The Death of the All Ages Venue
Portland, Oregon: Nurturing the arts
If you need any proof that Portland, Oregon nurtures, just take a look at the long list of musicians who have emerged from it's eclectic music scene. From Grammy winner Esperanze Spalding, who grew up around the world famous Blues and Jazz festivals held here every summer, to the Kingsmen and who wrote the classic garage rock song “Louie Louie”, to the late alternative-folkster Elliot Smith. Lesser known (nationally) local favorites like Pond, Heatmiser, Helio Sequence, Poison Idea and Hazel are just a speck on the Portland, Oregon musical map. Portland has always been a place where creativity thrives. That's true whether you're talking about music, literature, and both visual and body art (The city boasts the highest number of tattoo shops per capita in the US, as reported in the Forest Grove News-Times in July 2010 [Tattooed: Body art goes mainstream as Portland area becomes skin work mecca By Peter Korn]).
This writer grew up in Portland during its' musical heyday in the mid 1990s and into the early 2000s, going to (and playing in) hundreds of different shows and festivals at dozens of venues throughout the city. For much of this time, the shows were open to all ages, which was essential since this writer didn't turn 21 until 2001.
Then, it seemed the options were seemingly limitless.
But as Bob Dylan said, "The times they are a'changin'."
The slow death of all ages concert venues
In the words of PDX Pop Now! Representative Cary Clarke,“The exposure to local arts at a young age - in particular the local music scene - has changed the lives of so many people I know for the better” (as reported in the Portland Mercury during the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's hearing on all ages venues in Feb 2008).
The first sign of what was to come was in 1999 when the storied all ages venue La Luna closed its doors. From 1992 to 1999, La Luna played a key role in Portland's rise to musical prominence, offering shows that catered to teens along with 20 and 30 somethings. It had an available bar in the indoor balcony area. On prime real estate in Southeast Portland, La Luna was replaced during the Vera Katz era by office buildings.
The closing of la Luna was the first in a series of inexplicable and rapid venue closings. Some of the most notable were the Push (Mt. Tabor,) Meow Meow (South East Industrial area), Spin Cycle (SE Pine), The O 'Hell Cafe (Downtown), Stage Four Theater (Downtown) and others (History of Portland Rock, SP Clarke).
Why did these venues close?
Theories are varied
Whatever the causes, it was certainly alarming to have so many venues closing over a relatively short period of time, especially given that the all ages in scene in Portland's neighbor to the north, Seattle, from whom Portland has often its musical and entertainment cues from, is virtually dead (This according to local music reviewer and promoter, Lloyd Epperly).
It's difficult to find credible sources willing to disclose why certain venues close. One day a club is open, the next day, it is boarded up or sporting a new moniker. In the case of Satyricon, often called the CBGB's of the West (Portland Mercury), clubs sometimes close twice. Satyricon's first closing was in 2003, when the club was primarily a punk rock bar, and was only open to those twenty-one and over. It reopened in 2006 with new management, only to be bought by the McDonald Center, given several six month stays of execution, before finally being shut down and demolished in November of 2010. (Portland Mercury, The End of Satyricon: An Interview with the Fabled Club's Co-Owner/Booker, Jeff Urquhart). The managers of the Satyricon started a new all ages venue under the Rotture in Portland's Industrial district- an area once used by another all ages venue, Solid State (Portland Merucry). Other venues come and go with arrivals are as sudden and mysterious as their departures.
More important then the causes are, what are these venues being replaced by? Is a fate similar to that which befell Seattle in danger if becoming a reality in Portland? If such a fate comes, where would kids be able to go to enjoy live music in safe environments? How can continued access be ensured, and are there any venues and organizations working to keep live music accessible to fans of all ages?
The best way to ensure that access to all ages venues continues is first to look at the historical and contemporary causes for why all ages venues have shut down or changed formats in the first place. For this, Mikee Bridges, founder of such esteemed Portland all ages venues as the Connection, the Push, Spin Cycle and the infamous TOM Festival, was contacted.
Bridges says that he started these all ages venues when he himself (the first being the Connection in 1989) was only nineteen years old so that kids like him would have “[S]omeplace cool to go to.” The venues always operated on a “shoestring budget” but “still managed to be in the black”. When asked if he would have made more money doing a bar or a venue that catered to both if there would have been a greater profit margin, he responded with an empathic “Oh yeah!” He has done some one off shows at bars and other venues of the type, but the all ages venues were always important to him and his venues have certainly made an impact. “At the end of my life, I want to have made a mark on the world and have people be sad that I'm dead.”
