MAKING MUSIC in Washington is easy. Anybody can do it. Too often, come to think of it, just anybody does. And maybe that's why you don't go out much anymore these days.
Yes, risk. You take one every time you leave the house or office for some live music in this town -- and maybe that's why you joined the movie club. Funny thing, though. As one who goes out at night more often than human beings should be allowed to go out -- and yes, I get paid to do it -- I've noticed something: That risk of ours is nothing compared to what it is on the other side of the microphone.
Nevertheless, a few stubborn, naive romantics continue to make music in Washington.
Despite a lot of things. Despite, for instance, how much harder it gets every day to make good music -- meaning original, meaning substantial. Possibly thought-provoking, maybe bone-crushing, hopefully both. And to do so for decent pay and a crowd to match. Or to consistently write songs with a good chance of selling beyond Beltsville and enduring beyond next month, while spending enough hours on the phone to find clubs that will let you perform them -- because a song unsung, as you know, is no song at all. These things are true everywhere, not just in Washington, and have to do with the stiffening of drinking laws as much as with the tandem rise of gutless radio and the show-me-a-sure-thing recording industry.
But people continue to try stuff out in Washington. Despite its being probably a tougher town than most for a budding pop or country star or singer- songwriter, primarily because of its demographics. To wit: If 38 percent of the population owns Mercedes and 61 percent has to stay close to the radio in hopes of winning a Mercedes, this leaves only 1 percent to take on various $10 cover charges, $3 beers and parking in Georgetown. As a city, we work. We eat. We jog. And we finished. G'night.
Baltimore is not like this. Minneapolis is not like this. I am not talking about top-40 lounges.
Washington's club scene is also diminished because the city just isn't an established music- producing center a la New York, Los Angeles and Nashville -- except maybe in the bluegrass/ country area (and this is due in large part to the sincere affection and ambition of the people who run the Birchmere). As far as musician-producing, on the other hand, Washington has done its share, contributing to the rest of the world such diverse household names as Roberta Flack, Roy Clark, Trouble Funk, Emmylou Harris, Stacey Lattislaw and Nils Lofgren. But try finding any of these folks in the D.C. white pages.
Aha. See? Washington's exceptions to the first rule of the modern American music business -- Thou Shalt Not Make It -- rarely make it in Washington, when they do. And if they do make it here, they don't usually hang arund afterward. Especially not in clubs.
A lot of people keep saying some of Washington's best music is being made in basements these days.
This could be true, but the essence of popular music-making and songwriting remains performance -- which brings us back to the clubs. There aren't as many as there used to be around here -- of the sort, that is, that are big enough to be known outside the neighborhood; open enough to fresh, original bands to be known among musicians; and nontotalitarian enough in their booking policies to be liked among musicians. The Cellar Door, the Wax Museum, Desperado's and Adam's are all gone, and so far nothing's really come around to replace them. Life is rough.
The music business is rougher -- even if you're just listening. Washington does harbor a few good places to see different, original stuff -- but you have to pay attention.
Towards that end, what we have herein are brief glimpses into the unnecessarily secret lives of five area acts -- all of which would either like or have already had (and would like again) a taste of the elusive, so-called Big Time. But which will settle for your five bucks at the door.
For now, anyway. There's a chance you may have to buy a record at some point.