D.C.'s Got Talent. So Why Don't We Hear It?

By Dusty Horwitt
Sunday, April 26, 2009

Susan Boyle's performance on the British version of "American Idol," "Britain's Got Talent," is a wonderful story. But glowing news coverage of her subsequent popularity online suggests that unknown musicians have an easier time finding an audience in the digital age. That is certainly not the case for musicians in the Washington area.

In 2006-07, I covered the financial state of the local rock music scene for Washington City Paper. My research revealed that even before the economic crisis, it was much harder for up-and-coming D.C.-area musicians to reach fans or to make money than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to success is that local musicians and clubs agree that artists can play no more than once a month in the Washington area because if musicians played more often, they wouldn't be able to draw a significant crowd. Digital media has probably contributed to this impediment by providing literally millions of reasons for potential fans to stay home.

The band I covered most closely, Rockville's talented Hotspur, had 20,000 MySpace friends, but voluntarily abided by the one-gig-a-month rule. So, too, did Fairfax's My Favorite Highway (now signed to Virgin Records), with more than 46,000 MySpace Friends, and Washington's Telograph, which had enough chops to open for popular O.A.R. at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Older rockers, including Maryland-based bass player Steve Wolf, Grammy-award-winning producer and guitarist Scott Shuman of Falls Church and the Nighthawks' harmonica player, Mark Wenner, say that bands played more frequently in the 1960s and 1970s when there were more venues for live music, less competition from home entertainment and an opportunity to be heard on local radio .

"I bought my house because of airplay on WHFS for one record," Wolf said. In 1985, he was a member of the Tom Principato Band and someone handed a copy of the band's record, "Smokin'!," to a deejay at the Bethesda-based station. The airplay led to packed clubs and a European tour. Arbitron ratings archived at the University of Georgia show that WHFS reached an audience of 86,000 to 112,000 unique listeners each week in 1985, when "Smokin'!" received regular airplay. Unlike many Internet fans, local radio listeners didn't have to travel far to attend shows.

But as Post columnist Marc Fisher reported in his recent book, "Something in the Air," radio has largely closed its doors to up-and-coming artists. Audiences have declined, as they have across the media spectrum.

Hotspur has appeared on DC101's "Local Lix" show, which airs on Sunday nights; it is one of the few on-air venues for Washington area artists. According to Arbitron ratings, the listenership in 2007 averaged just 3,000 people for every 15 minutes. This inability to reach people also is reflected in artists' pay.

"Bands were making $300 to $500 a night in 1976 to 1980," guitarist Shuman said. "And now bands are making $300 a night." Digital downloads bring in little money. Even Apple "has said it makes little profit from iTunes," the Wall Street Journal reported last year.

Bass player Wolf recounted how in 1968 he scored his first professional gig playing six nights a week at a biker bar called Cousin Nick's on 14th Street NW when he was a senior at Oxon Hill High School. The pay was $15 a night, about $91 a night in 2008 dollars, or roughly $33,000 a year.

In 2007, I met My American Heart, a band from San Diego. The alternative rockers were signed to the independent record label Warcon Records and had toured throughout the United States and Europe. Their MySpace page boasted 118,000 friends and 4.5 million plays of their music. According to the group's tour manager, Kyle McKinnon, the five members of the band, plus their manager and merchandise supervisor, would earn about $20,000 apiece in 2007 -- or less than Wolf made in 1968 at Cousin Nick's, where the owner kept a sawed-off shotgun in plain view behind the bar in case things got rough.

It's so hard for musicians to make it today, I've started to believe the stories that Elvis isn't dead; he's just playing his once-a-month gigs in local clubs, struggling in anonymity. So why not catch a local band this week? You'll help support the local music scene and besides, you never know who might be there.

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