It sucks being an underage music fan in Portland. Just ask one.
"It's definitely a frustrating thing on a couple different levels," says Stella, 15. A volunteer for KBOO's Youth Collective, the high-school sophomore helps record live studio sessions by local bands. But if she wants to see a show herself, her options are limited to big-ticket concerts at Moda Center or house parties her parents aren't always keen on letting her attend. "I don't play any instruments or sing or anything like that, but I have friends that are musicians, and it's frustrating on the level of not being able to see those shows."
It's a familiar complaint. As long as Portland has had a music scene, it seems like young people have been shut out of it. For a long time, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, with its policies making it virtually impossible for minors and alcohol to exist in the same space, was a convenient scapegoat for the short shelf life of any club trying to serve an underage clientele. But even after those restrictions loosened eight years ago, allowing venues to come up with individualized plans for intermingling kids and booze sales, little has changed. In fact, the state of affairs for the under-21 demographic is more dismal now than it was a decade ago. It's led some to an unavoidable conclusion: If you're a midsized venue looking to stay open, the "all-ages, all the time" model just isn't sustainable.
For the members of Friends of Noise, a newly launched "all-ages advocacy group," it's time to try something else. The solution, they say, is going nonprofit.
"I don't think there's enough money or enough drive in Portland for an all-ages venue to stay open just from ticket sales and selling sodas and water," says board member Korey Schultz. "There has to be another component to it."
A coalition of youth-music advocates, music-related nonprofits and actual music-loving kids like Stella, Friends of Noise formed a year ago with the long-term goal of creating a multipurpose, community-run concert and arts space funded in part by grants and public donations. It's a model that's worked elsewhere, most notably with Seattle's Vera Project. It's an idea that's been kicking around in Portland music circles for years, too—but only recently has the situation gotten desperate enough to finally try implementing it.
"We've never been at 'total-options crisis mode,'" says Cary Clarke, founder of PDX Pop Now and executive director at Young Audiences Arts for Learning, two Friends of Noise partners. "There was always one or two places you could point to and say, 'They're still doing shows. Some have closed, but others have opened.'"
But since the closure of Backspace in 2013, Portland's all-ages scene has lacked a clear center. Venues that could've filled the void—Slabtown, Laughing Horse Book and Film Collective, the Red & Black Cafe—evaporated in rapid succession. With MusicfestNW merging with Project Pabst, now even the city's biggest music festival is off-limits to anyone under legal drinking age.
Venues like the Hawthorne Theatre and Wonder Ballroom allow kids to see national acts on a regular basis, but the price of admission is often out of an average teenager's budget. And while DIY spaces like Anarres Infoshop in North Portland play an important role in the music ecosystem, they typically have fleeting lifespans, which are only growing shorter as the city gets increasingly more expensive.
"Real estate is a very valuable commodity and only becoming more valuable in Portland," Clarke says. "We're in a narrow window where it's viable for grassroots community to lay a claim and say, 'This is our place, and no matter how the neighborhood changes, this is a space where music is going to be made and everyone can be involved no matter how old they are.'"
With Friends of Noise, the hope is to incubate successive generations of creativity—not just through performances but through hands-on education in sound engineering, promotion and other disciplines. The next few months are dedicated to figuring out exactly where that should be. Through a grant from the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition, the group is planning to hold a series of pop-up concerts over the next year, beginning this week in St. Johns. It's partly to build awareness, and advocate to city officials about the need for a safe, inclusive and sustainable all-ages venue in Portland, but also to survey the needs of those in neighborhoods largely underserved when it comes to cultural engagement.
"We keep telling them, 'You come down to the art museum, you come down to the Schnitz—community exists downtown,'" says board member Becky Miller. "You're almost telling them community doesn't exist where they live. We're trying to change that [by asking], 'What's happening in your neighborhood that's exciting?'"
Involving the audience the venue is looking to serve—fostering a sense of ownership and creating a cycle of mentorship—will be crucial to the success of Friends of Noise. Because the quickest way for the project to fail would be to have a bunch of 30-year-olds dictating their tastes to kids half their age.
"The goal of Friends of Noise is not to have an established, adult-led organization," Schultz says. "Everyone involved in this conversation, everyone on the board, we've all said we don't plan on doing this forever. We plan on setting up the system that will allow people to grow through it."
With any luck, that'll mean people like Stella. She's especially interested in learning the booking side of things. In her case, the potential in something like Friends of Noise isn't just more opportunities to thrash around with her friends. It's possible career training.
"It's really exciting to be involved with the beginning stages of it," she says. "We've been talking about how maybe, 10 or 15 years from now, this is something that is nationally recognized, and we could hold shows for bands that are touring through Portland at our venue."
SEE IT: The Friends of Noise Launch Party, with Doo Doo Funk Allstars, Neo G Yo, Drex Porter and Gem Dynasty, is at Los Prados Event Hall, 10105 N Lombard St., on Sunday, May 22. 5:30 pm. $5 for youth or $8 for two tickets, $10 adults. All ages.