Without a hint of irony, and in classic hipster fashion, Portland has one-upped Austin. Moaning over the overwhelming crowds, corporate mainstreaming, and a lack of focus on the music at last year’s Texas-based music and tech event? Whatever. Portland was over South by Southwest (SXSW) 11 years ago — way before it was cool to complain about the popular festival.
From 1995 to 2000, Portland — then the soggy Jan Brady to Austin’s sunny Marsha — hosted North by Northwest (NXNW). Organized by SXSW, the event was similar to its southern sister but suffered a much different fate, as acts and concert-goers eventually soured on the overlooked production. “North by Northwest has always felt to me like a shadow of other festivals,” said Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie in a 2001 Seattle Times interview. “SXSW is amazing in comparison,” he added, “because it’s a lot more about the music than it is about industry.”
How times have changed. SXSW pulled out of Portland in 2001 when Willamette Week, the local alt-newpaper, abandoned its sponsorship of NXNW and went on to create MusicFestNW, an event aimed at putting music first. Since then, it has grown into a multi-venue festival that takes over town for four days, packing 18 venues with 170 bands and 24,000 fans. The National, The Decemberists, Band of Horses and Iron & Wine have all played the festival, and in 2009, Time declared it one of the 50 most authentic experiences in America. This year’s MusicFest begins next week.
In the meantime, tech start-ups began sprouting up all over town. Outfits like Cloudability, Chirpify, Puppet Labs and Urban Airship grew around locals like Intel (INTC), Nike (NKE), and ad giant Wieden+Kennedy. According to Rick Turoczy, who started monitoring Portland startups on his Silicon Florist blog in 2007, the last 18 months have been particularly busy for the city’s tech scene, with accelerators like Portland Seed Fund, Upstart Labs, and P.I.E. providing plenty of outside investment. Turoczy is a co-founder of P.I.E.
This year he was tapped by MusicFestNW to add daytime sessions on digital creativity to MusicFestNW. “It feels like now is a time where Portland has a certain cachet,” says Turoczy, citing the city’s long-lauded restaurant and music scene, not to mention the IFC television show Portlandia. “It’s becoming a destination, and with that perfect storm of the startup scene doing really well, and the tech here getting recognition…it seemed like the right time to test if this is a viable time to do this.”
Now they are launching three days of panel-driven, tech-oriented programming to complement the evening club acts. Called Portland Digital eXperience (PDX) and running Sept. 6–8, the programming will be feature discussions and presentations from international speakers as well as locals. Along the lines of regional events like Big Omaha and Thinc Iowa, MusicFestNW/PDX is designed to be more intimate than SXSW, and will only have one track of — and therefore no competing — events.
Big names are participating. Speakers from Tumblr and Flipboard will explore how turnkey web publishing has helped enable online creativity. Meanwhile, Shazam, Spotify, and local upstart Rumblefish will be a part of discussions with musicians about how technology has affected them, from production to distribution and marketing. Other panels include a panel discussion where musicians who distributed in different media (LPs, CDs, and MP3s, for example) talk about how the technology has changed their professional lives.
The last afternoon features a music hack day where engineers and artists collaborate on different applications of the art and technology, like electronic music creation, visualization, and exploring digital details about the sounds. Spotify engineer Jason Lacarrubba is participating in the hack day. “We sit at the intersection of music and tech, and are interested in any arenas in which those areas combine to develop new and exciting experiences that push the envelope,” he says.
Lacarrubba views Portland as a vibrant, innovative city — a far cry from where it was 11 years ago, when NXNW failed. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t flourish as a major tech hub going forward,” he says. Turoczy agrees, and looking back, can see why the previous effort failed. “Portland just didn’t quite have the momentum to pull off something that big,” he says. “But the desire was always there, and I think you see that following through now with the Portland Digital eXperience. ” Perhaps. After all, with a resounding music scene and a burgeoning startup community, the dream of the nineties may very well be alive in Portland.