Revisiting the year the music died

It may not be accurate to say the column I wrote two weeks ago about Portland’s music scene went “viral,” but it did catch a nasty cold. Lauren Wayne, the local promoter and venue manager who books concerts in numerous rooms around town, wrote a lengthy response that was posted on the website of a regional entertainment magazine and widely shared on social media.

I’d like to begin this week by acknowledging that there was an inaccuracy in my April 17 column. To say that the three venues and the outdoor music series Wayne books talent for are under the “control” of The Bowery Presents, a big-time concert promoter based in New York, overstates Bowery’s involvement. Bowery is a partner, with Vermont-based promoter Alex Crothers, in the company that operates the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall, Crobo LLC. Wayne runs Crobo for those out-of-state owners, whose involvement in the day-to-day operations of the business is minimal.

While it’s true that Crobo benefits from its association and financial ties with Bowery and Crothers — the music business is, after all, largely built on connections — Wayne personally books and runs the shows in Portland and has her own Rolodex of connections made prior to being hired by Crobo. I apologize for having mischaracterized Bowery’s role in the shows Wayne puts together.

That said, the concern that prompted my column is still valid, and it’s a concern Wayne herself shares: Portland is losing the smaller venues that host local acts playing original music. There were never that many venues of this size and style to begin with, so losing two (Slainte and The Big Easy) within a few months’ time is cause for alarm.

We nearly lost a third stage for creative locals, Empire — the restaurant and music venue on the corner of Congress and High streets, formerly Empire Dine and Dance — but Wayne personally stepped in to help keep the room viable, booking shows there through Crobo and on her own time and dime. Empire co-owner Todd Bernard, a founder of SPACE Gallery and longtime friend of Wayne’s, also books some shows there, and has final say over who plays the room.

And a fourth stage, the one set up in Monument Square on Thursdays during the summer for the Alive at Five concert series, may also have been lost had Portland’s Downtown District not brought Crobo aboard to book the music, redesign the site and sell food and drink. Portland’s Downtown District retains ultimately authority over the events.

I’ve known Lauren for about 15 years and consider her a friend. I think she has great taste in music, and every month, for many years, I have promoted shows she’s booked in the editorial pages on my publication, The Bollard. But none of this changes the fact that one person — described as a “local music messiah” by the publication that ran her rebuttal — is pulling the strings at two of the three mid-sized rock venues in Portland (the third, Asylum, works with a competing promoter), one of the few remaining smaller venues for original music (Empire), and Alive at Five.

Wayne wields an unprecedented amount of influence over what music people get to see and hear in Maine’s largest city — Crobo also books shows at Merrill Auditorium and the Civic Center, and has worked with SPACE Gallery and One Longfellow Square in the past. That’s great if, like me, you happen to share her musical taste. It’s not so great if you don’t.

Of course, Wayne’s not booking talent based solely on the contents of her iPod. She’s making financial decisions based on what’s best for Crobo. If an act can’t sell enough tickets and drinks to cover expenses and make a profit for Bowery and Crothers, the show won’t go on in the first place. That’s just the nature of the business.

Wayne contends that Crobo is “NOT competing with venues who specialize in local music since that is not what we really specialize in.” But musician and small-time promoter Nick Poulin’s point still stands: There’s only so much disposable income around to be spent on shows, and the more Crobo sucks up, the less is spent at the smaller clubs that nurture emerging locals.

Again, that’s not Wayne’s fault — it’s just the way the business works. But what’s good for business is not always good for original music (witness the crap on commercial radio these days and all the local shows devoted to cover bands).

Still, my critics are correct that, overall, Portland’s better off with Crobo than without the shows it brings here. You can stop sniffling now.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.