July 26th, 2006 5:33 pm | by MARK BAUMGARTEN Music | Posted In: Columns, News

Local Cut Exclusive: Sam Adams Talks PDX Music

SamAdams1While he is most certainly the hippest of Portland's City Commissioners, Sam Adams is still considerably square. Sitting in his City Hall office, Adams looks exhausted in a very cool way, his five o'clock shadow pronounced, his baby blue dress shirt unbuttoned two down to reveal a v-neck and a hint of a gold chain. But he's still wearing pleated slacks and the Commissioner was still unable to shed his suit coat last Wednesday when took the stage alongside the Hall's rotunda. There he did something very cool, helping to introduce three of Portland's top indie rock bands to a crowd of young music fans that would swell to 500. The concert, put on in conjunction with the PDX Pop Now! Festival, was promoted by Adams as an outreach to a community that might not even know where City Hall is. Adams has also reached out to the local community by inviting comments on his website concerning how the city can help one of its most important cultural industries. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Of course, it could just be lip service, which would make Adams hella lame. Local Cut sat down with Adams to talk about his plans for the future of this city's musicians and music fans.

How did yesterday end up happening?
When I was chief of staff to the mayor, I always thought that city hall seemed more like a mausoleum than a people's hall and so when I was fortunate enough to get elected, I ran on trying to get appointed the arts and culture commissioner, because I really wanted to combine the two and really make this much more of a place that people thought of like European city halls. A place where, you know, people feel welcome. They come here for, if not the best events in arts and culture, it's not ruled out as a place for arts and culture. And so many people, when I was a candidate, had never been to city hall, had never been in a commissioner's office. It's still a very small, small percentage of the population that interacts with arts and culture, in the city anyways, so I thought I would give it a try because I have a special affinity for the underdog. We started out with first Thursdays for artists that don't have gallery contracts or performance contracts. We've had live music down in the rotunda for that, we've had broadcasts on National Public Radio. We had a celebration party for the Blues Festival and all the performers came and played short sets here. It's great weather and we never use the back porch of city hall, so to speak. So Jesse [Beason, Adams' senior policy director] had a connection with [PDX Pop Now!]. So it's great weather, let's do something. Jesse made the connection and found the music and got the mayor's support by including the visioning booth and a little bit of voter registration. But it's really about, as most of our events here are about, a casual opportunity, as un-elitist, as egalitarian as possible for people to come by and enjoy.

It seems like there is more to it than that. On your website you've asked for suggestion on how the city can help the music community.
I want to be arts and culture commissioner for many many passionate reasons. One, did you know we're 24th in public funding for the arts in the United States? We have far more arts and culture here than we deserve given how little we give to it. We're the number one location for in-migration in the United States for 18- to 34-year-olds and I want to build on a reputation as a great place to live, as a great place for artists and culturists to want to live, and to find affordable spaces and venues for practice and to create a live music district. I had the opportunity to go, about nine years ago, to a conference in Austin and wander up and down 6th Street. It was just freaking amazing and there were a couple of things I was really struck by. One, it gave local live musicians the opportunity to, if not make their full living performing, make a lot more of their living than we provide most of our musicians here. Two, it looked very organic and I think it grew out of a definitely organic sort of idea. But there was a lot more behind the scenes sort of support from their version of our arts and culture council to continue it, to sustain it.

What sorts of things would they do?
One, they promoted it nationally. There's only a certain amount of money you can make off of the people at home. If you promote it nationally then you get tourists to come, and that can oftentimes be the difference between profit and not profit for some of these venues that can then afford to pay these performers. They had created a sort of brand out of it, that then, I'm not the right person to tell you what sort of music it was, but it was blues, honky-tonk, stuff. And it was fun. You know, a reason to go back there. You know, Austin's considered one of the best cities in Texas, and if it wasn't for 6th street, it looks a lot like the other cities in Texas, except for San Antonio. So I saw the potential for, you know, the big public-private partnership to do that here. Now here, in the city of Portland, one of the reasons why I wanted to be arts and culture commissioner is that we have this thing called Art Plan 2000 and it's like 13 years old and it barely mentioned live music. Live music, even within the arts and culture effort, is underappreciated in the city. So, two years ago when they approached me about [creating] the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, I thought that was a great opportunity to both boost our musical self-esteem by showing ourselves and prospective musicians that there had been some people, not as much as in other states and cities, but there have been musicians in the past that have made a go of it. There is a role for the public sector in terms of funding and venues and we can talk about some of the specific ideas I have there.

