Of Money and Music 

Portland Music and the Looming Economic Recession

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Even on the rare occasions when things are absolutely great—the stock market prances about as a freewheeling bull, people have expendable income to spare, gold fronts for everyone—the concert promotion industry is still a risky one. Much like the unpredictability of the Wall Street ebb and flow (and occasional plummeting crash), there is little reliable science to booking concerts and filling venues. And now, a growing segment of promoters and venues—usually buoyed by the universal acclaim associated with Portland as a city overwrought with talented musicians and music fans alike—are currently feeling the squeeze of our country's dire financial state.

While far less tragic than entire industries being phased into oblivion (manufacturing, print journalism), economic woes that ricochet through the local network of clubs and promoters may very well act as a barometer for our town's music scene as a whole. If they suffer, we all suffer. So in an effort to better understand how the road to recession goes from Ben Bernanke all the way to the Builders and the Butchers, we talk to the behind-the-scenes players in Portland's music community to get a better idea of the current situation.

MERCURY: Since we're now officially knee deep in a recession, how are you adjusting the business to adapt?

MIKE QUINN (Monqui Presents): We are trying to be very careful with ticket prices and the volume of shows we are doing right now—especially shows with developing artists. We are fortunate with having somewhat economically protected venues in Doug Fir, and now the Crocodile in Seattle, to do the developing club acts in. It will be a little scary and interesting to see how the more adult-oriented big-ticket summer fare at Edgefield and Bend do this year. We're also trying to just say "no" to arena shows—those can be especially brutal if sales are off.

MIKE THRASHER (Mike Thrasher Presents): The current economy has definitely affected ticket sales. We're looking to bring in sponsors to create value ticket shows like we have in the past with our Low Dough Show series. We're also reducing the number of shows we produce and increasing our promotions for the shows we are producing. One unfortunate effect of the economic downturn is that we have had to focus less on developing acts and more on larger-name artists whose draws are more secure.

CONRAD LOEBL (Rotture): I remember right around Halloween, near the election, things started getting really scary. Shows that were guaranteed to go off, bombed. Things kind of randomly flipped, and a city that's already hard to gauge became even harder. It's been really a very sketchy few months. In this industry it's all peaks and valleys, but this time it's harder to see ahead of time. You kind of just go with the flow, and hope for the best, trying to be very careful.

A national recession usually latches onto weaker industries, so in that case wouldn't live music—and the bar revenues that often come with it—be immune?

JARKKO CAIN (Holocene): Probably $12 cocktails, $25 shows, and $10 Saturday night covers aren't recession proof. A really sweet dance party and a couple of Old Germans all for less than the price of a movie, sans refreshments, that might still look like a good deal.

THRASHER: I do think that live music events, especially those targeted at young people, are somewhat protected from economic shifts. One thing that was different with this recent recession was that the price of gasoline as well as other cost-of-living increases caused people to reevaluate what they could spend on entertainment. Even now that the price of gasoline has dropped, I think there has been a long lasting impact on the way people think about their entertainment dollars. People are staying home more often, going out less. It must be a boon for Netflix.

QUINN: The further we get into this downturn nothing is immune. Shows have been off—some way more than others. People are generally drinking less as well, basically the ticket sales and drinking knob got turned down a few notches.

LOEBL: Everyone talks about how alcohol consumption actually goes up in times of recession. But in these times, the service industry—from the barista, to the bartender and the waitress, all tips-based employment—definitely gets the pinch. And people are definitely on a budget, so I think they're still down to get out for the most part, but I think they're going to be a little choosy.

Do you think that surviving a financial downturn in the industry is something that can be cured as easily as lowering door prices?

THRASHER: Ticket prices are generally set by the artist's management and are a function of the kind of fee the artist needs to receive to make the tour work financially. I do find myself fighting harder to keep ticket prices down, though, harder than ever before. Portland seems especially sensitive to ticket prices, much more so than Seattle. I also feel like the artists and their managers are listening to what I say about ticket prices more than ever before. We do hope to bring in more sponsor-driven events that can help get ticket prices down while still meeting the artists' requirements. I think the way to survive is to provide high-quality events that people feel are a good value. 

QUINN: On most national acts the ticket prices are generally a function of what the artist wants. Bands and their agents are increasingly making more sensible deals with friendlier ticket prices as they too are seeing what's going on out there. There is always the push and pull of a cheap ticket price versus not undervaluing or discounting my artist in the market. Nobody wants to play an empty room.

JIMI BIRON (Crystal Ballroom): Starbucks is way down, and McDonald's is up. People gravitate to a deal, and will appreciate a lower door price, for sure. The problem is that our overhead here is very high, and it costs us what a small place would consider a record night just to open the doors. I have to pay sound people, production techs, security, and bartenders. We are a big, old place that is expensive to heat and maintain. 

LOEBL: Yes and no. Portland is already a cheap-ticket city. Compared to other cities, Portland is infamous for demanding very low ticket prices. Something that is easily $10-15 dollars in Los Angeles or New York is going to be like $5-7 here. For such a small city there's so much to do. I'm not sure how much cheaper tickets can get. As long as you keep the tickets reasonable, if they want to go, they're going to go. For every amazing out-of-town act, or even an artist from another part of the world, there's a house show, free party, etc. going on in the city. You just have to try and bring people what they want. Keep the quality up, and the prices reasonable. But please, people, remember to support the places you like to go to. If you don't, you're going to turn around and they're not going to be there anymore.

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