Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Last month, dozens of bands and music boosters from D.C. made their way to South by Southwest, the manic, annual see-and-be-seen industry gathering in Austin, Texas. For the most part, the D.C. delegation stayed in its usual perch: the periphery.

Sure, Bluebrain, the experimental-pop duo known for its conceptual one-off performances, created the festival’s musical smartphone app. And Dave Nada hosted a grimy-glitzy party starring moombahton, the global-bass microgenre he created here. But if you wanted to see most other music from D.C.—organized by blogs like Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, labels like Lovitt Records, and gatherings like the five-year-old D.C. Does TX party—you probably had to step off the official festival grounds and visit one of the dozens of grassroots, and often decently attended, showcases that coincide with South by Southwest.

René Moffatt, a singer-songwriter, and Chris Naoum, a lawyer who specializes in music policy and broadcast rights, didn’t want to stay in the margins. Last year, the two friends formed the advocacy group Listen Local First. This year, they went to Austin with the goal of placing D.C. at the center the action. Their strategy came from the old punk-rock playbook: Jam Econo .

This winter, Listen Local First raised $5,570 via a Kickstarter campaign in order to repair and rent a 1985 Ford Econoline, paint it Technicolor, and drive it to Austin, where it would serve as a “food truck that serves music.” The “mobile music venue” set up on street corners, where D.C. artists who’d also made the trek gave impromptu performances that were filmed.

The scrappy road trip was Listen Local First’s latest effort to elevate the profile of the D.C. scene—not just the D.C. folk scene, the D.C. indie-rock scene, the D.C. rap scene, or the D.C. electronic scene. The group throws itself behind the D.C. music scene. All of it.

It’s a crusade in keeping with our age. Over the last year or so here, cultural locavorism seems to have become endemic: Listen Local First highlights D.C. acts each month with its Local Music Day, for which local businesses turn over their sound systems to a selection of local albums. For several years, Metro Music Source has held monthly networking events for local musicians. There are two new eclectic, all-local music streams: Hometown Sounds (motto: “Showing the World How D.C. Rocks”) and the Scoutmob-backed Scoutsounds. The site D.C. Music Download launched in January; it features wide-eyed coverage of a spectrum of genres and organizes concert rendezvouses through the service meetup.com.

It’s not just music. Small theater troupes like Active Cultures and fairly prominent stages like Theater J have launched reading series dedicated to local voices. Theater J’s D.C.-playwright festival, Locally Grown, was apparently successful enough that the troupe is retaining the branding for two of its productions next season.

As a consumer, I’m well-placed to sympathize with these efforts. I edit a newspaper section that’s almost entirely focused on local arts organizations and artists. When I admire art made by locals, I write enthusiastically about it. On my own time, much of the music and art I consume is made by area names.

All the same, as someone who values a Washington whose cultural life is both distinct and worldly, I’m nervous about this sort of genre-agnostic focus on what area code artists happen to live in. Those who advocate for eating local make an environmental pitch that has to do with carbon footprints. Proponents of shopping local make an economic argument that has to do with the influence and labor practices of large corporations and the diversity of shopping opportunities.

But in consuming culture, I’ve never felt “local” to be an inherent plus. Not exactly. What matters, or ought to matter, is whether something is interesting, forward-thinking, vibrant—and mostly importantly, good.

Before D.C. was listening local, it was thinking local. Those goodwill-dispensing decals—yes…we’re LOCAL—that you see in the windows of some businesses? They’re the work of Think Local First, a campaign that the Latino Economic Development Corporation began in 2006. The group promotes local businesses to consumers, forms relationships between local entrepreneurs, and advocates for local-friendly policies. Like a lot of marketing campaigns, Think Local First’s comes off as at least somewhat sanctimonious on first glance, even if it’s hard to knock the good intention.

Think Local First and similar campaigns around the country rely on two assumptions: that you can convince consumers they should take pride in shopping local, and that stores selling locally made goods can channel consumer goodwill into more business.

Listen Local First got an early thumbs up from Think Local First. One hope of Moffatt and Naoum’s monthly Local Music Day is that music can offer similar possibilities for the local stores, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants that participate—that the altruism of customers enthusiastic about local music could, just maybe, generate more sales. When I interviewed Naoum last November, he described the event as an experiment to which he’d already introduced some tweaks: Some businesses, for example, might choose to deploy the local music selections later in the month at a special event, or have one of the featured artists do an in-store performance.

The license Naoum came up with allowed for that flexibility: Businesses pay a fee to access the stream of local albums. The eight participants in each month’s stream split the revenues, which came to $65 an act during the first Local Music Day. Because many local businesses pay fees to performance rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI, Naoum says he’s considering creating a blanket license for a cheaper, all-local stream that businesses could play every day of the month. It’s hard to argue with an effort that’s about finding more revenue for local musicians.