You talk about creating a live music district. It seems very difficult to do so when live music has been shut out of the arts for so long that it's become a complete private enterprise.
Yup. One of the reasons I sort of latched onto the Oregon Music Hall is that I saw the potential to build that advocacy. I need some sort of advocacy vehicle, and I thought at least that was the start of an advocacy vehicle with some sponsors that had some credibility and heft and the fact that it was connected to a local company that happens to sell music [Music Millennium], I thought great. So I was their first member. I've got the first membership card from them. But you're absolutely right, [musicians] are so busy, either because they're musicians, or because they're going from some crap job or good job to play music. There's a difference between being a musician and an advocate and what I saw were folks in the Oregon Music Hall that could really be good advocates, so I really want to try to grow advocacy there. Um, in terms of the live music district, all those things are difficult without advocacy, but there are opportunities ahead of us. How do we, in terms of new potential venues for noisy neighborhoods for musicians, create a music district? Clearly we have some venues scattered around the city that try hard; some do well, some have a hard time of it. But organizing the music halls and the musicians is tough because they're busy because they're trying to run around the region, get as many gigs as they possibly can. I know from my discussions so far that practice venues, affordable, consistently available—in other words they don't get gentrified into apartments—is what I've heard to be a big deal.

So, does this come into city planning then? When you're deciding what you want to do with the inner eastside industrial area? There's a lot of musicians that count on that area.
We just considered an extension of the tax increment industrial district. The advisory panel came in at $35 million, and I proposed to take it to $51 million, in part because I didn't think there was enough money there to ensure affordable work space. In fact there was basically no money there. So, part of the reason for getting money for that is that there are a lot more creatives over there that are gonna be pinched. It's not going to work if you're given just enough money to get the district gentrified but not enough money on the table to lock-in affordability for some of these creative spaces. You've gotta have public investment to do that you gotta find really creative developers to do that.

The biggest problem with the central eastside is something as boring but important as seismic codes. You know that most of those buildings are unreinforced brick masonry and federal seismic earthquake standards require that you've gotta put millions and millions of dollars in that nobody has and you'll never get back. The kind of development deals that I am interested in pursuing there is where we will help them with low-interest loans or in some cases even grants for building owners to upgrade their building, even like Town Storage. But in return for that, what we get is some guaranteed affordability for creative space on either a rental or ownership basis. And those are the kinds of deals that for 15 or 20 years can ensure the affordable creative spaces in the central eastside. We failed to do that on the original vision for the Pearl and the South Waterfront. The central eastside for me was just a crucible and here I am telling the Portland Development Commission and the citizen group that came forward with $35 million, that it wasn't enough, and the league of woman voters saying it wasn't enough, you have not put money on the table for affordable workspace, for affordable housing, and so, we were successful. I got the three votes on city council to do that and that, combined with [the proposed eastside] streetcar, holds a lot of promise to keep that really important part of the city available for creative types.

So it sounds like you are protecting the creative's interests.
Absolutely. The best, I mean the easiest, it's never easy, because there's never enough money to do anything, but it's much easier to maintain an affordable workspace and existing buildings than trying to build it new. The cost of new construction, you know, pales in comparison to the cost of renovation or just locking in what we have.

