Reason No. 18: Lauren Wayne brought back the State
By reopening the State Theatre, Lauren Wayne brought Portland's music scene full circle.
By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Nathan Eldridge
Two notable things happen when you mention in Greater Portland that you’re writing about Lauren Wayne. The first: People generally recognize her name, which is somewhat remarkable given that her job — running the renovated State Theatre — is an entirely behind-the-scenes position. Which leads to the second: Friends and colleagues immediately ask you to ask her to book their favorite bands. And they’re not alone. “I lobby Lauren all the time,” says Sam Pfeifle, a music journalist, bluegrass musician, and co-founder of the Portland Music Foundation, which aims to nurture and promote the music industry in town. “I definitely notice when tours are announced. If there’s a gap where a Portland show might go, I’ll drop her a note. And she’s always open to any information that will help her put on a successful show.”
Wayne’s success at that task — measured in terms of tickets sold, buzz generated, and bands and fans satisfied — is indisputable. And it’s not confined within the walls of the State Theatre. Since the State reopened in 2010, Wayne has booked shows at venues across Portland — including the city-owned Eastern Promenade, where Wayne and her team pulled off a major coup with the Gentlemen of the Road tour. The sold-out, all-day festival featured English folk rockers Mumford & Sons and seven other bands playing on a scenic spot that had never before been used as a ticketed concert venue. It was an economic as well as a musical success — Wayne notes that a little more than half of the ticket buyers came from out of state, injecting what she casually estimates as “a ton of money” into the local economy. Indeed, over her two-and-a-half years running the State, Wayne has both benefited from and contributed to Portland’s growing prominence as a destination for live music.
All of which is by design, according to Wayne and the State’s owners, Alex Crothers of Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont, and Jim Glancy of Bowery Presents in New York. “We came in at a great time for Portland,” says Wayne. On the day we talk in the State Theatre’s green room, the lean thirty-nine-year-old is wearing sunglasses perched on her head and a slim-fitting black T-shirt for the indie rock band Surfer Blood. “It had already become a foodie town and was on lots of ‘best of’ lists. The city was doing really well, and we wanted to contribute to its health and vitality.”
Crothers and his partners identified Wayne as the person to take the reins early in the process of assessing the State Theatre, which had been closed since 2006. “Before I even ran a single pro forma [financial statement] on the State to see if we could make the economics work, I asked the question, ‘Do we have someone we trust who’s capable, who knows the market well, who can book the right shows in the right venues at the right prices?’ ” says Crothers. “It was going to be very important to have someone at the State who was an intrinsic part of the local scene. Lauren Wayne was destined for that role.”
Crothers is far from alone in that assessment. “I thought she was the perfect person for that gig,” says Herb Ivy, program director for Portland classic rock radio station WBLM and its alternative rock counterpart, WCYY. “There is no one else on the planet who knows this town, cares about this town, and knows how to run that theater like Lauren has. She’s exactly the right person to represent Portland and its music scene to the world.”
Despite the apparent inevitability of her role as the queen bee of Portland’s music scene, Wayne didn’t set out to have a career in the music business. When asked how she got into the industry, she laughs. “It’s such a cliché,” she says. “I was a really passionate music fan; my first concert was the Rolling Stones, when I was in high school. And in college” — at the University of Richmond in Virginia — “I was out seeing shows two or three times a week.”
Wayne moved to Portland in 2001. She’d grown up in various locations across the country, as her father’s corporate career took the family from Virginia to Georgia to Minnesota. She appreciated the outdoors and fell in love with Portland — “casual, inviting, alive, and open,” she says now. At age twenty-eight, she was content to work office jobs by day and spend nights at the Skinny, a Congress Street venue that hosted rock shows, poetry readings, and other events that appealed to the city’s nascent hipster crowd.
Eventually, she became friends with the Skinny’s owner, Johnny Lomba, who introduced her to Jim Ahearne, who was then booking most of the regional and national acts coming through Portland. Ahearne needed an assistant, and Lomba thought Wayne would be a good fit. After a brief trial run, the two worked together for years. This might all seem like too much information — starting a career as a music promoter doesn’t typically merit the same amount of biographical detail as launching a trajectory that lands you on the Supreme Court — but it explains why Wayne has succeeded in Portland: She’s gained the trust of key players in her business, made connections, and worked incredibly hard.
Of course, there were a few missteps along the way as Wayne worked with Ahearne to promote and then book shows for Don Law, a New England promoter and booking agent, and his successor, Live Nation. “When I started doing this, practically the only place to do a show other than the [Cumberland County] Civic Center was the Big Easy,” Wayne recalls, referring to the small Market Street club. “And I was putting on shows that I liked, rather than ones that would sell tickets.”
