Exchange, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Mo Troper at his video game and music store, Hawthorne Game Exchange, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Although deeply disappointed, the public health concerns also weighed heavily on his decision.

“I don’t think that bands should tour through it necessarily, because I think that’s also dangerous and irresponsible in some ways,” Troper said. “But it’s just pretty hard to be a touring musician, and it’s impossible under these circumstances.”

Those anxieties were even more heightened for artists who were planning to go abroad. Portland band Sama Dams, fronted by married couple Sam and Lisa Adams, canceled a European tour that was set to start on March 26.

“I think our biggest concern was just being over there and then having everything get canceled,” Lisa Adams said. “And just being stuck. If one of us happens to contract the virus, then we’d be quarantined over there. It just started to not make sense to be there.”

The immediate financial hit for Sama Dams will be harsh. Money invested in travel might be partially recouped, but the cancellations have caused a domino effect on other music industry sectors like promotions, PR, and booking — which means there will undoubtedly be big losses.

“At this point, I don’t know what money we can ask for back from our booker because I think his well is dry too,” Lisa Adams said.

“Yeah. I mean, he’s in a terrible position right now,” added Sam Adams. “We talked to him on the phone this morning, and he was gutted because he’s going to have to figure out how to make his company last through this somehow.”

A man crosses the street in front of the Bagdad, a theater owned by McMenamins, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 19, 2020. McMenamins laid off some 3,000 employees after the large gatherings ban and statewide bar and restaurant closure.

A man crosses the street in front of the Bagdad, a theater owned by McMenamins, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 19, 2020. McMenamins laid off some 3,000 employees after the large gatherings ban and statewide bar and restaurant closure.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Maria Maita-Keppeler is also in a tough spot. Her band, MAITA, cancelled a European tour last week as well, but she’s been dealing with an even more complex human problem.

“Our rhythm section is already there touring with another band, and we were set to pick them up and then continue on our way,” Keppeler said, describing the quickly unfolding logistical nightmare. “It also becomes a matter of not just the responsibility of us canceling our tickets, but also getting them home in the midst of all of this. So it’s a pretty crazy time.”

According to a survey conducted by Music Portland, a trade association and advocacy group that serves Portland’s independent music industry, the impact of the venue closures has already cost individual Oregon musicians at least $3.9 million. Executive director Meara McLaughlin says Portland’s music industry as a whole is particularly vulnerable because it’s built on working musicians unlike Nashville, for instance, which has a robust publishing industry.

“There are more than 700 individual music businesses in the Portland area, and some are going to be impacted more than others,” McLaughlin explained. “For instrument and gear manufactures, the curve is a little flatter because it’s going take a while for their sort of lack of sales to really catch up. Recording studios have been gutted because their projects were all canceled instantly. They’re almost as impacted as performer income.”

Drummer Pieter Hilton of the band Sunbathe echoed McLaughlin’s concerns:

“We’re a very fragile ecosystem as it is. So something like this is particularly devastating,” Hilton said.

But he added that the effects are compounded by the fact that many music industry workers have second jobs in the service industry, which has also been ravaged by closures.

“Most of these people are living on margins so small that people don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent,” Hilton said.

Fans can help immediately, he said, by buying merchandise and music from artists.

“But I think the most effective thing would be to lobby your representatives to provide some kind of economic relief for below a certain threshold, say like $60,000 a year,” he said. “I think that’s something that would give a lot of people a lot of relief and something that could actually be effective if it was administered intelligently.”

Sam and Lisa Adams of Sama Dams on their front porch in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Sam and Lisa Adams of Sama Dams on their front porch in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Music Portland is working to do just that. On Wednesday, they sent a report to Gov. Kate Brown documenting the economic impact the coronavirus has had on the local music industry. But executive director Meara McLaughlin remains concerned that musicians might get left behind as federal and state relief legislation is passed.

“Salaried or waged employees, there’s the unemployment process to try and help them. There’s nothing for freelancers,” said a somber McLaughlin. “There’s nothing for these people that don’t work as employees for anyone.”

McLaughlin argues that independent artists and sound engineers are essentially small businesses but worries that most won’t be recognized as such.

“So in the relief considerations or acknowledgement of small businesses needing support, these guys fall in the cracks.”