Can Friends of Noise Pull Off an All-Ages Music Space in Portland?

Columnist Casey Jarman speaks with board members of the new nonprofit and finds plenty reason for hope.

By Casey Jarman May 16, 2016

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The board of Friends of Noise with youth and community volunteers

It’s a bit ironic that bars are some of the only places to see live music in Portland. Before 1972, the OLCC restricted Oregon’s taverns from hosting live music at all. Even after the city’s ’60s-era coffeehouse music scene dissipated, Portland was known for all-ages venues, the names of which still stir the emotions of many a longtime resident. Shows at clubs like the X-Ray Cafe, 17 Nautical Miles, Meow Meow, Artistery, and Backspace have long fostered community among Portland music fans and helped to develop its next generation of bands. But with increasingly few exceptions, the Portland all-ages music landscape has dried up.

Friends of Noise, a new Portland nonprofit with a five-member board and an impressive community of supporters from the local music scene, hopes to open an all-ages space sometime in the next year. I spoke to three of the group’s board members—Aaron Hall, also from Dig-A-Pony and Xray FM; André Middleton from the Regional Arts and Culture Council; and musician/student advisor Becky Miller, ahead of their first show on May 22 at Los Prados Event Hall in St. Johns.

So what’s the Friends of Noise game plan?

Aaron: Well, we’re at the very beginning stages of this. We don’t have a brick-and-mortar space; we don’t have much money beyond a couple of small grants helping the initial project. What we’re going to do first is throw a series of shows. These will be quarterly, in different pockets of the city, and each of the shows will feature different kinds of music, different sizes of bands, and they’ll be at different kinds of venues.

André: Our idea is to go to community centers. Our first show is over in St Johns, at a place called Los Prados Event Hall. We are going to nontraditional places, where there’s no competition with traditional venue spaces, and hopefully have the kids go, “Wow, this is for us, by us!”

Aaron: For clarity, the ultimate goal is to create a space, one hub. Hopefully we find a spot that hits as much of the population of the city, erring on the side of kids who have less resources but really trying to not be exclusive to anyone. So whether that’s pushing out to the edge of Montavilla, or down in Foster-Powell, or maybe a little closer in if it’s on transit and bike routes. None of that has been worked out, but we also want this to tentacle out to other parts of the city. There’s no reason we can’t have a central hub space—a multi-disciplinary community space—and also throw shows as Friends of Noise Presents, around the city. So we can bring more people in, and also empower kids within those different communities to throw shows.

Becky: Mentorship is a huge cornerstone of what we want to do here. We want to work with people, especially the performers who are working these shows. We want the musicians to work with young people and stand beside them as a part of a production team. Be a part of running the soundboard and doing box-office work, and making flyers. All of which involves skill-building. When you’re a kid in any era, you realize that once you graduate from high school or college and get into the work force, people want you to already be the thing. They want you to already have all the skills. And I talk to a lot of kids about this: “How do I get the skills if I don’t have them already and there’s nowhere to attain them?”

André: Look at sports. If kids want to do sports, they are on a track to have access to sports from kindergarten up through college. When it comes to music and entertainment, they are literally left to their own devices until they’re profitable, then the system kicks in. We want to create a system where youth can realize their value as artists from day one.

Just to put a finer point on it, why is the lack of all-ages performance spaces an issue for you guys?

Becky: I just think back to the opportunities I had or didn’t have in high school. I didn’t have an outlet for music in my town, so I had to drive to Denver and find those. I was mischievous enough to figure out where things were happening, and I bugged my parents enough that they said, “Sure, you can go,” but I was noticing in Portland that it was hard to invite my nephew out to things. I didn’t really understand why there weren’t more all-ages shows happening at existing venues, and then I investigated a bit with the OLCC and talked to Gina [Altamura, Friends of Noise board member and booker at Holocene] and Aaron. It’s expensive.

Aaron: A combination of things have happened in Portland where the all-ages clubs from even five years ago have closed, and that has created a huge vacuum. At the same time, the housing and rental market has gotten really tight. So there’s far fewer underage people living in the heart of the city with a basement where they can throw house shows.  

Becky: There should always be a safe space to freak out!

Aaron: If you want the city to continue to be a hub for creativity and dynamic culture, we have to nurture it from a young age. If it’s not happening with young people it’s going to start to fall off, and we’ll notice it. We have to create spaces where young people can express themselves and be exposed to music and the arts. There are fewer and fewer outlets for them to do so.

André: On another tip, I think it’s important to acknowledge that any city is always a bit like an organism. You’ve got people flowing in and flowing out. Infrastructure is something that has unfortunately been so sorely under-maintained. We have a service economy and we need to create something. I don’t know what they make in Hollywood besides art, and giving people an avenue to express that art. How does Portland fit in the economy of the West Coast, in collaboration with Seattle, with the Bay Area? Something Aaron said that I’m a big fan of is that we have to see the music scene as an ecological system, not just as this or that show. Portland used to have a flow that people came here to buy into. Whether they were waiting tables in one spot or being a bike messenger in another, Portland had a space for them at a very different strata. And so far, that’s not happening. So part of what we’re trying to do is figure out, where’s a part of town that’s not priced out. Is it the inner eastside? Is it this side of 205? The MAX system wasn’t what it is now 15 or 20 years ago. Now kids can come in from Clackamas or from Hillsboro and take part in a scene, and it can hopefully can be safer than going to Satyricon or going to the Roseland. So how do we take a long view in advocating for music, which has been such a vibrant pillar of Portland’s culture?