At the heart of Local Music Day is another hard-to-criticize goal: to tell people who may not have realized that, yes, some good music is made in the D.C. area—or at least unobjectionable music. Although each month’s event spans an array of genres, the music is mostly coffee shop-appropriate. You won’t find any local metal, for example. The presumption is that on those days, patrons of participating stores might find themselves tickled by albums from wholly different genres.

It’s that more subliminal aim that loses me: Certainly, one person’s musical appetites can make room for, say, Afropop, New Romantic synthpop, and backpacker rap, but they’re a lot less likely to make an emotional or ethical investment in all of those things. To my mind, the presupposition might as well be that listeners should care more about the artists’ city of residence than about their actual art.

That’s not how local music scenes actually work. Scenes grow and nurture their artists because listeners find art, as well as an intimacy with the artists, that are worth their time and help define their lifestyle. When we talk about a D.C. music scene from the consumer’s perspective, we’re really talking about a collection of scenes. Ditto a D.C. art scene, a D.C. lit scene, and a D.C. theater scene.

Luckily, the Listen Local First guys seem to appreciate this. Naoum told me, back in November, that they might tailor genre-specific streams in the future: The local skate shop will get the local skate tunes, assuming such things exist.

But the bigger concern remains: What does it say when you’re picking art based on criteria other than whether or not it is good?

Local theaters’ play-reading series involve a serious curatorial effort that nevertheless draws from an inherently constricted pool of submissions. At a recent discussion during Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival, one board member questioned whether new-play development ought to focus on local submissions or simply strong ones. “I’m a supporter of the festival,” the board member said, “but just the fact that you all live here doesn’t move me.”

Listen Local First is also lightly curated—for the November iteration of Local Music Day, Naoum asked me for a recommendation—but for the most part, that seems to mean the casual suggestions of people involved in music whom the organizers know. To my ears, the quality of the music on offer tends to vary; the event is promotional, after all, not critical. Maybe more erudite listeners could find something to appreciate in each of the event’s selections, but even if every album out there was peer-reviewed and juried, its value would still be up in the air. Art is subjective; that’s why we don’t support it whole-cloth.

Taken to its extreme, the logic of embracing something because it was made here can go in some troubling directions: Would it have obliged a 1930s Parisian to shun Josephine Baker for someone more traditionally Gallic? Or, more to the point, would it have obliged the 1970s Washingtonians who kick-started this city’s hardcore scene to avoid the imported British punk albums that helped inspire them? In addition to a vibrant music scene with a rich history, one nice thing about Washington is you can see Italian opera and Senegalese pop and countless hip-hop microscenes from across the United States. Against that backdrop, Listen Local First’s noble goal of supporting hometown artists elides into something that seems rather parochial and insular.

A city’s quality of life has a lot to do with its cultural life. And part of that certainly means having a city that is nurturing to working artists but is also competitive enough that they’re making work that’s world-class. If you want the local masses to care about D.C.’s arts, you shouldn’t appeal to the back-patting ethics of economic locavorism. You should push artists toward greatness.

The truth is, artists in D.C. do need help for a whole host of reasons. What most intrigues me about Listen Local First isn’t its booster efforts but its interest in identifying government policies that could make Washington a more welcoming place for musicians. The group has hosted a series of panels involving folks with some involvement in the local music scene (I appeared on one panel of music journalists). Inspired by a study of the Denver music scene conducted by the Western States Arts Foundation, Listen Local First is also hoping to conduct research on the economics of District music-making. Naoum sees other roles for the group, like helping artists and venues with the bureaucratic hurdles of securing performance licenses, identifying cheap practice space for local groups, and expanding public performance opportunities. (Busking in the Metro, anyone?)

That Listen Local First even exists is a positive sign. D.C. has never wanted for scrappy artistic types, but as the city’s population has grown and changed in recent years, there’s been a boom in the business of creativity that should be apparent to anyone who keeps an eye on local culture. I couldn’t say whether there are more people making art in D.C. than there were several years ago, but the low-level infrastructure—bloggers, upstart publicists, pop-up-shop middlemen, photographers, and magnanimous organizers like Naoum and Moffatt—has very clearly ballooned.

But asking listeners to directly care about a wide swath of music whose only common denominator is geography is the wrong paradigm for Listen Local First’s efforts—or any booster’s. You can’t ask people to take a blanket stance of support for something whose worth is subjective. Instead, you can ask them to support the kind of conditions—say, space for artists to work, fair booking practices—that make D.C. a place where artists want to live, something everyone should want. Artists in D.C. need a hand, not a nonjudgemental megaphone. Make artists want to live here, and you’ll find locals who’ll listen.

More from WCP