From tiny coffee shops where folkies sway to acoustic guitars and mandolins, to thronging dark halls where bodies collide as metal bands and hip hop artists dominate the stage, live music can be heard seeping out of venues across Portland on almost any given night.

The city is known for its fiercely self-sufficient music scene, where local venues keep ticket prices low and artists experiment for curious audiences. It’s also the only major US city without a venue owned or operated by Live Nation, the controversial entertainment conglomerate that dominates the US concert-going experience.

That could all be about to change. Over the past several months, Live Nation has made significant inroads toward its first Portland conquest. It appears poised to operate a proposed 3,500-capacity venue, planned for a long-vacant site across the Willamette River from Portland’s downtown. To get here, it has won over a small developer and many city officials.

Proponents say the venue, which is making its way through zoning reviews now, will bring new jobs and fill a gap for mid-sized gigs. But many Portlanders feel the price of letting Live Nation in the door to the venue market is too high, and could crush the homegrown scene they love.

“[It] would be a death sentence for the music scene,” says Colescott Rubin, a jazz bassist who got his start busking on streets and booking shows in Portland as a teen. Thanks to Portland’s independence, he says, “you can talk with the people who are calling the shots on the spaces you’ll be performing in directly.” The arrival of Live Nation, he and others in the city’s music scene fear, would send Portland the way of cities such as Austin and Boston, where independent venues have shuttered and local journalists and musicians have lamented the corporatization of scenes that once felt organic and unstoppable.

Fans attend a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at Memorial Coliseum in Portland in 2013. Photograph: Mark Downey/Corbis/Getty Images

The concerns of people like Rubin are carrying extra weight amid a regulatory crackdown by the US government: last month, the Department of Justice and more than half of US state attorneys general sued Live Nation, arguing they stifled and bought out competition to gain a monopoly over the concert industry. And it’s not the first time the company has been taken to task. In 2019, the DoJ found that Live Nation – which merged with Ticketmaster in 2010 – had violated a consent decree that spelled out merger terms that the newly combined behemoth must follow to avoid monopolizing the industry.

Leading the charge against Live Nation’s incursion is Jamie Dunphy, a former professional musician and current volunteer board member at MusicPortland, an independent organization that lobbies for musician-friendly policies.

“We want this venue, we just don’t want it to be operated by Live Nation,” he says. “If they’re violating consent decrees with the US Department of Justice, I don’t think they’re gonna give a shit about the Portland music industry.”

How Live Nation takes over a city

Despite spending heavily on political lobbying, Live Nation has been no stranger to controversy in recent years, racking up a list of business blunders that have turned even Taylor Swift fans into casual anti-monopolists.

Ticketing debacles, exorbitantly high costs and slapped-on “convenience” fees have garnered the most buzz. But there is a lesser-known lynchpin of Live Nation’s power: its ever-growing portfolio of concert venues across the country.

Controlling venues and concert promotion is a part of Live Nation’s business that at least one executive has referred to as its “moat” – in essence, the less profitable scaffolding surrounding its ticketing syndicate. Here’s how it works: Live Nation owns, operates (via long-term contracts with existing venues), or has financial interest in hundreds of venues, giving them control over an estimated 60% of major-venue concerts in the US. According to the DoJ and many venue owners, it then forces venues to use the ticketing service that makes it rich: Ticketmaster.

The band Dessa performs at the Wonder Ballroom in 2018. Photograph: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns

Live Nation is also among the nation’s biggest artist management companies, booking tours for hundreds of national acts. Many non-Live Nation venue owners have asserted that the company has threatened to withhold their artists from venues that use ticketing services other than Ticketmaster – a key complaint in the current DoJ lawsuit, and a direct violation of the consent decree from the 2010 merger. If a Live Nation venue is not available for a date on an artist’s tour, the company has been said to skip that city rather than play on someone else’s turf. For many venue owners, refusing to join the Live Nation army means potentially losing a host of big shows, or having to close altogether.

Given all that, it’s no wonder that many in the Portland music world are rallying to keep the corporation out. But there is a catch: the city needs a mid-sized concert venue. Legendary halls such as the 110-year-old Crystal Ballroom can host smaller, 1,500-person shows, while mega acts such as Bruce Springsteen and Olivia Rodrigo play the 20,000-seat Moda Center. Downtown’s Keller Auditorium and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall hold about 3,000 each – but their fold-down seats and ornate vaulted ceilings cater more to fans of the Oregon Symphony than a beer-stained-floor, standing-room-only crowd.

When it comes to that sweet spot between a club and a stadium, Portland draws blanks. Instead, acts such as LCD Soundsystem or 3 Doors Down often play in Bend – a small city more than three hours away with an amphitheater operated, unsurprisingly, by Live Nation.

Metallica performs at the Rose Garden in 2008. While Portland has both small and large venue, it lacks for mid-sized options. Photograph: Chris Ryan/Corbis/Getty Images

Live Nation’s 3,500-seat venue would be in an area Dunphy describes as “bizarrely empty”, situated among the ghosts of once thriving regional industries; the site is bound on one side by Salmon Street and is walking distance from Mill Street. But these days, music is a hotter commodity: the industry now employs more people and brings in more tax revenue than timber, salmon or even legal cannabis.

