Four years ago, there was hope that Portland's midsized concert venues might start making room for kids. Music lovers were bullish as the Oregon Liquor Control Commission loosened the ancient language of its rules to allow alcohol-serving venues more flexibility in accommodating minors (see "Sonic Youth," WW, Sept. 5, 2007). The changes were widely viewed as a victory for underage music fans, but while the rulings have helped venues like Doug Fir, Holocene and Mississippi Studios host occasional all-ages shows, most Portland concerts are still accessible only with proper ID.
It's simple economics for most venues. "At the end of the day, we're a bar," says Matt King, booker for popular North Portland venue Mississippi Studios. "Bands get most of the [ticket revenue]. We're lucky to be able to cover staffing and insurance and all of that from a show. We really only make our money off of selling drinks and food, and when we have an all-ages crowd, it just hurts that."
Collaborating with the OLCC after the rule changes, Mississippi Studios developed several options for allowing minors. One of them is a "mixed floor plan," allowing underage concertgoers to share the same space with 21-and-up patrons who are drinking. That plan requires the club to hire extra security and keep lighting "bright enough so that you can read a newspaper," King says, among other restrictions. "We just don't even mess with it anymore, to be honest." While the club occasionally books alcohol-free, all-ages matinee shows or reserves its balcony for all-ages patrons, the vast majority of its shows remain 21-and-up.
Across the river at Backspace, the rule changes made a bigger impact. The venue, a coffee shop by day, was losing money on its all-ages shows in 2007 and had considered closing, even as it has fast become a nerve center for the younger part of Portland's scene. After working with the OLCC in 2008, the company secured a new floor plan that would allow it to serve beer and wine while still hosting all-ages shows. Like Mississippi Studios, it is subject to a handful of rules and restrictions—most shows feature a security guard standing cross-armed at the front of the stage looking for minor consumption in the well-lit room—but for Backspace, it's been worth it. "Those alcohol sales have kept Backspace viable," owner Eric Robison says. "With the recession hitting, sales went down across the board, but then we suddenly had the added revenue of selling beer and wine."
Backspace, like most all-ages venues, operates on razor-thin margins—but having multiple business models working in the same space has allowed it to stay afloat. Moving things forward, though, is a different matter.
Because of Portland's rocky history with all-ages clubs, there has long been chatter among local youth-music advocates about replicating something like Seattle's Vera Project—a community show space with financial support from the city.
"There's a lot of grassroots enthusiasm for all-ages music in this city," says Nick Johnson, artistic director for local nonprofit PDX Pop Now! (Johnson also runs WW's annual Give! Guide.) "But I think it's a two-part challenge: Finding a venue and then a model that is sustainable. PDX Pop Now! has considered championing that cause, but we've decided that with our all-volunteer-run structure, we just don't have the capacity to take it on. I think PDX Pop Now! would like to play a part, but at this point we're focused on getting music in the schools and slowly growing the festival."
For a Vera Project-style all-ages venue to thrive in Portland would take involvement from the same audience such a venue would look to serve. King, who was heavily involved in the all-ages scene before being hired at Mississippi in 2010, says a lot of frustration comes from working with underage concertgoers.
"Little kids are a pain in the ass," King says. "They have zero respect. They show up fucked up on drugs. They try and sneak drinks in. They tag the venue. Little kids are terribly behaved. I like to think I'm one of the champions of all-ages music in town, but it's hard to do when they come in and make your boss mad at you."
Robison, who says he and his partners at Backspace have discussed the logistics of transforming their own venue into a nonprofit operation, knows that frustration all too well. "It comes with the territory, and I don't know if it's a mission thing or a martyr thing that keeps me here," he says. "But if one out of 10 kids gets it, and gets inspired by something we do here, maybe it makes up for the nine kids who are scratching their names on my tables thinking it's cool. Backspace requires upkeep all the time because we do all-ages shows, but I honestly think that it's worth it."
A Guide to Portland's All Ages Live Music Venues
Alberta Rose Theatre
3000 NE Alberta St., albertarosetheatre.com.
Expect: A star-studded folk tribute to Paul Simon.
Typical cover: $15-$25.
Status: Minors must be accompanied by parent or guardian. Some shows 21+. Mostly seated.
3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., aladdin-theater.com.
Status: Minors must be accompanied by parent or guardian. Some shows 21+. Some shows require minors to sit in balcony. Mostly seated.
Backdoor Theater at Common Grounds Coffeehouse
4321 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Expect: Itâs a new space, so weâre not exactly sure yet.
Typical cover: Probably $5-$10.
Status: Minor-friendly, no alcohol (yet, anyway). 50-person capacity.
115 NW 5th Ave., backspace.bz.
Status: Always all ages with unrestricted access for minors. 21+ can drink beer with wristband (Backspace is the only venue in Portland with this arrangement).
320 SE 2nd Ave., branxpdx.com.
Expect: A balls-out hardcore band with really good hair.
Typical cover: $5-$18
Status: Minors get full stage/pit access, drinkers get separate 21+ bar.
1332 W Burnside St., danceonair.com.
Typical cover: $20-$35.
Status: Most shows all ages with full stage access. Large drinking section and 21+ balcony.
Expect: A band fresh off the Warped Tour.
1507 SE Hawthorne Blvd., hawthornetheater.com.
Typical cover: $6-$18.
Status: Most shows all ages, with full access to stage and separate 21+ bar.
Expect: Jazz. Lots of jazz.
221 NW 10th Ave., jimmymaks.com.
Typical cover: $5-$25.
Status: Always all ages until 9 pm. Touring artists often play early sets to accommodate minors.
Expect: An excellent Canadian punk band youâve never heard.
Laughing Horse Books
12 NE 10th Ave., facebook.com/laughinghorsepdx.
Typical cover: $5 donation for touring bands.
Status: Always all-ages access, no alcohol on premises.
Expect: A local bluegrass band.
3552 N Mississippi Ave., mississippipizza.com.
Typical cover: None-$6.
Status: Show room is all ages until 9 pm. Occasional childrenâs music and all-ages karaoke.
Expect: Kidsâ shows, singer-songwriters.
3939 N Mississippi Ave., mississippistudios.com.
Typical cover: None-$15.
Status: Most shows 21+, with occasional all-ages matinee shows and weekly 3 pm all-ages patio shows on Sundays in the summer.
Expect: A major-label buzz band that does a meet-and-greet afterwards.
3158 E Burnside St., musicmillennium.com.
Typical cover: None. But you should buy an album while youâre there.
Status: Early all-ages in-store showsâoften from bands playing 21+ venues the same nightâon a regular basis.
Expect: Tattooed wobblies singing union rally songs.
Red and Black Cafe
400 SE 12th Ave., redandblackcafe.com.
Typical cover: Small donation.
Status: Full all-ages access with beers on tap for 21+ crowd. Sporadic show schedule. Currently in financial distress.
Expect: Young rappers, blues-rock acts, Insane Clown Posse.
8 NW 6th Ave., roselandpdx.com.
Typical cover: $15-$30.
Status: Most main-stage shows feature all-ages floor and 21+ balcony. Second (Peterâs Room) stage offers occasional all-ages shows. Tight security throughout venue.
Expect: A critically acclaimed U.K. rock band.
128 NE Russell St., wonderballroom.com.
Typical cover: $15-$25.
Status: Most shows all ages with full stage access. 21+ drinking area and balcony.