in partnership
Portia Sabin is one of the keynote speakers at the Upstream Summit this May. (Image: Upstream Fest)

Upstream Artist of the Week: Portia Sabin

We're partnering with Upstream Music Fest + Summit to bring the Pacific Northwest a whole new style of music festival we've never seen. Each week we’ve been profiling local artists playing at the Festival, and speakers talking at the Summit - to start getting us all pumped up! If you're not recognizing any names - we encourage you to read on anyways. One of the main goals of Upstream is raising awareness of amazing local bands - that might not be on your radio (yet) - but are worth our time and attention.

Portia Sabin is one of the most influential people in the Northwest music industry.

In 2006 she took over the reins of legendary punk rock label Kill Rock Stars, and she's been involved in the leadership of many music organizations including the American Association of Independent Music, the Recording Academy, and the Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls. Not only that, but she also currently hosts a radio show and podcast about the music business called "The Future of What."

It all started for Portia back in the 90s when she played in a variety of punk bands.

"I started as a drummer," she said. "My first, well - I don't even want to say how long ago. I've been a drummer for a long time. I played in bands for a long time and I was lucky enough band got signed. We were from New York City. We had a deal with a small label. We got to tour the country, make a couple records."

Sabin was self-taught; she actually only took one drum lesson.

"After that, it was just me playing," said Sabin. "And I love that. Punk is my heart, right? So, I'm like - that's the way it should be. You should just do it if you think you want to do it. Just do it."

When that band ended, Sabin decided to go into management because she wanted to take what she had learned and help her other musician friends. Enter the label Kill Rock Stars, a crucial part of the Northwest music explosion of the early 90s.

"Kill Rock Stars was started in 1991 by Slim Moon, who was living in Olympia at the time," said Sabin. "He wanted to sort of document the scene that was happening there."

He started putting out compilations of his friends' bands - including his next door neighbor Kurt Cobain's band.

"He put that compilation CD out in August of 1991 and "Nevermind" came out in September of 1991," said Sabin. "That compilation sold 25,000 copies and funded the label."

Moon ended up going on to put out Bikini Kill, the local Olympia band, Unwound, followed by Bratmobile and the British band Huggy Bear. Very quickly, Kill Rock Stars became the Headquarters of the Riot Grrrl movement.

More recently Kill Rock Stars has put out albums by bands like Horse Feathers, The Decemberists and Gossip. Sabin will bring her considerable experience to the Upstream Festival Summit, where she'll be one of the keynote speakers alongside Macklemore and Quincy Jones.

"I think the most interesting thing about the festival though, is that they're doing this summit," she said. "And the summit is, to my understanding, sort of modeled on the way we do it at SXSW."

The Summit is made up of four keynote speeches, and breakout sessions all day long. The idea being that smaller groups of people can get together and discuss the issues together.

"I think that's genius," said Sabin. " That's sort of the best part of SXSW is meeting people and discussing the issues."

And for musicians trying to make it in the business, there's a lot to talk about.

"My keynote is on Data and Analytics," said Sabin. "I'm going to do more of a fireside chat style. So I'm going to have two or three other industry professionals and we're going to discuss their experiences."

Portia is no stranger to talking about issues like these. Her podcast, "The Future of What" tackles all aspects of making it in the music industry.

"I think the takeaway for everybody in the music industry at this point is we have to be nimble, we have to be on top of it, we have to pay attention to the trends and we have to be ready to change with the times."

Upstream is taking place throughout Pioneer Square May 11-13. Tickets are on sale now.