PDX-Pop Now!

Fri-Sun July 9-11, Meow Meow, Portland, free.

This is the story of how one e-mail became a music festival. It's the story of how the PDX-Pop list--a long-running list server on which local music fans post everything from show announcements to meta-critiques of "the scene"--turned enthusiasm, gripes, and superior organizational skills into an all-ages, three-day, free festival showcasing and championing Portland music.

But it's also a story about the values, idealism, and ideology that keep the arts fueled, and keep young transplants moving there. Portland's social amiability is manifested in communal craft nights, zine symposiums, and a solid local economy, and its residents--the young, mostly white ones--can afford to do such things because, among other things, rent is so cheap.

One such outgrowth of that scene is the pop list, which in itself became a forum for action. "At the end of 2003, there was this conversation on the PDX-Pop list about how there'd been a lot of good local albums coming out," says PDX-Pop festival co-organizer Matt Wright, "and that it seemed like there were a lot of good bands in town at this moment."

Fellow co-organizer Cori Taratoot remembers, "Rachel from the Decemberists e-mailed from the road, and said people on tour think Portland is fucking awesome, that everyone is like, 'Your city sounds so great!' But you get here, and people are like, 'Yeah... I don't wanna go see the Thermals again. I'm tired. It's too late,' or whatever. Portland apathy. So Rachel was like, 'I don't get it! Let's celebrate ourselves!' That was the catalyst."

After the initial discussion, a group of 15 or so highly motivated people began meeting and fleshing out what it would take to create an entirely local music festival. Wright explains, "We had stars in our eyes; at first, there was a lot of enthusiasm, but it was totally chaotic, because it was a bunch of people in bars just yelling out ideas. I don't think anybody thought about the amount of work we were going to put into it."

They were running on pure adrenaline and grassroots chutzpah. "I think it's mostly just people who are real big geeks about local music," says Wright, "who love going out to live shows and have a strong personal attachment to Portland. And the festival is free, the idea being that people who don't normally come to shows and are afraid to immerse themselves can come check out all the good stuff."

With donations from local businesses--Meow Meow owner Todd Fadel volunteered his space, Larry Crane offered to help cover the cost of printing an accompanying compilation CD, Spleenless Mastering donated mastering, and CD Forge helped pay for duplication--the core organizers soldiered on. Meanwhile, the committee set up an online voting system, in order to make the selection and booking of artists for the showcase more populist.

However, there have been snags in the process. Wright, for instance, is not entirely satisfied with the diversity of artists in this weekend's festival (which includes acts like the Joggers, Tara Jane O'Neil, and Sunset Valley). "[The fest is] way weighted towards indie rock. And the electronic scene here is really amazing, with people like Strategy and Nudge and Audio Dregs, and the stuff Terence [Scott] does with Jus Family," he says. "I think there are major holes--there are elements that aren't represented--and I do wish we had gotten a larger cross section. A lot of the problem stems from the way we did the voting system. A lot of people from the pop list voted, so it sort of shifted to the demographic of the Internet--white, middle class, and indie rock or indie pop."

Unexpectedly, however, PDX-Pop Now! has made noise in corporate radio. KNRK (Portland's hard rock station, owned by corporate-radio Svengali Entercom) has recently begun playing tracks from the event's accompanying two-CD comp, PDX Pop Now! 2004. "They're talking about the fest on the air, and playing the Shins, the Thermals, Blitzen Trapper, M. Ward, and the Decemberists," says Taratoot. "This is unforeseen; we wanted to change the Portland music scene, and we had huge, idealistic notions, but in our wildest dreams we never thought this would happen. I feel like I'm in the middle of some kind of sociological experiment."

At the 11th hour now, though, Taratoot is just thinking about the small stuff. "How can we make sure everyone has water?" she asks. "Please, god, let's keep everyone hydrated and happy."