One morning this week, five members of Spread Love, a New Orleans-style street band, gathered at one of Washington’s busiest intersections, pulled out four trombones, a drum set and a tips bucket and began playing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
The band’s brassy riffs at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW always delight the hordes of tourists heading toward the White House. But the very spot that’s proved so profitable for Spread Love to pull in tips has also earned it the enmity of employees at two major Washington institutions: the Treasury Department and the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Apparently, the economists in charge of our nation’s financial stability and the attorneys who represent many of our country’s corporate high-rollers and white-collar criminal defendants are struggling to focus inside their offices because the band is so loud. They are hearing Spread Love spreading its love too much.
The conflict, which began this spring and was first chronicled by the Above the Law blog, pits two very different slices of Washington against each other: the super-educated strivers working at the upper echelons of government and law against a group of exuberant street buskers who make a living off Mall-bound tourists.
Spread Love plays all over the city — L’Enfant Plaza, Farragut West, George Washington University — but the band’s favorite spots are outside the Farragut North Metro stop and at the corner of 15th Street and New York Avenue NW. Most of the group’s members — who go by stage names like Stixxx, Country and Love Soul — are full-time musicians. They sometimes land paid gigs, too. Earlier this month, the band played a Decatur House barbecue for the White House Historical Association.
Still, to many of the men and women cloistered away in offices at Treasury and Skadden Arps, Spread Love is a nuisance.
“We have to relocate our conference calls. We can’t have meetings in that corner of the building anymore. It’s like they’re playing music in the building,” said one Treasury Department employee, who, true to Washington form, would speak only on the condition of anonymity and be identified only as an “employee.” “There are people here who have headphones, and everyone’s got the air conditioners cranked up to get the white noise. And there’s people who have their children’s white-noise makers, too. Everyone’s going crazy.”
The complaints at the Treasury Department have reached as high as the office of the assistant secretary for management, Brodi Fontenot, according to agency spokesman Rob Runyan. “However, we recognize that the music from performers and other street noise can be part of working in downtown D.C.,” Runyan said in a statement.
Over at Skadden Arps, Mitchell S. Ettinger, who leads the Washington office, wrote an e-mail in late May to the staff apologizing for the “inconvenience” of the band, which was “making it difficult for people . . . to work.” The firm reached out to the Secret Service and D.C. police, he wrote, but the agencies said the musicians’ performances were legal and that “there was nothing that could be done to have them removed.”
Ettinger added that Skadden Arps tried negotiating with Spread Love to relocate but failed.
Skadden Arps’ negotiating skills could use some polish, reported Mark McCollough, 33, a.k.a. Stixxx, the band’s drummer, and Lonnie Shepard, 35, a.k.a. Love Soul, a trombonist. The two friends laughed as they recounted the law firm’s attempt to persuade them to move.
“Yeah, they sent over a security guard one day,” McCollough said, as tourists took photos of him perched besides his drums.
“And the guard said, ‘I don’t have a problem with you, but a couple people in the building do. Could we pay you to get off this spot, like $200 a week?’ ” Shepard said. “We can make that in an hour.”
“So,” McCollough said, “we got back to them the next day and said, ‘We’re not interested.’ ”
Not that the band couldn’t be bought. “If the price is right, sure,” assured Steve Belk, 45, the band’s director, a.k.a. Country.
The clash between the musicians and the suits went public two months ago when Abovethelaw.com (the ESPN for law junkies) obtained a leaked copy of Ettinger’s e-mail and published it in a story with the headline “Why are D.C. lawyers such frigging babies?”
“Another day, another tip about how obnoxiously soft these D.C. lawyers are,” wrote Joe Patrice, the article’s author. “I can’t believe the SECRET SERVICE didn’t see the convenience of white-shoe lawyers as a top priority.”
Brian Leary, a Secret Service spokesman, declined to comment, referring The Washington Post to D.C. police.
The city’s noise regulations protect “First Amendment activities” in commercially zoned areas downtown, where there is no decibel limit, according to Gwendolyn Crump, the D.C. police department’s chief spokeswoman. It’s only in residential areas where “noncommercial public speaking” cannot exceed 80 decibels inside the nearest occupied residence.
Crump declined to discuss the specifics involved in the Spread Love situation.
“Noise enforcement is a complicated issue,” she wrote in an e-mail. “With street musicians, there may be First Amendment rights associated with it. We are working with attorneys on this matter.”
But lest anyone think that a trombone-fueled rendition of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not protected by the Constitution, consider this: Spread Love and the band’s busking brethren got some love last year from U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell in Washington. In a lawsuit filed by a street guitarist against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Howell cleared the way for the musician to continue playing near local subway stations, ruling that busking is a “First Amendment-protected activity.”
In his office-wide e-mail, Ettinger, the Skadden Arps attorney, promised that the firm was “purchasing the device required to conduct the decibel measurements” to determine whether Spread Love was violating any local noise rules. He added that if the music was found to exceed “the legal threshold,” and law enforcement agencies “still refuse to enforce, we can take the issue to the D.C. Council and the Mayor’s Office.” He added, “We are also considering other measures like hiring a string quartet to arrive earlier in the day and assume their spot.”
Ettinger declined to comment.
“Mitch’s primary objective there was to let people know the law firm was thinking about this,” one attorney at the firm said. “Parts of that e-mail were tongue-in-cheek.”
Belk said the band members have known one another for years and have played together in church ensembles. They decided to take their music to the streets last fall.
“We make enough for everyone to pay the bills,” McCollough said. “This is better than 9-to-5 work. We get up at 8 a.m., and we’ll sometimes play from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
He said that some of the high-powered office dwellers actually like hearing the band’s music: “One day, the spouse of a lawyer there came down and said, ‘My husband tells me he loves you guys, but everyone in his cubicle is livid. He’s the only one in his office partying.’ ”
The band has other powerful fans. “At least five to six Secret Service people have taken selfies with us,” McCollough said.
But those at Treasury and Skadden Arps who long for quiet should mark the following date and time as the perfect window for conference calls, meetings and document review: Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. That’s when Spread Love will definitely not be downtown. They’ve got a gig at the Kennedy Center.
Jorge Ribas contributed to this report.