Money and legal troubles were never the reasons any of Bridge's venues shut down. The closures, in his case, were always due to personal relationships among the management of the venues, and, to a limited degree, the bands and concert goers themselves. He never had any legal problems with the city and no consistent complaints from his neighbors. He says the keys to keeping out of legal trouble are to pay attention to the bands and genres you book in your venue. Some bands and fans of specific genres are “destructive”. Also, have a good doorman who can recognize what a fake ID looks like and won't let in those who are visibly intoxicated.
Christie Scott, Public Affairs Specialist at the OLCC confirms this. “Unfortunately, there will always be minors trying to get alcohol. But the key here is how the managers and employees of the venue react. If they card someone and they aren't 21 - or recognize a fake ID and 86 the person - then kudos to the venue. If they let a minor in without carding or knowing that the person is a minor - that's when they face potential violations. Just letting a minor in, doesn't constitute a violation - unless it is in an area prohibitted [sic] to minors. Serving or selling an alcoholic beverage to a minor is another violation (regardless of if the minor can be in the area of the venue).”
So what is Bridge's theory on why venues have been closing down at a fairly consistent clip in Portland? He says the scene here is “Vibrant” but there is “no more cohesion between bands and clubs. It used to be about helping each other and making music and not [about] making a buck.” He also describes the scene as “fragmented” and says that the bands and the audience don't care and don't work with each other. Most bands have a “Sense of entitlement” and are “Stupid, lazy and selfish.” They refuse to promote their own shows and yet they expect a venue to pay them. If a venue pays a band that doesn't draw any paying customers to the door, a venue will go broke. “All ages almost always has to be pay to play. Once you prove you can draw, you don't need to pay to play.”
More Portland Music
The state of all ages music in Portland, Oregon today
Stephen Musselman, known professionally as “Teeter”, is one of the owners of the Hawthorne Theatre on 39th and Hawthorne in South East Portland. The Hawthorne is a successful example of a venue that has both 21 and over and all ages shows. When asked if the Hawthorne would continue doing all ages shows, Musselman says, “Yes, we will always do all age shows. Most shows have more of an all ages following, and the younger crowd are more likely to come out any day of the week. We also book a lot of younger bands that are still in high school school who will bring all the kids from their schools.” When asked about the financial impact of this, he says, “On a sold out show that was 21+ we would make more money just for the simple fact that the bars will do a lot more in revenue. On the average show it works out better to have it all ages because there [are] generally more minors than drinkers and the revenue generated from ticket sales sales makes up for money that would not be made in the bar. Ticket sales generally cover the cost to operate the room and pay the bands but the bars are where most of money is generated from. Over the long term we rely equally on the all age[s] crowd and the 21+ crowd... Out of around the 310 shows we do a year about 270 of them are all ages.”
In keeping within the law and in the good graces of the OLCC, three additional staff members are hired for all ages shows. “We have certified security at each entrance to the bar. They carefully check each ID and stamp that person for the bar. Everyone that passes through gets checked for their stamp each time they come through. If someone gets caught trying to pass a fake ID their ID gets confiscated and they are removed from the building.”
So, what is being done to keep these venues open? Is the OLCC helping venues to stay open or are they looking for any excuse to close their doors? Scott from the OLCC informs this writer that, “A couple of years ago [during the OLCC's hearing on all ages venues [in Feb 2008], we created a new minor posting that allows venues to have mixed audiences for varying days/nights of the week. We have created the ability for the businesses to take advantage of this opportunity. It is now up to the individual businesses to make a business decision as to if they are interested in catering to an all-ages crowd.”
Some venues (such as the Ash Street Saloon and The Tonic Lounge) are bars that cannot have minors on the premises at any point. Other venues, like the Hawthorne Theater, the Crystal Ballroom, the Roseland and the Wonder Ballroom are medium sized venues which regularly cater to both an all age and the 20 and 30 somethings. Organizations such as PDXPOPNOW! Are also dedicated to ensuring all ages access for Portland's teens (This writer was unable to find specific numbers, but, according to Wikipedia, roughly 24.5 percent of all Portland households contain at least one teenager), hosting free, festivals in Downtown Portland every summer, and advocating for greater access to venues and more leniency for Portland's existing liquor laws. PDXPOPNOW's stated goal is to bring an ”[O]rganized effort to improve outdated and ill-considered state liquor laws that prevented people under 21 from fully participating in our local creative culture is at the center of our advocacy effort. At the heart of the issue: all-ages access to arts and culture through logical and effective approaches to teen safety and alcohol control.” This advocacy is in part what lead to the OLCC's rule changes in June of 2008, allowing venues more freedom and control over their own venues and liquor distribution. It is heartening to see organizations and venues that view access to live music for those unable to legally have a drink as an important and necessary thing. It is this writer's hope that there will always be people willing to fight for access to arts and music for Portland's youth.
For a complete list of all ages shows and venues, the Portland Merucry, Willamette Week and PC-PDX are recommended resources.