Two years ago, at the age of 45, Zak Powers did what so many daydreamers and dad band members wished they could: he quit his corporate job to pursue a career in music.
Living in Portland, Oregon at the time, he left behind his work as a commercial filmmaker, maxed out his credit cards to buy equipment, and spent months woodshedding a modern take on folk-blues, his rough-hewn guitar work and voice backed by programmed drum beats. In early 2020, after he’d stockpiled a healthy amount of material, a close friend who had made a similar leap of faith offered him a spot opening for Dirtwire, the side project of Beats Antique member David Satori.
What happened next was the stuff of every musician’s nightmares. At the very first stop of the tour in Crested Butte, Colorado, Powers went to strum the opening chord of his second song when the bolt holding the neck of his guitar in place popped out and the instrument came apart in his hands. Less than a week later, when the coronavirus pandemic became a reality, the rest of the tour was canceled.
At first, it felt like another part of the adventure. He had already let go of the lease on his place in Portland and bought an RV so his family could join him on tour. The clan cruised around the Western US for a stretch, visiting national parks as he vaguely looked for work. But as the pandemic started shutting down all the employment options for him and his wife, things looked dire and he was forced to sell off his instruments and gear to survive.
What saved Powers was an email he received from MusicPortland, a nonprofit trade organization and advocacy group that he joined as he began to pursue his creative dreams.
“I was getting their regular newsletter and one of them said, ‘Have you received your PUA?’” Powers remembers, referring to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that was being offered to self-employed people who lost work due to the coronavirus. “At the time, I didn’t realize that someone who was trying to make money off of touring could apply.”
The process wasn’t easy. MusicPortland’s executive director Meara McLaughlin leaned on Oregon’s Unemployment Department and her contacts in Congress to get Powers and dozens of musicians and gig workers like him paid. Four months and a few phone calls to Senator Jeff Merkley’s office later, Powers had $13,500 deposited into his bank account — about six months’ worth of unemployment assistance.
Even two months later, Powers’ voice still carries hints of overwhelmed emotion when talking about it. “We settled our debts, we made arrangements,” he says, “and we took a breath. We were able to take a couple of weeks and be without panic so we could make a real concerted set of decisions about how to proceed.”
MusicPortland has been responsible for dozens of stories much like Powers’ in the months since the pandemic stopped all live performances around the country, putting not only the people on stage, but sound engineers, DJs, bouncers, booking agents, and hundreds of others out of work. And much of the organization’s success in securing benefits for those people in the music industry has been due to the indefatigable efforts of McLaughlin.
“There’s easily 30,000 people that make some or all of their money from performance and recording,” McLaughlin says, speaking on a Zoom call in front of two bookcases stuffed with titles. “When I talk about this to city leaders or economic development people, the common response is always, ‘I had no idea!’ We’re a huge industry here!”
McLaughlin has been beating this drum for years, even well before she, much like Powers, decided to quit the corporate grind in 2015 to start MusicPortland. After spending two decades in Massachusetts where she helped book bands at fabled Boston nightclub T.T. The Bear’s Place, she and her family returned to Portland and she threw herself into the local music scene. But as she did, McLaughlin became more and more frustrated with what she saw.
“As my daughter would describe it,” she says, “every time I’d get a couple of whiskies in me, I’d start ranting about how the Portland music scene was being diluted and crumbling and couldn’t be supported in a city that was growing fast. They all got really sick of me.”
Following the lead of her husband, Philip Graham, who gave up his career as a software engineer to chase his dream of making high-end microphones under the name Ear Trumpet Labs, McLaughlin left her job as VP of business development for a flight status app and made MusicPortland a reality.
The most visible work that the organization had been doing over the past few years was in connecting people within the Portland music community with one another through monthly networking meetups and last year’s Gear Fest that allowed local equipment manufacturers to showcase their wares. But they’ve also started to wield some substantial political power.
Their MusicPortland Policy Council has successfully lobbied the city to create sixteen Musician Loading Zones throughout the city for artists to safely get their gear into and out of a nearby venue. And McLaughlin and her MusicPortland team are some of the loudest voices crying out against a program to require unreinforced masonry buildings to undergo costly renovations to protect against earthquakes — a move that would have crippled a number of Portland clubs and performance spaces.
Over the past eight months or so, MusicPortland has pivoted to support the cause of social justice in the music scene and to lend a hand to help artists and industry workers survive the pandemic. For the former, the group’s website features an in-depth history of Portland’s racist past and present, and actions to support racial equity in the city. To the latter, MusicPortland has been collecting data on the impact of COVID and engaged in, as McLaughlin puts it, “many, many, many hours of individual case advocacy” for musicians and workers denied unemployment benefits.
“We found out what they did and got all their background documentation and presented that to Senator Merkley’s team,” McLaughlin says. “They had a special accelerated backchannel but it still took sometimes three or four times to get through to them.”
As well, McLaughlin and MusicPortland, along with the Independent Venue Coalition, have been in touch regularly with the governor’s office and the Portland City Council to make sure that music venues were getting their fair share of funds from federal and statewide stimulus packages. The result: $2.5 million, a bigger amount than even the governments of Nashville and Los Angeles doled out to their local performance spaces.
That said, that will likely only help many venues keep their lights on until the end of the year — a serious concern as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. And McLaughlin is starting to worry about the recent turnover in the city council. One of MusicPortland’s biggest supporters, Commissioner Nick Fish, passed away in January, and their other advocate, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly lost her seat in the recent election.
McLaughlin isn’t about to give up the fight, though. Her organization is about to launch a spinoff, MusicPortland Bridge, that will allow them to apply for grants and be a conduit for independent artists to seek out similar funding. They also plan on continuing their focus on issues of racial equity in the music community. And most of all, they want to make sure that those hundreds of artists and workers who don’t have the cultural cachet of The Decemberists or Aminé or Laura Veirs still have a seat at the table.
“Nobody I’ve talked to is like, ‘Shit, I gotta give this up. I’m gonna go work in insurance,’” McLaughlin says. “That, I think, is because we have stood together and gone, ‘We’re many, and we’re mighty. And damn, we’ve made some changes, and we can do more.’”