It didn’t take Wayne long to understand that her own feelings about an act didn’t matter if there wasn’t an audience for them. In fact, says Pfeifle, “She’s always had a really good feel for not just what band is good, but what band will put asses in seats.” But even when a band had a solid local following, she and other promoters were frustrated by a lack of venues that could accommodate bands at different stages of their careers. That made it tough for a band to start small, then accumulate a following, and graduate to bigger halls. “There were gaps,” Pfeifle says, referring to the Portland music scene in the 2000s.
Meanwhile, the State was in bad shape, with frequent fire code problems and a generally shabby atmosphere. And some music fans were put off by what seemed to be an emphasis on booking heavy metal bands to the exclusion of other genres. Then, in 2006, the building’s owner evicted the venue operator and shut the whole thing down. That’s when Portland’s music scene hit bottom. The situation got so bleak that Sonya Tomlinson, who performs hip-hop under the name Sontiago, and is an old friend of Wayne’s, characterizes it as a “musical depression.” “There was a time when you either played SPACE Gallery or you didn’t play at all,” she says.
Observers can’t exactly put their fingers on what spurred the eventual improvement, but change did come, much to the relief of Maine concertgoers. Today, Portland is home to viable venues of all sizes, from small and medium-size clubs like Slainte and the five hundred-capacity Port City Music Hall to the spruced-up State, which can hold 1,870, and the 6,700-seat Cumberland County Civic Center, which is in the midst of a sorely needed multi-million-dollar renovation. Though there may be some danger of supply outstripping demand, for the moment, the ecosystem is a healthy and self-sustaining one that fosters the success of local, regional, and national acts in a variety of genres. And the public is taking notice: Herb Ivy reports that running into fans from New York or Connecticut — formerly a rare occurrence — is becoming commonplace at Portland shows.
“You have the perfect steps in Portland now,” says Adam Voith, an agent with the Billions Corporation, who represents popular bands, including Mumford & Sons, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver. “Bands that are looking to build a career, rather than just capitalize on one album, have to start thinking about towns like that. The financial rewards may not be there at the beginning, but you can play at a small venue in Portland and build up to the theater after a few visits. Then the city becomes a reliable place to build your touring business. I think other markets are probably ripe for that as well, but they don’t necessarily have someone on the ground who knows how to do it — and Lauren really does.”
Wayne’s own measure of the changes in the Portland music scene is a simple one: When she first started booking shows, she was reaching out to bands about 95 percent of the time. Today, she says, bands come to her 60 percent of the time. A substantial part of that shift surely results from the relationships Wayne has built with tour managers, agents, and musicians over the years. But Wayne insists that Portland itself also deserves plenty of credit. “We would never be in business without the smaller clubs,” she says. “They help to build bands that can play here [at the State] later on.”
That habit of deflecting praise for herself onto colleagues and staffers is a Wayne hallmark. For example, just booking the Mumford & Sons festival was a significant accomplishment, since the band selected just four locations across the country. Voith, the band’s agent, is effusive about Wayne’s work on the event, praising her understanding of the market and the site, as well as her ability to work with city officials and her willingness to “get her hands dirty,” organizing a series of late-night after parties following the festival’s close. Ask Wayne about the reasons for the event’s success, though, and she mentions how “amazing” the city was to work with and her impression that she “couldn’t have hand-picked more perfect people” to attend the show.
“Lauren is a fantastic leader,” says Sonya Tomlinson, who admits that their long friendship — she threw a baby shower for Wayne and her partner prior to the birth of their first child earlier this year — makes her somewhat biased. “But she’s not one to wallow in getting all the credit. She wants to sustain Portland’s musical reputation, and she knows she can’t be the only person to do that if we’re going to be successful.”
Despite what may seem like a glamorous job — Listening to music! Seeing awesome concerts! Getting to know famous musicians! — Wayne’s days are fairly prosaic (not to mention long). She spends a lot of time on the phone and email negotiating deals and dates with agents, collaborating with other venues in town when a band isn’t quite right for the State, and conferring with her colleagues in Burlington and New York. She does attend most concerts at the State, though after checking in with tour managers and watching a few songs she typically heads upstairs to her office and tries to catch up on paperwork. “On occasion, I’ll watch a full show, but those are few and far between. I’m definitely not down there drinking beer with my friends,” she says ruefully. “My vision only goes so far as the next show.”
That last statement, of course, is demonstrably untrue — and Portland is the better for it. “The city is not necessarily a spot that a lot of bands think to go to,” says Voith. “But Lauren seems to be the person who’s changing that. It was a highlight of my career to be in Portland [for Gentlemen of the Road], and I’m definitely planning to propose it as a destination for more artists. I really need to get back there.”
Michaela Cavallaro is a Down East contributing editor and lives in South Portland.