Ten years ago, when I was writing about this, the OLCC was clearly the boogeyman. But they did change some rules, and the hope was that by giving venues more creativity in deciding how to keep underage people from being in close contact with alcohol, they were opening avenues up for kids to enter 21-and-up spaces. Aaron, do you have a sense of why that didn’t stick?

Aaron: My assumption is that it’s still prohibitively expensive to throw an all-ages show at a bar. You still usually have to segment out the 21-and-over crowd from the all-ages section, you have to hire extra security, in some cases you have to file extra permitting and pay the dues on that. The vast majority of venues’ revenue comes from selling alcohol. The markup that you’re going to get from Red Bulls and candy bars just can’t make up that difference. Most venues break even on booking music. You win some, you lose some, but it all kind of comes out in the wash. You make your money by selling liquor. If you’re not selling liquor or beer, it’s a really difficult model. And our goal is to confront that head-on, and say, “Where is the need?” It’s supply and demand, so where’s the demand? How do we circumvent those problems and let bars do what they do perfectly well?

Becky: And to that end, where do we cultivate a generation of kids who realize that you don’t have to be drunk to see a show? Alcohol and music can be connected, but they don’t always have to be. It can be one or the other or both. It really is limiting their access to things that might bring them into civic engagement and their understanding of the world around them faster and more eloquently.

Aaron: My fear is that if you don’t create space where young people can experience live music and feel that magic that we all felt when we were kids, which got us involved in working in music or playing music or being passionate about it, then what’s their motivation going to be to pick up drumsticks or figure out how to manage their friends’ bands, or figure out how to run a sound board? We’re going to lose that.

André: There are three legs to this stool: education, access to music, and ownership of a space. The young people who get involved have to feel like they own this space and be educated on all aspects of it. They need to see both their contemporaries and people from out-of-town performing there. I think that’s the natural formula that creates ownership like the WOW Hall in Eugene, or like Vera Project in Seattle. This space has to be intergenerational. As adults, and for me as a parent, we love kids. We remember what it was like to be kids.

Aaron: Well, and there’s a huge emerging demographic in Portland of the young, hip parent who wants nothing more than to be able to expose their kids to music, and they don’t have access to it. Our anecdotal sense of this is that there’s such a need, there’s such a vacuum that’s been created, that people are more than willing to come crawling out of the woodwork and help with this. My sense is that when big bands come through town, they want a real option for an all-ages venue.

Becky: We hope people will say, “You know what, there’s this venue that is just as cool as a bar,” and we want it to be just as important for local bands as playing Revolution Hall or playing a show at the Aladdin. All of us want to be at that level. But where we are now, increasing opportunities for kids to go to shows in their neighborhoods would also be huge.

There are a lot of groups locally doing music education. Is one problem that those groups haven’t fully connected the dots with each other?

Becky: Well, that’s kind of where we started. We said, “Why don’t we start sharing information?” With Friends of Noise, that was our first question. “Do we need to start something new, or is there an entity that’s already doing this?” Because we don’t want to duplicate services or create something new that isn’t necessary. But all of the nonprofits that we’ve worked with—because we started as a coalition of nonprofits—support us.

André: I think every city needs the next big idea, the next big project. Pioneer Square was a big project, and they did it. Whether it’s because budget cuts or taxes or whatever, people have forgotten the power of a big idea, of getting behind something. People are starting to talk about the lack of spaces, and they’re saying, “Do we need a new P5, do we need a new Keller Auditorium, do we need a new Portland Center Stage?” We want to make sure kids are at the front of that conversation. We put so much energy into adult entertainment, yadda yadda yadda, and we think it’s time people saw kids as a marginalized community. We’re going to be loud and clear about that.

Are you actively looking for spaces right now?

André: Our politics guru, Cary Clarke, said “Let’s do something first, before we go to the asking phase.” I have to agree with him. We have a grant from the Multnomah County Cultural Commission for $2,000. That and some other resources we’re working with have led us to working on our first show in late May. We’re hoping to collaborate with PDX Pop Now! on shows this summer, and then have another show on Thanksgiving break or Christmas break. We need to get those first four shows out of the way. We want to be successful, invite kids and adults and politicians along the way. We want to show that we can do this—prove our competence, you know?—we can’t let ourselves or our goals be bigger than what the need is.

Aaron: The youth voice is of the utmost importance. We don’t want to be a bunch of people in our 30s and 40s telling teens what they want or what they need. We’ve already got a few hundred responses back from youth surveys.

André: We’re also having monthly youth meetings at local libraries, and twenty to thirty kids show up every time to see what’s going on and how they can help. They want to start committees: They want to book bands, or they want to run the lights.

Aaron: Putting on these shows is a great way to get some feedback and figure out what people want. We want to work slowly but meticulously and thoroughly. We want to make sure we’re not jumping ahead of ourselves. But we also don’t want to keep kicking the can down the road.

If someone is interested and wants to help, is there an opportunity to do that right now?

Becky: I think if someone wants to help us plan shows, they should go to our Friends of Noise Facebook page and contact one of us. In the first wave, we are really asking kids to help us put together an outreach plan.

Aaron: They can find us on SnapBook and ZimZam! [Laughs]

Becky: It’s really a collaboration with youth, and that’s the most exciting part of this—we still really don’t know how it’s going to play out. But if we continue to listen to youth voices as the driver of the project, then we think we’re all smart enough to help facilitate that and mentor them so they can feel comfortable doing outreach.

The Friends of Noise launch party is May 22 at Los Prados Event Hall in St. Johns.

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