I have lived in Washington for 20 years and have always been perplexed why a city with D.C.’s size, musical history, and culture is devoid of a truly great music scene. Everyone famous from the area has moved and then became famous. What do you perceive is the problem? Do you think D.C. will ever become the next Minneapolis, Seattle, or even Raleigh, N.C., for that matter? —Brad Thomas, Arlington
I think D.C. has actually done pretty well: There’s been jazz, go-go, straight-edge, and emo, as well as many great club nights over the past handful of years. Places get perceived as having great music scenes for a lot of reasons. A college town creates an ever-changing pool of younger folks—think of places like Austin, Texas, Athens, Ga., Chapel Hill, N.C., and Madison, Wisc. Affordable housing is also important: If struggling and emerging artists have nowhere to live and create, they move on.
Local politics and zoning laws play a large part in the success or failure of a scene, too. If the local police has it in for the skate punks, for instance, their shows will get shut down. If the mayor proclaims Oct. 4 Indie Rock Day, odds are the show won’t get busted. If a live-music venue draws people to events, the neighborhood gets safer. But real-estate speculation follows, and when the owners of those new condos complain about the late-night traffic and noise, the clubs may be pressured to conform or close.
So, be careful what you wish for. It’s happened before: A Condé Nast publication or an airline in-flight magazine writes about a scene. The following season, cultural tourists descend like vultures. Musicians from outlying areas move to the city, wearing home-team baseball jerseys. Hello, tourist town; goodbye, innovators. —Bob Mould