It is tempting to account for Portland's rise as a creative capitol in poetically compelling terms—painting a picture of progressive young artists attracted to our city's inspiring geography, vegan doughnuts, and permissive culture. (Claims no doubt true, in their own fuzzy way.) Yet it seems to me that the most convincing explanation is economic. In spite of the rising cost of living, by most measures Portland remains the most affordable big city on the West Coast. Say what you will about Oregon's pioneer legacy and DIY spirit, but at the end of the day we would see significantly less music made in this town if people couldn't make their rent waiting tables four nights a week, leaving artists ample time to create without the specter of homelessness casting a pall over their work.
In contrast, musicians in big, expensive cities like New York, by and large, do not have the option of making music seriously without the ultimate goal of making a living by it. Rent is so costly that one's time is unavoidably commodified. There is a very real need to spend one's hours on pursuits likely to turn a profit in the foreseeable future. This is not to say that musicians in such places are walking around with dollar signs in their eyes; just that the situation is such that the average person does not have the luxury of spending half their time on an artistic pursuit solely for the joy of it, particularly if they have a family to support. Musicians in New York are generally "making a go of it" because they have to be in order to justify being musicians at all. There are many perks to living in a bustling, expensive metropolis, but flexibility in relation to one's art is not one of them.
The romantic notion of the starving artist conditions us to see something tragic in a musician working a day job. But that's what most of us do, generally without regret or any sense of concomitant tragedy. Portland's economics allow us to devote ourselves to our art without needing it to make us rich. Of course, there are musicians in Portland happily making a living playing music, and others frustrated they are not, but what makes our city's music community the most vibrant and noteworthy in the nation is the viability of a lifestyle that apportions as much time to profitless art as to profitable employment, coupled with a critical mass of musicians willing to embrace it. This is ultimately why we live in a city where everyone plays an instrument, and where shows that would elsewhere be considered sparsely attended failures are instead seen as intimate moments of shared beauty.