http://lamkins-guitar.com/music/article/portland-not-music-mecca
David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

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Portland: not a music mecca

Portland has a lot of talented people and an insane number of venues. (Eight years ago a friend who worked on a now-defunct local-music newspaper told me that they had counted nearly 200 venues that offer live music. I'm certain there are more now.)

The good news is that there's plenty of room for everyone. No matter how offbeat or unusual your music, you can find an audience. That's great for the audience; they benefit from the diversity.

For the artists, the real problem is one of momentum. With so many choices available to your potential audience, how do you get them to come to hear you? On a typical night there are several performances I'd like to hear. When I do go out (which I do with less frequency because of the economy), I have to pick and choose.

Getting started is a real problem. An unknown artist with no draw ends up playing showcase gigs: four or five bands in an evening each get 40 minutes to play. This is on a weeknight; these gigs typically run until closing at 2am. That's OK if all of your friends sleep until noon on weekdays, but no so much if you'd like to get heard by the folks who have to hold down a day job. There's a lot of jockeying for position to go on earlier in the evening; by the last set the "crowd" can get really thin.

Most of the shows I go to are showcases. The musiciancs are good. They play their hearts out. But they have only 30 or 40 (including members of the other bands) in the room on a good weeknight.

The door charge at these showcase gigs is usually only five or six dollars. The house gets a percentage off the top for "expenses". The sound guy (there's always a sound guy - I only know of two venues in the area that let the band run their own sound) gets paid a fixed fee off the top. The bands split whatever is left, if anything. More often than not the take for the evening is the exposure and a couple of free beers.

I'm sorry if this sounds grim, but it's the way things are for unknown new performers in Portland.

House concerts are starting to take off as an alternative to showcase gigs in bars. The performers and host call the shots: logistically, artistically and financially. Attendance is generally at least as good as at a showcase. The host's expenses are much lower (often zero, as a favor to the bands) and there's no sound guy to pay. Unknowns make out better than they would at a showcase. There's a sense of camaraderie that helps to build relationships with fans.

Artists who have been in the scene and performing frequently for a year or more will be better known to bookers and fans alike and will likely get a weekend gig if they can draw consistenly. At this level the weekend gigs are still of the showcase variety. However, being a weekend there will be more people in the audience and they'll likely stay for more of the evening. It's not unusual to have 60 people in the room at any one time, with up to a hundred total patrons for the evening. Door charges are still in the $5 to $10 range, depending upon the lineup. For a typical night, assuming an egalitarian split, each band will earn somewhere between $50 and $150. Although this is for a 40-minute set, the band's evening typically begins with a load-in at 8pm and ends with cash-out at 2am.

Sometimes the house handles the split, pro-rated based upon who patrons said they came to see as they entered. (Patrons have to pick one band. They don't get to say "I'm here to see X and Y": that'd be too much math for the door guy who's almost certain going to have earned more at the end of the night than any musician in the room.)

Oftentimes one of the bands puts together the lineup. This is fairly common for a band that has been on the scene for long enough to be a known quantity to the booker. It saves the booker a lot of work as they only have to call one band then let that band handle the rest of the bookings for an evening. In this situation, the "headlining" band (who will usually go on stage in the middle of the evening) doles out what's left of the door after the house and sound guy take their cut.

Beyond the weekend showcase, bands have to tour to expand their market. A few years of touring may start to pay dividends in getting opening slots for better-known regional touring bands. These gigs are actual "concerts" with only two or three artists in an evening. Attendance is typically between 100 and 250 or so.

Bands that have been doing well with recording and regional touring for a while start to draw larger crowds after about five years. At this level I've seen bands play to crowds of 300 to 600.

Beyond that there are damned few bands who have been around longer and are able to draw larger crowds.

The above is all about the original music scene, which covers a huge range of styles here in Portland.

There are plenty of other scenes going on with which I have little to no experience or exposure. I know there's a blues scene. There are at least a couple of stellar players that I've had the pleasure to hear.

I've met musicians who play covers for corporate clients. I understand that the money is good.

There's also a cover band scene. The number of venues is relatively small, but the money is OK. Gigs in this scene tend to be long-term. The music covers a lot of ground, not just classic rock.

There's a small local jazz scene. Some of the players are stellar. The good players survive by touring and teaching. I don't think there's any serious money in playing jazz in Portland. I've heard of one internationally-acclaimed who plays for tips when at home here in Portland.

DJs get a lot of work here in Portland.

There's also an art scene that tends to coexist with the more "out there" musical forms.

May 24 2009 21:34:28 GMT