It’s a well-worn complaint among would-be songsters doing time in one of the many anonymous bands fighting for recognition in Washington: D.C.’s fractured music scene is deeply frustrating. Faced with indifferent audiences, disinterested club owners, and a shrinking supply of affordable practice spaces, what’s an honest bunch of starving musicians with big ambitions to do?
First things first: Circle the wagons and talk things through.
“We wanted to bring together diverse factions of the music community,” says Allison Sheedy, booker of the Black Cat and one of the organizers of “Scene Beat,” an upcoming all-day local-music conference at the 14th Street hot spot. Sheedy joined forces with Black Cat czar Dante Ferrando and Lisa White of the 9:30 Club to offer a unique social service to musicians too wrapped up in broken guitar strings to navigate the complex world of promo packages and demo tapes. Scene Beat’s unusual syllabus reads like a condensed version of the first semester at rock ‘n’ roll high school: $5 buys panel discussions like “Making the Music and Keeping a Band Together” and “Making a Recording and What You Can Do With It.” The safe space spun around these guided chat sessions will provide a much-needed opportunity for latecomers to D.C. music’s harsh realm to have their questions answered by a collection of wizened elders who have been there, done that, and have the hearing loss to prove it.
Sheedy also hopes that the forum will force citizens from all corners of the city’s largely unmapped musical geography to surface and speak their minds—if only for the afternoon. “There are so many different ideas about what the D.C. scene is,” she says. “It’s not just indie rock. It’s not just 9:30 [Club] bands. It’s not just local hiphop. It’s everything, and it’s exciting to have all these different factions in one space.”
Of course, Scene Beat’s organizers may just be setting themselves up for a fall: Cynics taking stock of Scene Beat’s ambitious offerings will inevitably needle the event’s would-be diversity. Toni Blackman of the Freestyle Union aside, the panelists are drawn from the mostly white world of D.C. indie rock labels and press.
Though Dischord luminaries Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson are notably absent, Kim Coletta of DeSoto, Phil Manley of Trans Am, and Kristen Thompson of the defunct Simple Machines will all unveil their time-tested methods for steering through the scene’s stormy seas. However, a D.C. music symposium that offers instruction on how to string and tune a guitar, instead of advice on setting up turntables or mastering MIDI technology, may face a few catcalls.
As if that weren’t enough for Scene Beat to contend with, the event may also come under fire for hobnobbing with big business. The presence of WHFS DJ Dave Marsh and Jimmie’s Chicken Shack manager Richard Burgess paints what otherwise seems a warm, fuzzy, do-it-yourself-friendly afternoon in an ominous shade of corporate gray. Aren’t these people part of the profit-margin-minded machine endangering independent music in the first place?
Sheedy is unabashed when defending Scene Beat against charges of sleeping with the enemy. “I hope that [the event] represents a corporate element,” she insists. “Some musicians in D.C. are interested in getting played on WHFS.”
Should the back-and-forth become too heated, participants will be able to chill out with post-forum sets from Lazy K, the Ruby Dare, Mary Prankster, and Phaser. —Justin Moyer
Scene Beat workshops run from noon to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at the Black Cat, 1831 14th Street NW.