IASPM 2014: Taste-Making and Curation in the Portland, Oregon Music Scene

Portland has a diverse music scene with a lively gig culture and many active venues. Sam’s had difficulty choosing where to go each night for his research!

Sam Murray, PhD student, University of Cardiff

Portland, Oregon is a city renowned for its countercultural preference of cottage industry over multi-nationals, despite living in the shadow of Nike, Intel and Adidas. In terms of the music industries the city is pinpointed by a handful of independent labels and the various self-releasing internet platforms available. Music-making is also supported by a strong network of not-for-profit organisations providing opportunities to play, funding for exploratory projects and start-up capital for independent music industries such as record labels and studios.

Through ethnographic enquiry this paper explores the term ‘taste-maker’, a term commonly used by Portlanders to refer to who guide social music choices. This term has been used to justify the existence of record labels, such as SoHiTek Records and Tender Loving Empire, in a city that has adopted digital self-distribution techniques. Not-for-profits, for example PDX Pop Now!, also fulfil this role, giving a sense of taste authority to the all-ages community.

Using current literature on music in post-industrial cities (Webb 2011; Wergin & Holt, 2011), this paper seeks to position taste-making as part of the musical social fabric of post-industrial, gentrified, Portland. It also seeks to address the social collectivism taste-making offers and thus the dynamism it sparks.

Terms are defined:

  • Curation is the act of selecting musicians for performance/media coverage etc.
  • Taste making is having the influence and power within music communities to define what music is considered good
  • The Portland music scene is self-explanatorily and geographically defined, covering music making at all levels, amateur and professional

Sam now discusses how he might choose which gig to go to, and this leads to an exploration of the idea of the ‘scene hierarchy’. Some of his interviewes (and traditional media) use social media to affect their gig choices (brief observation about this being part of the network of tastemakers). Overlap – every musician in Portland is in several bands. There’s a culture of house concerts and associated networks. Academic literature, including Finnegan and Cohen, is included for context.

The first area of detailed discussion is the record labels, and their role as tastemakers (and, as Kenny Barr observed earlier today, badges of honour) is analysed. We hear some bands that are signed to these labels, including Radiation City:

Next we look at new media – blogs, social media etc. Sam cites Grazian’s (2003) work on ‘microscenes’, and the criteria for posting/sharing are identified with reference to his tastemaker interviewees.

In conclusion, tastemaking and curatorship is crucial to the music scene, because it creates a criticism culture that is an implicit driver of quality [for fans and other stakeholders such as venue managers and labels] and aspiration [for new artists].

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