The latter years of the Reagan Era and the early 1990s are regarded as a sort of golden age in DC independent music. It had a scene that was, if not most well known, was at least uniquely eclectic and stubborn. Bands like Fugazi lent the contemporaneous pre-Nevermind indie revolution what amounted to a sense of moral righteousness, both in their commitment to forward-thinking musical ideas and the uncompromising production ethic—DIY.
Since then notion of a self-supporting local music scene has become something of a chimera in many places. It had never been easy, and doing things the hard way by founding your own record labels and footing your own recording bills was very much the point in those days. And even back then the argument was made in the same way it is today; it’s more edifying for both musicians and fans to have a personal, geographically-based relationship with one another. Those arguments, then as now, appeal to a lot of people.
So what changed? There are probably a lot of reasons. I happen to subscribe to the idea that the digital listening ethic, based on expertise and connoisseurship—downloading and listening to everything one can find—has largely replaced any local affinities music listeners might have. But for DC at least, one of the more compelling explanations is simply the ecology of musicians themselves. The draw of New York City, or even relatively inexpensive Richmond, Austin, or places further afield, has made it difficult to maintain a critical mass of bookers, venue owners, promoters, engineers, graphic design people, and musicians. In a notable contribution to this thesis last week Justin Moyer, formerly of several early Dischord bands, penned a cri de coeur lamenting how Brooklyn ate DC:
A regional music scene—hereafter, “RMS”—furthers art in the same way that, say, Wisconsin furthered progressive politics under Gov. and Sen. Robert La Follette in the early 20th century. RMSes generate ideas. They lend music character. RMSes differentiate Hill Country blues from Delta blues and New York hardcore from Orange County hardcore from harDCore. RMSes draw lines between KRS-One and MC Shan, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Merseybeat and The Kinks, Satie and Wagner. RMSes are why I would almost never play a show that wasn’t all ages in D.C., but would only play Joe’s Bar in Marfa, Texas. RMSes make you think differently.
… in the early 2000s, Brooklyn—in both its psychic and physical forms—devastated the Washington RMS. … At its creative peak, The Rapture imported half its members from D.C. Ted Leo—a former Washingtonian—stole an ex-member of The Make-Up and a member of French Toast. New York also spirited away a Black Cat booker and at least one popular recording engineer.
That’s just our little indie-rock world.
Though it once loomed large across the nation, the Washington RMS isn’t big. It’s not a national scene. And no RMS can lose this many people—literally dozens of musicians, promoters, flyer-makers, T-shirt silkscreeners, sound guys, record company and record store employees, and showgoers—to a Brooklyn and expect to remain relevant.
He goes on to list many of the more notable DC-area acts that lost members to New York City, and his objection to the homogenized sound of mass-market indie rock for which he uses Brooklyn as a stand-in. You should read the whole thing.
Because of DC’s proximity to New York City, it’s more susceptible to the Brooklyn-suck than elsewhere, so maybe that explains a bit of the parochialism in Moyer’s piece. But the desire to shore up one’s compatriots can go too far, and I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of irony reading it. See, at one time the sister of the famous Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye turned my band down for a show at Fort Reno because we were from Fredericksburg, too far south to be counted as the federal city’s hinterland.
I’ve never felt any kind of divided loyalty between either place, really, and we all thought the distinction was frivolous at the time. But I’m glad we never gave up the distinction of being a Fredericksburg band. Last Saturday we played our last show ever for a room full of high schoolers and our closest friends in a bookstore downtown. We had a solid run of four years and one album, but seven-person bands aren’t known for their longevity. Our frontman/keyboard player and his flute-playing wife moved to Austin, and our bassist decided to spend another year in Spain teaching.
Fredericksburg All Ages, a student-run nonprofit whose mission is to put on awesome concerts, was kind enough to host our farewell. What makes them unique is that every show must be all-ages, and the fact that they put student bands and college bands like us on the same bill as whatever touring acts they manage to book. I mention this in the context of Moyer’s essay because I think it points to a less adversarial relationship between regional and universal:
Rarely do you see venues pair professional touring bands with local high school bands on the same bill the way that FAA has done since the beginning. FAA is one of the only places in the country, if not THE only place in the country, where a high school band has been able to open for a national touring act a couple weeks after they played on Late Night with David Letterman.
The response to this has been overwhelming. Younger musicians obviously love it. They are given the chance to share the stage with some of their favorite bands. It makes them practice harder and take the opportunity more seriously. They’re on a real stage playing in front of seasoned professionals, so they have to rise to the occasion.
Surprisingly, the touring bands also seem to love it too. They see their younger selves in the high school bands and are reminded of the youthful excitement they had when they were their age. It is not uncommon to see professional musicians take the time to talk to the opening local bands backstage, give them mentoring advice, and assume a big brother/big sister type of role. FAA becomes a welcome respite for a road-weary band accustomed to smoky bars and an indifferent bar crowd. (link)
Their success over six years speaks for itself; it’s not an exaggeration to say they’re the best youth-led arts nonprofit in the state of Virginia. Over the years they’ve had bands like Ra Ra Riot, Titus Andronicus, Georgie James, No Age, and just recently one of two Dismemberment Plan reunion shows this year. As a college, then town favorite, through them we got to open for Ted Leo and The Head and The Heart.
More than any other institution, FAA incubates local talent. They gave us a stage and an audience, which is a lot; a few of the kids at the show on Saturday were freshmen when they saw us for the first time at FAA, now they were seniors and knew the words to our songs. For that I can’t be thankful enough, and I know the rest of the band shares my gratitude.
The title for Moyer’s essay is a play on the Minutemen lyric “our band could be your life,” which authors like Michael Azerrad have taken to embody the DIY ethic of musical production. If the implication is that the death of regional music scenes has something to do with musicians emulating a universal ideal rather than the currents of local living, then perhaps Fredericksburg has something to say about a corrective. The city punches above its weight musically–to use a favorite phrase of Barack Obama–largely thanks to FAA. Several of their board members play in bands themselves. Local cultures are contingent on the people participating in them, which is why plans for arts districts and urban renewal often fail and usually smack of bureaucratic scheming. There are a lot of intellectual concepts one could use to describe these kids’ success–empowerment, spontaneous order, decentralism, whatever hip political narrative one cares to ascribe. But all that seems to detract from the simple point that what they’ve created is good, and it deserves to be repeated elsewhere.
Jordan Bloom is the Associate Editor of TAC. Follow him on Twitter.