This past Sunday, I had the fortune to attend the first-ever DC Music Summit sponsored by Accelerate with Google. The event brought musicians, writers, producers, and managers to a rapidly-gentrifying area in Southeast DC for a full day of performances, discussions, and panels.
I attended as part of my work with TheFirstinline, a website dedicated to sharing fan stories. While everyone in attendance at the summit worked in or adjacent to the music industry, it was clear that they were also massive fans of live, local music.
The highlight of the summit was a panel entitled “The Music Industry from A-Z.” The presenters were all players in the local music scene: Chris Richards, pop music critic for the Washington Post; Rich Shelton, a songwriter/producer for artists including Mya, Keyshia Cole, and Amerie; Casey Rae, CEO of the Future of Music Coalition; and Alexis Kimbrough, CEO/founder of the Growth Group. Chris Naoum, the founder of Listen Local First, moderated. Throughout the panel, the presenters provided key lessons and opinions on how to grow a local music scene and how to make it as a national act.
When asked about what needs fixing in the DC music scene, most of the panelists claimed the lack of collaboration. Alexis Kimbrough applauded the fact that “DC is a huge melting pot, you got music from all over the place, all different countries,” but said that “we all need to start collaborating more … music needs to go across genres.” Rich Shelton seconded her call for collaboration, citing the fact that many local pop artists had no knowledge of the hip-hop scene and vice versa.
This need for collaboration is especially salient given the fact that DC “offers the freedom for artists to make music that’s exclusive for themselves,” said Chris Richards. Because Washington isn’t a major music center in the vein of New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, or Atlanta, there is less of a need to conform to industry standards.
Casey Ray, whose organization was founded “to demonstrate that musicians have a voice in federal policy,” called for collaboration between creatives and policymakers. Integrating creative voices into cultural policy conversations is necessary because often policymakers are, as he put it, “so focused on federal policy that sometimes it’s easy to lose contact with the local communities that you’re advocating for.”
One ray of hope: Kimbrough cited local organization We Are the 9, which unites nine local songwriters covering a wide range in genre and perspective for a night of musical collaboration. Called “one night of nine different points of view,” the series aims to bring together fans of all different genres to expose them to new music scenes.
Ray’s emphasis on supporting local communities rings especially true in DC, ranked by Huffington Post as the fifth most expensive city in the United States. Richards lamented the fact that Washington is too expensive for most musicians to live and rent studio space in.
A glance outside the window confirmed his statement: we were in the middle of DC’s warehouse district, full of shuttered storefronts promising discount and wholesale goods. But in the distance, I could spot the gleaming lights of Union Market, a newly developed Instagrammer’s paradise catering to the young, white, and wealthy in search of a new brunch spot.
Even more bitter was the reminder that Mousai House, the host for the summit and self-proclaimed “Haven for Underground Artistry,” was soon to be demolished. Mousai, which provides affordable recording studios, community music lessons, and local jams, will soon become a “high-end, boutique hotel,” in spite of protests by local musicians.
The tour booking industry has been gentrified as well by huge companies like Live Nation. Richards bemoaned the fact that local acts no longer open for national touring acts due to the consolidation of the music industry and priority given to companies with national clout. He called on the audience to vote with their dollars and show venues that local groups have the potential to draw crowds.
Changing Industry Standards
Many of the presenters had worked within the industry for over a decade, and had witnessed the huge role the internet has played in changing the music industry. Rae emphasized the necessity of registering music for streaming royalties, just in case “your song got placed on like Grey’s Anatomy, or whatever the hell people watch these days.” Versatility is key: “today, revenue doesn’t just come from one area” — exposure can come from YouTube, Spotify, radio, or even a tweet.
The measure for success has been completely scrambled by the rise of the internet. All of the YouTube views in the world don’t necessarily indicate a meaningful connection with a loyal audience. Richard noted that artists often think that digital exposure is the be-all and end-all of success: “people think they can just sit back and push a button” and the song will magically find its way into earbuds everywhere. Rae asked, “does something exist if it’s just a digital potentiality on a server somewhere?”
Richards noted that the role of music criticism has been massively diminished by the internet. He provided a few tips for submitting music for review in a periodical: “say something juicy about what makes your music different from anyone else. Don’t compare yourself to other artists. Don’t say ‘my music is like a combination of Frank Ocean and the Allman Brothers,’ although I’d love to listen to that.”
Kimbrough cautioned against artists pushing their CDs on unsuspecting passersby, since CD drives are no longer a necessary inclusion in cars and laptops. Instead, she recommended that artists make an actual connection with potential audiences and get to know what they listen to.
Finally, the panelists presented us with some final tips. Richards encouraged musicians who also do daytime work to find the most brainless, easiest job they could in order to save their mental resources for their creative projects.
And Kimbrough, the business manager? She just wants her clients to pay their taxes. It’s a lot harder to produce music from jail.