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Workin’ For The Man: CBGB In PDX?

by Blazer Sparrow

For the longest time, I thought Portland needed a CBGB. As it turns out, Portland has several possible CBGBs. After doing a little research, I realized that what Portland really needs is a Hilly Kristal. Not that Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, The Ramones and Patti Smith weren’t talented, but I honestly think none of us would know who they are today, if it weren’t for Kristal. A good music scene doesn’t just require talented bands and an enthusiastic audience that doesn’t scoff at a three-dollar cover—it requires venue owners who actually give a damn and take risks on new, unknown acts.

Portland is a great city if you’re a music fan. There are shows every day—multiple shows, every day. It’s even better if you’re a music venue, because you never have to seek out entertainment. They’ll bust down your email door for you. They’ll even play for free, for god-knows-what reason. However, after five years here, I’m realizing it’s not a good city if you’re a musical artist. There are too many of us. This city is saturated. Granted, our stock is low. But, it doesn’t mean that we have to be treated like garbage—this isn’t fucking L.A. There’s not enough money, people or actual opportunities for Portland to have the same vibe.

I get that venues have to make money and I also get that musical acts—especially rock bands—can be insufferable, entitled pricks. But, someone has to break the cycle and Portland could use a venue that actually gives newer acts the benefit of the doubt. Yes, it’s a saturated scene, but by not returning emails, demanding a band have a 50-person draw, asking the band to find four other bands that sound the same (isn’t that your job?) and only paying the bands in drink tickets, you, the venue, are just perpetuating the cycle of resentment that is keeping our city from being anything but a stop on the way to Seattle.

I’m not a business owner and I will admit to not knowing the financial intricacies of running a venue. But, I do know that businesses have these things called expenses. There’s no reason that entertainment shouldn’t be treated as an expense, just like liquor, staff and the fancy, new sign. Sure, you (the venue) will argue that you already invested in the P.A. system, have to hire a sound guy and pay out the ass for the black-and-white posters from Kinkos, so why pay four snotnosed punks for playing a shitty set, on top of all the money you’ve already spent?

Well, it doesn’t matter if the punks are good or not, they are your entertainment for the night. You are hiring them. If they suck, simply don’t hire them again. It’s simple. Asking an artist to bring their own crowd to a venue is asking the artist to do your job...it’s your venue—you should be promoting the fucking shows. If you want to be a hip Portland music hub, then you got to make that happen. I’m talking about bars here, not the Cyrstal Ballroom or The Roseland. You’re not booking The Decemberists. You are booking local acts, who do not have a following yet. I’m tired of being told that the artist has to cultivate a following. All an artist has to be is good. A vibrant scene takes effort from all sides. The audience needs to pay the paltry cover, dance (that’s a topic for another column) and buy drinks. The artist needs to be practiced, show up on time and perform well. They don’t also need to promote the show, get the word out, bring everyone there and sometimes literally build the bill themselves—that’s the venue’s job. I’ve literally read emails asking me to find three other bands that sound like mine (if we want to get booked). If the artist finds several acts for the show, promotes it and brings the crowd, then what exactly did the venue do to contribute? And, don’t say they "provided the space." That’s the equivalent of a participation trophy. That devalues the work of the artist.

And, once again, I cannot apologize enough for the entitled, untalented assholes that make the rest of us look bad. I’ve heard the sentiment of, "Why should I pay $200 for some kids to go to the strip club?" and "If a band has a following, they’ll bring in a crowd and they’ll make money." This doesn’t make any sense. If the band has a following and a guaranteed crowd that you’re banking on to make money for your venue, you better pay that band up front. Also, you’re not Crystal Ballroom—you are a fucking bar. You’re paying those kids $200 to value the work they’ve done. Instruments are expensive. Practice spaces are expensive. If it’s an out-of-town band, you should give them $200 for gas alone. Vans get shit mileage.

Before you say I’m asking for a participation trophy, I’m not. I’m asking for participation, from you— the venue. Again, you’re not paying for a popular band to bring in a lot of people to your bar to buy drinks and spread the word about how cool your spot is; you’re paying for entertainment for the evening. Whether or not the house is packed is of no consequence to the value of the entertainer’s work.

I get that paying $200 (this amount is totally arbitrary, by the way) every night, for a possibly successful night, isn’t exactly cost-effective. So, if we’re all in this together and no one wants to spend more then they have to, then at least put the time and effort in. Do your part. We’ll do ours. And, when we don’t, don’t have us back. If artists and venues both did their parts, then Portland could possibly have a vibrant, healthy, nurturing music scene. It can’t just be all on the artist to make this happen.