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Editorial: What is Portland, Maine a live music capital and we're not?

Editorial: What is Portland, Maine a live music capital and we're not?

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Rolling Stone magazine recently named eight cities as “the best music scenes right now.” Roanoke was not among them. Five of the cities listed as places where “live music has exploded” (this was before the virus shut everything down) shouldn’t surprise anyone because they’re much bigger cities: Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and Nashville. Two others might be more surprising but maybe not that much: Raleigh, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The former is home to a lot of colleges and young adults, who have always been key to any live music scene. Tulsa makes the Rolling Stone list because some think it will be “the next Austin.” One piece of evidence: Jack White, formerly of The White Stripes, loves Tulsa so much he bought a house there. In any case, Tulsa’s metro area tops 1 million so it’s about the same size as the Research Triangle. As much as we love Roanoke, and the music scene all along the Crooked Road, there are certain economies of scale. Bigger cities always are going to have an advantage there, right? That brings us to the eighth and most curious city on the Rolling Stone list: Portland, Maine.

Why Portland? Rolling Stone says the city is “being flooded with exciting venues and artists taking big risks” and then proceeds to name some of them.

Still, we ask again: Why Portland? The Rolling Stone spread is long on lists of bands and bars but short on explaining the forces that are reshaping the culture in these cities, and that’s what we’re most interested in. After all, Portland isn’t that much bigger than Roanoke. Its metro area has an estimated population of 530,898; the Roanoke metro area is pegged at 324,882. Add in New River at 187,567 and together the Roanoke-New River population is 512,449 — so about the same size. If Portland can make the list, why can’t we? Put another way, what’s going on in Portland that’s so special? And is it something we might be able to replicate once live music returns? To answer that, we turned to Aimsel Ponti and Colin Woodard, respectively the music writer and state and national affairs reporter at the Portland Press-Herald. (Some of you may remember Woodard for the spot-on piece he wrote about Roanoke for Politico in 2016, “From Train City to Brain City.”) One thing they told us is that Portland — just two hours out of Boston — has become a magnet for people who get priced out of other Northeastern cities and can’t believe how inexpensive an ocean view is in Maine. “Over the past 20 years as Portland has become more popular and a ton of people have moved here and it seems like a ton of them are from New York (especially Brooklyn),” Ponti said. “And that influx has included a lot of creative types (i.e. musicians and bands) and they very much contribute to the scene.” It’s not just the music scene, either. These megalopolis refugees have “helped fuel a burgeoning foodie scene that makes the city often top rankings of best food cities, with chefs regularly wining James Beard awards, and prices to match,” Woodard said. “Boutiques, stylish new condo buildings, coffee houses, and a thriving microbrew scene (Maine’s started two decades ahead of the country) and it’s just having a moment.”

Roanoke gets its share of urban refugees, too, but hasn’t hit the critical mass that Portland has. Interestingly, Portland is a little older than Roanoke — the median age in that metro area is 43.9; in the Roanoke metro it’s 43.1. It is, though, significantly more affluent. Portland’s median household income is $69,980; in the Roanoke metro it’s $55,151 (and in New River falls to $50,409, although that’s surely skewed downward by college students). As Randy Newman once famously sang, “it’s money that matters.” At least that’s the take of one keen observer of the Roanoke music scene — Cyrus Pace, who occupies twin positions as both a musician and executive director of the Jefferson Center. Pace thinks Roanoke has a pretty happening music scene for a community its size — perhaps even better than its size. “If you look at the number of venues, you’d be hard-pressed to find another MSA this size with that many,” he says. The bottom line, though, is ultimately the bottom line. His take: “What creates a great live music town are first, an increase in the number of people who can afford to buy a ticket, and second, an increase in the growth of the overall economy; third, a concerted effort by the community to build culture and fourth, dynamic and creative people who are fighting to make a scene with that support.”

Working backward, Pace thinks we have the fourth, citing people like FloydFest cofounder Kris Hodges, former Jefferson Center executive director Dylan Locke (now co-owner of the Floyd Country Store) and Berglund Center general manager Robyn Schon. He thinks we have the third, too — citing how even relatively small Rocky Mount has underwritten the Harvester Performance Center. That brings us back to the first two: We need more people who can afford to buy tickets. That may not be a concern in a college town where indie bands are playing bars. That’s not the kind of community we have, though. We simply don’t have enough young adults to support a lot of those bands. We do, though, have a lot of baby boomers who are willing to shell out to see classic rock acts. We’d love to wax poetic about how we need more death metal or more hip-hop or more reggaeton. We’re personally wanting to see the Monowhales, a Toronto band that’s been riding high on the Canadian charts. In the end, though, it comes down to this: If you want to see a bigger music scene in Roanoke, for whatever the genre, then we need more people who are into that music — and more people who willing to pay for it. “My opportunity to present any specific artist is a very specific calculation of the number of tickets I can sell at what price and the amount of underwriting necessary to break even on the show,” Pace says. “Growth would be a growth in the number of people who can afford a ticket or growth in the amount of underwriting — both or either.” For him, every economic development announcement is potentially a cultural announcement.

There’s a lot of serendipity involved in any cultural scene — some bands click, some don’t. There are many much bigger cities that didn’t make the Rolling Stone list. Still, a lot of it comes down to what you might call the same old song and dance: You get what you pay for. Few promoters are going to take a risk on a town that doesn’t have a reputation for strong ticket sales. If you want to see more music in Roanoke, then once the virus passes, you need to pay to see the music already here.

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