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Suddenly, Raycurt Johnson looks like a hunted man.
“I can’t do it here,” he says, scanning the escalators at Federal Triangle Metro station on a cold, drizzly April morning. “I just saw a cop down there—he’ll come up here for sure.”
Johnson can’t do it at L’Enfant Plaza, either—not with one escalator under screeching repair and a Metro Transit Police officer hustling him along at another. He thinks about running over to Union Station, but the Red Line is delayed and he’s already losing customers. It’s almost 7:30 a.m.
So Johnson, a 43-year-old Petworth resident, just takes a knee in front of a sign that says, “No Vendors No Solicitation,” popping open a case so battered it looks as if it had been at sea. Then he pulls out his 120-year-old violin and flies through a concert-quality rendition of Fritz Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro”—great attack, burgundy-rich tone, bowing of such nonchalance that it borders on contempt.
“Good morning, world,” says Johnson, finishing and wiping down his instrument’s bridge as the feet of commuters pound down around him.
Johnson is one of the last of an endangered species: the Washington-area street musician. No more than two dozen regulars are left these days, down from 60 to 80 in the late ’80s. Unlike civilized cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, which have all found ways to ensure both the quality of their street music and the safety of their subway riders, D.C. is downright hostile to buskers.
Uniform laws in the District, Maryland, and Virginia make it illegal to perform music within 15 feet of Metro property. Most musicians just tweak the system as best they can: moving from station to station, haggling over where Metro property really ends, and befriending transit cops. Johnson says that he’s been arrested 15 times for playing on the street, and that Metro Transit Police now seek him out, especially at Dupont Circle.
“The notoriety of Public Enemy No. 1 from Metro—that’s not something I counted on or wanted,” says Johnson, a D.C. native who studied voice at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and now supplements his teaching and wedding gigs with the $20 to $80 he makes each morning on the street. “It’s just a ridiculous situation here,” he says. “It’s every man for himself.”
That seems to be just the way Metro likes it. “There are hordes of people with personal listening devices who are listening to tapes and CDs and riding our trains,” says transit officer Linda Foxwell. “[The law] doesn’t mean our passengers can’t listen to music.”
Officials have long argued that allowing musicians too near their system would obstruct passengers and drown out safety messages. Even Metro’s Arts in Transit program is on board: According to manager Michael McBride, “My responsibility is to uphold the operating procedures of Metro”—though he admits that musician and customer demand now has him looking into how D.C. could emulate New York, where buskers have to pass an audition, adhere to schedules, and perform in predetermined locations. So far, no formal proposals have been made.
In the meantime, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities suggests that Johnson and his colleagues take a number: For the upcoming Sidewalk Music Slam, a June contest that’s part of the city’s Fête de la Musique festival, sidewalk troubadours will get to stand next to numeral-emblazoned sandwich boards, which passers-by will later use to vote on the Internet. First prize isn’t much, either: a recording session and a CD-release party.
Johnson says that he’ll enter for the publicity, but he’ll try to ignore the contest. “I’ll play the music,” he says, snickering. “But we’re already functioning musicians. I can make a CD next week.”
THE TAXMAN COMETH
Ticketmaster’s got nothing on the D.C. government, which is considering collecting a citywide tax on entertainment to fund support of the arts.
“We’re looking at the economics of it and the political hurdles,” says Michael Jasso, special assistant in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Planning and Development. “We all want to support the arts and humanities, but…there’s a relatively small pool of places you can go for the funding.”
Jasso says the city is studying how big a honey pot could be created by imposing a levy on admission charges to District theaters, clubs, and movie theaters, as well on as purchases of pay-per-view movies in hotel rooms. Sporting events at the MCI Center and anything at the Kennedy Center would be exempt, but the city still thinks it might be able to raise up to $75 million annually.
Though Jasso denies that a specific percentage has been determined, area arts officials, including League of Washington Theatres administrator Nicola Daval, have heard that 1 percent could be the magic number.
“They’re desperate to find the money,” says Daval. “They can get some of it from developers, but not all of it.”
