In the rock world, it really doesn't make much difference where you are -- New York or Washington, Los Angeles or Nashville, Boise orDubuque. That's because record companies care about only one thing -- how you sound between their ears, the ears of a composite, median-American that listens to radio and buys its records at the shopping mall.
Emmylou Harris never went to New York; neither did Roberta Flack. Both were discovered in Washington bistros; both eventually left Washington (for Los Angeles and Boston, respectively) because it made sense, once they had reached a certain level of popularity. You don't need to travel as much as you need to wear well. For pop singers like Linda Rulke or Marlene Fontenay, New York may offer more cabaret situations (Washington offers none), but with so many other singers and out-of-work actors and actresses vying for those low-paying gigs, it often resembles a cattle call.
Which doesn't mean that the Big Apple isn't alluring to Washington musicians; it always has been. There's something about tapping an audience in the tens of millions, about working in one of the three capitals of the record industry and a center of print and television media. But it's also hard to think of any Washington musicians who have benefited financially or artistically from moving to New York, a mere hour away by plane. They may do their business there -- contracts, recording, videos -- but if they try to do their art, they just end up joining a huge pool of musicians already there (the city has more unsigned bands than the Schwann catalog has listings).
The simpler solution for most is to secure a night at one of the many New York clubs geared to showcases and invite record company and media representatives. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. "I did two showcases there with Nightman," says manager Larry Mazur, who also handles the moderately successful McLean rock quartet, Four Out of Five Doctors. "Everybody came out and everybody passed on them. But most people record company talent scouts do like you to come there; that's 'cause they suffer from terminal lazy-itis." Mazur recounts the story of one A&R man (artists and repertory man, a glorified name for a talent scout) who, rather than spend $400 to fly to a Midwestern city to hear a very promising group, had the band spend $4,000 to come play in New York. It's typical of an at- titude Mazur senses throughout the record business -- "show me, at your expense." Nightman ended up putting out a record on a small local label, Limp.
Despite apathy and lack of success, bands continue to move to New York -- the Bad Brains recently went as a unit, joining many individual musicians who seem to feel their luck will change with the venue. It generally doesn't. The Bad Brains are doing all right -- they recently opened for the Clash and have signed a deal with a small, independent company (Reach Out International) for release of a tape -- but much of their appeal is based on an anomaly, the fact that they're one of the few all-black bands in New Wave.
"Any group that has anything worthwhile to play before an audience can develop regional appeal," says Yesterday and Today Records' Skip Groff, a longtime observer of Washington New Wave rock and producer for many local groups. "For the greater number, going to New York actually lessens the chances of getting signed, or even of getting gigs, because you just join the already existing pool. For some bands, that can lead to musical and financial bankruptcy."
Bill Asp, who manages the much-traveled Insect Surfers, admits New York is still an important stopping-off point, "like Los Angeles and San Francisco on the West Coast. The Surfers went out everywhere and became quite well-known but without that solid New York support, the economic underpinning was knocked right out from under them."
Bethesda's Robert Gordon is one of the few "New York success" stories; after being out of music for five years, he joined the New York punk band Tuff Darts in the mid-'70s before going on to establish a new career as a rockabilly revivalist and expanding his rock base over the last few years. Outside of some post-high school bands, Gordon never really did much local work, but he feels strongly that "you've got to get out of D.C." to achieve any kind of significant career. "New York's a center; once you've got a base, then you can live in Washington." Gordon temporarily drew super guitarist Danny Gatton to the Apple; but Gatton's already tried his hand in the recording centers of Nashville and Los Angeles without finding the right hook to hang his career on. New York may have exposed him and added to his reputation; another great local guitarist, Roy Buchanan, will tell you reputations don't pay the rent.
In other areas of popular music (bluegrass, country, soul) the lure of The City is weaker. Jazz is a little different; New York has traditionally been the cutting edge for jazz players, but since so few of them make any money, it really becomes a case more of sympathetic ambience than career motivation. Lloyd McNeill, Charlie Rouse and Frank Wess have achieved a degree of fame, but saxophonist Buck Hill, who may be the best player to come out of Washington in 30 years, never came out of Washington at all.
"I couldn't afford to go," he points out. "I had a family to take care of, so I couldn't go through that starvation thing." Instead, Hill worked (and still works) full time as a mailman. The result was a reputation that crawled to catch up to his talents; now he's an honored guest at jazz festivals around the world . . . and an occasional visitor to New York.