With S1 about to launch into its fourth year, it'd be easy to assume the music venue has discovered some secret to thriving as a nonprofit arts space in Portland's constantly fluctuating market. But executive director Felisha Ledesma says that's hardly the case.
"If we didn't have the passion and drive to think that this space is necessary, it wouldn't exist," says Ledesma. "Because it's very difficult."
On a recent Thursday evening, Ledesma, S1 co-founder Alex Ian Smith and workshop instructor Daniela Karina sip cans of Rainier around a folding table in the middle of their white-walled, concrete-floored venue. Since it opened in 2014, the volunteer-run space has become a home for underground electronic music and experimental DJs. Two years ago, S1 also opened a library of synthesizer and recording equipment that's available to the public, and began offering educational gear workshops for femme and non-binary participants.
"These are people that are putting all their passion and time into making this art, and they might not have a platform to share it, and that's something that we
can provide," says Smith. "That's not to say that anything goes, but there are really talented people that aren't being given opportunities."
While other nonprofit arts spaces struggle to stay afloat, S1 has lasted four years. This weekend, it's celebrating by hosting a series of performances and workshops.
The anniversary also marks almost a year that S1 has been at its new location, squeezed in between a dive bar and vape shop on Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 73rd Avenue. Last spring, S1 was forced to move out of it Hollywood District basement due to tighter fire-code regulations put in place after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, which killed dozens of people.
Losing a space is something few small arts nonprofits in Portland can survive. But not only did S1 find a new building, it has expanded internationally. Earlier this year, S1's Synth Library—which stocks everything from Moog synthesizers to top-of-the-line effects pedals and mixing software—opened a sister location in Prague.
S1's longevity and survival doesn't necessarily mean stability, though. "It just really changes all the time," says Ledesma. "There's a lot pushing up against it."
As a nonprofit and volunteer-run venue, S1 doesn't really have a blueprint to follow. Along with its singular education programs, S1 is one of the few venues for music in the city that isn't a bar. That allows the organization to frequently host all-ages shows, and has a significant impact on the kind of music S1 books—commercial appeal isn't a factor.
"That's not something that ever crosses our mind," says Smith. "It's like, 'Is this artist someone that our community in Portland needs to see?' If the answer's yes, then we figure it out."
Most of S1's programming is dedicated to electronic musicians who would usually be booked only to provide background music during gallery openings, if at all. The three concerts during S1's anniversary weekend will include sets by Portland artists like Carly Barton, a prolific ambient chiptune producer, and Jamondria Harris, whose echoey soundscapes sound as if they belong in some kind of digital monastery. Freeform sound collages are often dismissed as niche, but S1 has proved there is an audience for them.
"Even though it's not mainstream or commercial or whatever, it's still like a really vibrant, powerful sound and community that's everywhere," says Karina.
Karina is a DJ herself, and is particularly interested in creating rhythmic, cross-cultural soundscapes. "I play a lot of international music, because the whole reason I started DJing was because I didn't see that here," she says. "What I found was that I certainly wasn't the only one here into that, and I certainly wasn't the only person of color here into that, or the only woman, etc., etc. I think recontextualizing those sounds within this idea of Portland, and finding community through that was really important to me."
The Synth Library has proven something similar. Electronic music gear culture isn't esoteric by nature; it's esoteric because of financial and cultural barriers, which Ledesma herself has had to overcome. "It was really scary to me to be like, 'Let me touch this gear that I have never had access to,'" she says. "It always felt like it wasn't for me."
The demand for the library has made it clear that there is, in fact, a wide swath of Portlanders who want access to gear. Almost immediately after it launched the Synth Library, S1 accrued a waiting list that took a year to get through.
When it moved to its new space last year, S1 risked losing the community it had spent years cultivating. Its previous venue was only a few blocks from one of the city's largest transportation hubs. The Sandy Boulevard venue is 30 blocks from the nearest MAX stop.
But so far, moving farther outside the city center just means S1 has gained a new community. "Portland isn't as centralized as we think it is," says Karina. "So in a lot of ways, being in this neighborhood is important to a lot of people."
Besides, S1 has already made it this far.
"I think it just takes certain personalities to be like, 'Who cares if we fail? We have nothing to lose. Let's just try it and support each other through this idea,'" says Ledesma. "And whatever we measure success by isn't the same as everyone else."
SEE IT: S1's anniversary weekend is Friday-Sunday, June 8-10 at 7320 NE Sandy Blvd. See s1portland.com for full schedule. Weekend passes $45, individual tickets $10-$18.