"I THINK there's definitely a divide between youth culture and adult culture," says Hannah Ginsberg, a junior at St. Mary's Academy. Ginsberg is also a youth committee member at Friends of Noise, a new group dedicated to creating safe spaces for all-ages concerts in Portland, supporting arts education, and bridging this palpable gap in Portland's music community.
On Sunday, May 22, Friends of Noise will host their first show and launch party at Los Prados Event Hall in St. Johns, with performances from the Doo Doo Funk Allstars, Neo G Yo, Drex Porter, and GEM Dynasty. It's the first of four concerts the group plans to put on this year, thanks to a grant from the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition. Friends of Noise ultimately hopes to find a permanent location for an all-ages venue that could serve as a home base while they continue to put on networked shows across the city.
Friends of Noise is "for youth, by youth, supported by adults," says Ginsberg. During our meeting at Tiny's on SE Hawthorne she's joined by fellow St. Mary's junior and youth committee member Frances McClain, as well as Rebecca Miller, who has worked for the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and Gina Altamura, Holocene's talent buyer, both from the group's board of directors. The youth committee has about 10 active members and 15 to 20 adult mentors on the board of directors.
Miller says Friends of Noise wants to bring concerts to neighborhoods that are "historically underserved." Many of Portland's mid-sized venues are centrally located downtown or in close-in Southeast, areas that can be difficult to reach for those living in far-flung neighborhoods. One of Friends of Noise's core values listed on their Facebook page is "accessibility for transit-dependent youth." They hope that bringing concerts to these less centrally located neighborhoods will encourage kids to get involved and help organize events.
By now it's old news that all-ages shows are scarce in Portland. There are still a few stalwarts carrying the torch, like SMART Collective, Mother Foucault's Bookshop, Anarres Infoshop and Community Space, and the Rosewood Initiative, while mid-sized clubs like Hawthorne Theatre and Analog Café also host a reasonable amount of all-ages shows. But over the past few years we've lost beloved venues like Laughing Horse Books, Slabtown, Backspace, the Red and Black Café, and the Alhambra Theatre.
"I feel like youth shows in general aren't seen as profitable," says Ginsberg. She's right—drinkers are money spenders, so pragmatically it makes sense that these businesses prioritize the 21-and-over crowd.
"For any venue that does sell alcohol," says Altamura, "the door money is essentially a break-even endeavor, and the bar sales are the backbone."
Strict Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) regulations make it difficult to sell alcohol and have minors in the same space. Last fall Mercury contributor and All-Ages Action! columnist Morgan Troper talked to OLCC spokesperson Christie Scott for his piece "No Way to Kill It" [Feature, Oct 7, 2015]. Scott told him it's a misconception that the OLCC discourages all-ages events, and that there are "several options" available to concert venues. Some places like Black Water Bar successfully sell alcohol and allow minors in the same space, but it's a predictably expensive balancing act.
When you pair concert venues' often booze-dependent business models with skyrocketing rents, the future is looking bleak for all-ages spaces. The situation has spurred the revival of house shows in local DIY scenes, with bands repurposing basements and living rooms into makeshift venues ["This One's on the House," Music, July 8, 2015]. But house shows have their own limitations, like noise complaints and property damage.
Persisting issues also threaten the long-term viability of some of the city's best remaining community-supported all-ages venues. Anarres Infoshop in St. Johns was robbed twice in February, and last month announced that they'd received a serious noise citation from the city after neighbors complained and would have to end all future shows by 10 pm. In March, three people were injured in a shooting at outer Southeast's Rosewood Initiative Community Center, which works to "build a safe, prosperous, vibrant, and inclusive community."
When minors and bar sales can coexist in venues, it's usually on either side of awkward barriers that bisect mid-sized spaces like the Crystal and Wonder Ballrooms. These physical dividers illustrate the tensions between the drinking side and the non-drinking side. "There's a lot of young people feeling patronized by adults and adults feeling annoyed by young people," says Ginsberg.
Friends of Noise looks to Portland's ghosts of all-ages venues past for inspiration, but also to Seattle's currently thriving all-ages nonprofit the Vera Project. "They were essentially gifted this space in the Seattle Center that's incredibly beautiful and awesome," says Altamura, "but now they're just out in this little zone and wishing they could get into other neighborhoods in Seattle that are underserved."
Throughout the course of our conversation, all four women constantly repeat the word "inclusivity"—fostering a "safe, inclusive community" is another one of the group's core values. This means creating spaces that don't actively exclude by their lack of accessibility, but also by booking concerts that showcase many different genres of music.
"I think inclusivity is one of the most important parts of this, because the entire idea fueling [Friends of Noise] is that there's not enough spaces that cater to everyone of all ages. To market only to a certain type of music and a certain type of person would be kind of counterintuitive," says McClain.
Friends of Noise will also "[try] to get away from this perceived seemingly inextricable link between going out and seeing music and drinking," says Altamura.
"Or fun and drinking," adds McClain.
"The idea that we could separate those things and have something that's more focused on the music with a little more active and attentive listening that you'd get at a bar," says Altamura.
Friends of Noise has its own limitations—so far only four concerts are planned for the remainder of this year. Since these shows will be held in Portland's far-out neighborhoods, they'll be very accessible for some while entirely unreachable for others. The cost of a youth ticket to the group's launch party this Sunday is $5, a low price that can still pose a financial strain for some young adults.
Another hurdle Friends of Noise faces will be keeping shows alcohol- and drug-free without betraying the trust of the youth population they serve. They'll try to host entirely dry shows like Vera Project, which Altamura says has a strict no-beverage policy. This "eliminates the need for checking people's water bottles," says Altamura. "It kind of saves the step of having to be super invasive of people."
Friends of Noise's empowerment of young leaders is a monumental step in preserving and supporting inclusivity in Portland's increasingly commodified music scene. It's unreasonable to expect the topography of Portland's live music to completely transform to accommodate all-ages shows—the money to facilitate concerts has to come from somewhere, whether it's bar sales, grants, or benevolent donors. But whether or not you're directly affected by the scarcity of all-ages shows and venues, it's critically important for Portland to maintain some of these vital spaces that welcome people of all ages. Everyone should have access to art, and this means that we need inclusive areas where cultural engagement and participation isn't determined by factors like age.