It sounds like the plot to a Step It Up sequel: Backspace—the last remaining Portland all-ages music venue that, after nine-plus years in business, could conceivably be called a local institution—must raise $10,000 by early January or face eviction.
According to club owner Eric Robison, the investment company that owns the building, Technology Arts Block LLC, has continually upped the rent since buying the Old Town property in 2007. "When I moved into this neighborhood, it was the dark zone," Robison says. "But it's come up around me, and the new owners can't believe they're not getting some mythical market rate." (David Gold, an investor in the property, says Backspace has been frequently delinquent with its payments, and that a potential tenant has expressed interest in the space.) The cost to stay open includes next month's rent, late fees for past-due rent and ASCAP/BMI music licensing fees.
In July, in a piece about the struggles faced by Portland's all-ages venues, Willamette Week detailed Backspace's financial troubles. The club, which doubles as a coffee shop by day, nearly closed in 2007. Working with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the venue developed a new floor plan that would allow them to serve alcohol while keeping the doors open to minors. Sales from beer and wine kept the place afloat. But Robison says the rising rent, coupled with the economic downturn, competition from surrounding coffee shops, exorbitant Portland General Electric fees and the payments it must make to music licensing companies in order to play copyrighted songs over speakers during its regular business hours, has continued to make survival difficult. He also puts a share of the blame on himself.
"My mea culpa is the learning curve. I have a degree in fine arts. I did this as, 'OK, let's open an Internet cafe, and see how it goes.' I did a lot of things wrong," says Robison, who also co-owns the neighboring Someday Lounge. "We were busy trying to do artsy things, then all of a sudden the checks started bouncing....Once you get in a hole and lose money, it's really hard to make up."
Still, the importance of Backspace as an epicenter for Portland's youthful music culture is obvious just from the outpouring of support the venue has received in recent days. Robison and booker Arya Imig launched an Indiegogo page Monday in hopes of raising the $10,000 needed to keep the club alive. Offering merchandise packages from such local heavy-hitters as the Thermals, Typhoon, Starfucker and label Tender Loving Empire, among others, the campaign raised over $4,000 in 24 hours. Three 12-hour benefit concerts, on Dec. 23, 28 and 30, are also scheduled, leading up to the Dec. 31 deadline imposed by the building's property management company.
If the club remains open, Robison hopes this scare prompts the community to realize how crucial Backspace is to the city's cultural health.
"What we're really hoping is maybe this is the big wake-up call. If you find value in Backspace, help us raise direct funds and get this ship righted. Then we can promote properly and do all these things to strengthen what we do," he says. "Short of that, we can always put in a couple stripper poles." (He's joking, people.)