Like many Live Nation-operated venues, the project is a somewhat hazy amalgamation of public and private interest – an arrangement that allows Live Nation to make money even without paying to buy or build a venue. The land beneath the proposed venue is owned by the city’s quasi-governmental, non-profit economic and urban development agency, Prosper Portland, which bought the long-abandoned lots in 2016 from the state’s transport department for just shy of $3m, using public dollars. Two years later, local company Beam Development won a bid to develop the site into a combination of office space, industrial space, and affordable art and workshop space.

But when the pandemic rendered new office space a non-starter, Beam changed course. Still interested in supporting the arts, it decided to build a music venue instead. In a 2022 interview with the Willamette Week, a representative from Beam said that a third party connected him to a high-up at Live Nation. Though Live Nation does not own or operate a venue in the city, the company has booked its artists and gigs in Portland’s existing venues for many years.

“I truly believe Beam Development had really good intentions and didn’t know who they were getting into bed with,” Dunphy says. But, he adds, the city now has a proposal for a piece of pseudo-public land “with a development that was not approved by any committee, featuring an out-of-state, multinational conglomerate that has a bad track record”.

A representative from Live Nation said it will permit outside promoters to book the venue at market rate. In a statement, Prosper Portland highlighted that Beam and another developer now involved in the project, Colas, are locally based firms with strong histories of serving the local community. Beam did not reply to multiple interview requests.

Inside a Slayer concert at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland in 2011. Opponents of Live Nation fear the company’s arrival will limit music options for fans. Photograph: Chris Ryan/Corbis/Getty Images

“Everybody in this situation can plausibly say, ‘This is not my problem. This is somebody else’s problem,’” says Dunphy, who is now running for city council on what one critic described as an “anti-Live Nation platform” – a charge he “proudly” embraces. “And we blunder forward, and Portland’s music scene is the victim.”

To sound the alarm, people such as Dunphy and Rubin, the jazz bassist, have been sharing stories of cities where Live Nation has a large promotion and venue footprint. In Boston, where he now lives and works part-time, Rubin says it can be hard for up-and-coming artists to catch a break. “[Live Nation has] their stranglehold on so many mid-sized venues in Boston,” he says, “and those mid-sized venues are oftentimes the determining factor for a band getting off the ground, because once they outgrow their local bar, they need to be able to get repotted in new soil.”

In Austin, Live Nation now has a controlling stake in everything from the storied 800-capacity club the Scoot Inn to a huge amphitheater on public park land, and a large, new venue on the University of Texas’s campus.

This, says Dunphy, is Live Nation’s modus operandi: get a foothold in a city by operating an amphitheater or large venue, then move to open additional smaller venues – squeezing out independent venues by thrusting them into a David-and-Goliath style fight against a deep-pocketed, international conglomerate.

Portland in limbo

As plans for the venue move forward, some fans – especially those sick of their favorite bands skipping town in favor of Bend – are cautiously optimistic.

“As much as Live Nation is evil, this would be very good for Portland,” music journalist Neil Ferguson tweeted recently. At a town hall last fall, a sound engineer took the mic to express a similar conflict. “I’m not ‘pro-Live Nation,’” she said, but “they do pay well. They do give benefits, which is something that is very hard to find in this industry.”

“We have a 30 year history of supporting Portland’s music scene,” says Live Nation’s Portland market president MaryClare Bourjaily, who has been booking Live Nation shows in Portland for several years. She says the proposed venue will create jobs, bring visitors, and keep Portland from being skipped by large touring artists – assessments many in Portland’s city government agree with. Whether or not local acts are on the bill, she says, is up to the artist and their management company – which, sometimes, is also Live Nation.

But on the other side are those who fear the end of a historically motley scene. Rubin says that the proposed venue may bring a handful of consistent jobs with good benefits to a select few sound engineers and venue staff, but would contribute to the decline of other local venues and artists. Those Live Nation jobs exist “at the expense of the industry”, he says.

Musicians and fans have sent letters to city representatives and packed bars for polite but impassioned town halls. An anonymous survey of about 2,000 local musicians and industry professionals, sent out by MusicPortland, found only about half of respondents could see a future in which a Live Nation venue benefits Portland – and that would require a lot of concessions, like mandated opportunities for local openers and protections for local venues. Live Nation, though, is not known for accepting such demands.

Shawn Mendes performs at the Moda Center in Portland in 2022. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Shawn Mendes

Bim Ditson, a long-time drummer, agrees welcoming Live Nation would deprive everyone from artists to audiences and club owners of the accessible creativity that has defined the music community. “[It] would be detrimental to the point of destroying our local music industry, to a point where it’s unrecoverable, where people who have a spine and a heart have nowhere to play,” says Ditson, who was a founding member of MusicPortland but is no longer part of the group’s mostly volunteer staff.

In the near term, everyone from fans to industry hands are in limbo. Citizens have found it difficult to stall the plan, and many artists and venue owners have been conspicuously quiet – a reality that may be less about apathy than an impulse to hold on to their gigs in an increasingly consolidated industry. And the slow-moving DoJ lawsuit isn’t likely to have an impact any time soon.

So for Rubin, keeping up the collective pressure is imperative. “What Portland really has going for it more than anything is a really strong community. And I know that if we band together … we could make a difference to show these corporate powers what matters to us.”

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