So those measures keep the local music scene on the same level as it has been? What about things that the city can do that pushes the industry? The buses stop running at 12:30. That keeps people from going to shows. All-ages clubs in town are impossible to keep open. I mean do you look at things like the Vera Project in Seattle and see…
We, uh, I mean, a couple of things. One, I mean I think we need to look at all that and that's why the callout for ideas, inspiration whether based on local opportunities or problems or successes that someone has had. I've done the callout for ideas on music, on live performance and local musicians because it is, I think, the most challenged right now. And again, I think when you look at the investments in the Portland Art Museum and you look at the investments in the opera, in the symphony and the ballet, those are all really good, but what's missing is, you know, the musical, the musicians and live music. So, um, I'm into this whole sort of box of ideas and this totally open, and just stealing whatever we need to steal, good ideas from wherever else, but in the end I think it will be, um, a hybrid. Portland's artistic community is very siloed anyway, and pretty fractured. There isn't, for instance, there isn't a good place even to put your, to advertise your gig. You know, um, WW comes the closest to being the most comprehensive. I mean I don't see, I don't know how you make money on it. But it's tough and you still have to pick and choose what you put in and what you go to and what you register. So we're working on a project right now, and we're not really ready to talk about it, but we're putting together a project that would sort of level the playing fields for musical events, provide a lot more access using the power of the internet, working cooperatively with The Oregonian, the Willamette Week, The Mercury, um, and other newspapers in town. No city has done it before, but the idea here is, you know, how do you get musicians to know each other exist better. I think we need to have those kind of things, and that's a good role for us to play. But fundamentally we gotta find a way to get ‘em more money and um, we've gotta brand, we've gotta bring people that run these music venues, together. I mean these are some of the ideas that I have, bring ‘em together, talk about what they need, sort of brand that, make it more accessible, understandable and visible to Portlanders. And I sit on the Portland Oregon Visitors Association Board and they do a much better job of hooking up when conventions come to town than the regular tourism in town. Have POVA be a much better promoter of live music opportunity for folks that are in town. That 15 to 25 percent patronage of live music shows from folks from out of town makes a huge difference.

Where do you get that number from?
Well, Austin's is a lot bigger than that, but that's sort of what I think our … it's based on my look at how many visitors we get on average weekends and where they go spend their time. Too many of our visitors leave town. You ask people what they like most about Portland, they'll tell you the Coast and Mt. Hood and I'm like "wait a minute!" Now part of that is just out of ignorance. So you're getting more into visitors comfortable with and knowledgeable of, and more of our local folks comfortable with and knowledgeable of where to go. Most people have no idea where the Green Room is. How would you? I mean it's so far off the beaten track. A lot of people might be intimidated by the house scene, but once you get in there it's a pretty egalitarian place. But, from here on out, there's gonna be a lot give and take, and the idea is to identify the common problem, both for musicians, both for promoters, both for people that own venues, what are the common problems. We've done this for a lot of other things, um, there's just never been anyone interested in focusing on music.

But shouldn't it be survival of the fittest? Not every band can make money because there's a lot of crappy bands out there.
I'm not about seeking success for crappy bands and I put crappy in details. Maybe there are bands that don't have the talent; they're musicians that don't have the talent. That's not my point, to artificially decide what's popular or not, that's not my business. My business is exactly that. To provide that infrastructure for that cycle survival of the fittest, survival of the most talented or lucky. My job is to make sure that that's based on as much as possible, merit. Right now, I think we have a lot of good folks that either get chewed up, spit out and get out of the business or go somewhere else to make a go there and shame on us for that loss. The biggest problem we have now is that we have many people who are very talented or very good—I think we saw some of them last night—and yet they struggle here, in part because we're not the most populous place in the United States. I still think we can do a lot better, we have more potential to have more musicians do well here right now. Infrastructure, advocacy. If you've got advocacy, you can get more infrastructure, and if you understood the problems and the challenges and are able to break them down then I think there's a lot of progress we can make.

A few last questions.

Who's your favorite band in town?
That's a tough one, cause I might piss people off. Do I have to answer that?

Let's get through these next couple. Then you can tell me. What was the first concert you ever went to?
In my entire live? The Police at Shea Stadium in NYC. I was 16 or 17.

First record you ever bought.
The first record I ever bought was in the ‘70s. Manford Man. l liked this one song, so I bought the record and started listening to the song. It must've been, it was in Newport, I grew up in Newport, Oregon, so it probably was when I was 13. In terms of my favorite band, but I don't think they're around anymore, do they have to be around anymore?

Ok, see they used to be here for a little bit, they're called the Crazy 8's. They're a great garage, fun band. They're like loud, brassy and not pretentious. But there's so much good stuff now.

Go here to post your ideas on how the city can better the plight of the local musician and music fan. Or just comment below. We'll make sure he gets your suggestion.
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