In fact, recent multi-million-dollar construction requests by Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company are what prompted the idea. An earlier proposed version of the tax—3 percent on tickets sold by venues that grossed at least $1 million annually, but only after they’d hit that mark—was shouted down as unworkable by the District’s theaters in October 2003.
But while many theater officials are now more open to a tax, some are still peeved about the MCI and KenCen exclusions. “Does it mean small theaters will be paying for Arena Stage’s expansion?” asks Daval. “And once you start, does it stop at 1 percent?…We all know that space is a major, major problem for everybody—so let’s do it in a way that doesn’t put some people out of business to keep others in business.”
“The question is, when I’m buying a $25 admission ticket, at what point do I turn away?” counters Michael Hodge, D.C.’s director of revenue bonds and enterprise-zone programs. “When it’s $25.50? When it’s $26? I think the answer in both those instances is no.”
Translation: Why not 2 percent? Why not 4?
A lesson from Club Five: Put lick-the-hand-stamp types behind the velvet ropes and somebody’s eventually gonna get strung up.
On March 26, early arrivals to the upscale club’s monthly ElectroTease showcase paid $10 for a DJ event featuring ex-Smiths Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. But around midnight, when Joyce and Rourke went on, Club Five door staff suddenly upped the cover to $15 for men. For one of the show’s promoters, Biserious Productions’ co-founder Cassidy Karakorn, that painted a very vulgar picture indeed.
“We’re trying to draw a gay crowd, a straight crowd, a multicultural crowd,” says Karakorn, 26, who claims she fielded a “ton” of complaints and angry e-mails about the $5 hike. “When we’re trying to make all these scenes equal, charging different prices is not something we would ever do.”
Welcome to Clubland, says Five owner Tim Sherman, who admits that his doormen did raise the price. “We agreed to come down to $10 on the presale and did $10 at the door until we had about 600 people, which is capacity,” he says, adding that Biserious told him about only four complaints from patrons. “As a good promoter, they should be able to roll with it. But they got all bitter and started writing e-mails.”
Actually, just one big one: Biserious, which over the past year has brought Peaches, Mount Sims, and Mira Aroyo of Ladytron to Washington, sent out a message announcing that it’s canceled all future ElectroTeases at Five—including one with Boy George tentatively scheduled for next month.
“Five’s crowd is college kids or like an international Euro crowd,” says Karakorn. “Our crowd typically comes to the Black Cat. We were trying to bring that indie-rock aspect into an upscale club, and maybe that just doesn’t work in D.C.”
Nor does ElectroTease, according to Sherman, who paid Biserious a flat rate for the Smiths’ rhythm section. “Their shows have always made less than our regular Friday nights,” he says. “This one was good for them, because they walked away with money for once.”
SIX OF ONE, HALF-DOZEN OF THE OTHER
With its attendance still anemic, its marketing budget close to zero, and its staff dwindling, the City Museum of Washington, D.C., is taking a big step toward survival.
It’s changing its slogan.
The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which runs the museum, announced in its most recent newsletter that it’s seeking replacements for its present motto, “The Never Ending Story of Washington Starts Here.”
Under that winner, the museum has quickly gone into the red since its opening in May 2003, drawing just over a tenth of its originally projected annual attendance of 300,000 and suffering through continuing HVAC problems in the renovated Carnegie Library building at 801 K St. NW. In January, the project’s leader, Historical Society President and CEO Barbara Franco, resigned to take a job in Pennsylvania.
Megan Searing Young, assistant to interim President and CEO Shireen Dodson, says that the new phrase has to be six or fewer words, and that the contest’s winner will receive a free contributing membership to the museum.
But Young says the winning entry won’t be the cornerstone of a new marketing effort. In fact, she can’t even guarantee that it will be used for anything. “It has to be approved by the PR and marketing committee of our board of directors,” she says.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
“Come Keep Me Company.”
“Cleanest Bathrooms in the Downtown BID.”
“Still Cheaper Than Colonial Williamsburg.”
“This Year, We’ll Have Air Conditioning.”
“Great Views of the New Convention Center.”
Oops, that’s seven. Contest closes April 30. —Robert Lalasz
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