When I first moved to Portland about 15 years ago, the fun kneejerk complaint was directed at Californians who migrated north to take advantage of our lack of sales tax, better coffee, and milder weather. Now, it would seem the tables have started to turn. Over the last six to eight months, a slow but steady trickle of people from our fair city are starting to head to sunnier climes, with a somewhat surprising focus on Los Angeles.
For most of Portland, the effects of this aren't really noticeable, but for those of us who love and follow the music covered in this column, the impact is getting stronger every day. Because most of the people we are losing to the City of Angels are our musicians.
"I feel like I spent 18 years in the pen on a 25 year bid," says Adam Forkner, the guitarist/knob twiddler who records and performs as White Rainbow. "I was running shit on the inside too. You want a 10 lb. bag of Stumptown? You want to get into Holocene for free? I'll hook you up. You don't remember what real life is like."
Forkner was, by my reckoning, one of the first to start this new exodus down south, followed slowly by Jeffrey Jerusalem, Jean-Paul Jenkins, Joe Haege (31 Knots, Tu Fawning), Bennett Yankey (Hustler White), Conrad Loebl (booker at Rotture), and others. It's a small group of folks, admittedly, but within the small pool of experimental/electronic musicians we have here in Portland, it's a pretty sizeable chunk. Enough, at least, that I felt it was worth writing a column about it.
To talk with a few of the musicians who have vacated the city that helped nurture their creative endeavors, the idea to pull up stakes was often a practical one (Jerusalem, for one, was tiring of the commute down to L.A. to work/rehearse with his YACHT bandmates) but also a reaction to how Portland has evolved over the last decade.
"A lot of us moved to Portland around the same time," says Haege, who became a California resident this January. "Between 1995 and 2000, there was this window where a lot of people moved there. And it just felt different. There were no expectations, but around 2005, there seemed to be a lot of people moving there with the expectation of the hype that been show to them by the media. That shifted the mentality of the city more than anything."
Many also point to the shifting demographics of Portland, and its accompanying adjustment in economic priorities as an impetus for their relocation. Or as Forkner puts it more succinctly: "Portland's getting fancier and more expensive."
"The target market has become older and more professional. That the restaurant scene is booming is a pretty telling cultural shift right there. Or it seems like everyone is starting an entrepreneurial business. I mean, I'm 37, and I don't have an interest in starting a small business. I make music."
Forkner's friend and musical partner Jerusalem—the two, along with YACHT's Jona Bechtolt and Bobby Birdman, started the production company BOYS—says, too, that the opportunities for musicians to find financially sustaining work in L.A. are much greater.
"Six months in L.A. and I already feel more comfortable calling myself 'self-employed' than I ever did in Oregon," he says. "Portland doesn't have an entertainment industry that autodidacts can find their place in, the way Los Angeles does. Most places don't, right?"
The only downside that these folks have found as a result of their move is finding less and less opportunities to bring their music to audiences in their new home. Some of that is a result of being relative newbies to the city, but also that the independent music scene is apparently much harder to crack into.
Plus, in the opinion of one musician, the outsider sounds that he's found in L.A. just isn't up to snuff to what he experienced here.
"I go to these shows and I'm like, 'Really? This is your weird? This is what you think is weird?" says Haege. "I'm either fucked or you guys are all boring."