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Who cares about D.C. music?
The way some locals talk, you’d think no one outside the DMV pays attention to the region’s musical gifts, but 2014 smashed that myth. Rolling Stone can’t stop gushing over Priests; Wale’s forthcoming collaboration with Jerry Seinfeld got attention from MTV and USA Today; Magnet dubbed Ex Hex’s debut “2014’s Best Album”; Pitchfork laid out a whole primer on D.C. hip-hop in the wake of Shy Glizzy’s recent ascent. And those are just the obvious examples.
The truth is that people have always paid attention. The most-repeated stories about Duke Ellington, Chuck Brown, or Ian MacKaye—the tales that crop up in docs like Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways—often omit folkier heroes like John Fahey and Seldom Scene. The genre-crossing talent of Eva Cassidy, whose fame didn’t blossom until after her untimely death, doesn’t fit squarely into most D.C. narratives either, despite her duets with Brown and Blues Alley recording sessions. Even the chilled-out, political trip-hop of Thievery Corporation, whose following spans the globe, sometimes gets forgotten in local-centric discussions.
The more interesting question is how, not if, anyone outside the area finds out about D.C. artists. There’s no singular style or narrative inside D.C. music, and the path to broader recognition varies wildly, too.
Priests went the time-honored, punk-rock way: They toured their asses off, booked their own shows, recorded and (co-)released their own music, and in the process, managed to capture the attention of both grassroots fans and major critics. Hell, even Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo digs them.
Ex Hex scored a deal with Merge early on (frontwoman Mary Timony’s time with Wild Flag and Helium probably didn’t hurt), and the band hit the ground running. By the time its debut LP came out, the group had already had successful showcases at SXSW and was on the road with the much-buzzed-about Speedy Ortiz. With so much momentum built up, it was no surprise when Ex Hex broke into the national spotlight, performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers in November.
At first, Shy Glizzy garnered local attention by regularly dropping decent mixtapes and hashing out more than a few beefs with other rappers on Twitter, but a 2013 spot on a Future mixtape opened the door for his increasingly hook-laden singles to make rounds on hip-hop radio. His two mixtapes this year have gotten even more attention, leaving plenty of room for the 22-year-old rapper to branch out in the year to come.
But Glizzy’s not the only one prepping for 2015. With the ever-rising price of rent, a precipitous decline in record sales, and an increasingly confusing, cluttered digital landscape, any area musician looking to make a big impact has to make plans. Yesterday’s strategies aren’t reliable in a constantly changing field, so perhaps the most important question is about what’s next: How will anyone hear about D.C. artists?
Devin Ocampo (Faraquet, Beauty Pill) has been releasing two-song cassette tapes with his new band, the Effects; they stream only one song at a time on their Bandcamp page, with a new one up every month. They aren’t the only locals to churn out cassettes—labels like Sister Polygon (Priests, Pinkwash) and Cricket Cemetery have been at it for a few years—but their singles (with intentional A and B sides, harkening back to vinyl 45s of the ’50s and ’60s) apply an old-school model to a contemporary situation: Low overhead, limited streams, and frequent physical releases might be the key to breaking into an otherwise noisy, digital world.
Earlier last year, Cuneiform Records jumped onto Bandcamp, too. In a massive undertaking, the label moved its enormous, adventurous catalog onto the DIY-friendly service, where it’s all immediately audible. Among Cuneiform’s many 2014 releases, Anthony Pirog’s brilliant Palo Colorado Dream cracked jazz year-end lists across the country. Both Pirog and Cuneiform’s other artists seem set to face 2015 with both quality and quantity, filling out extensive tour schedules and offering up wildly ambitious performances.
On a much larger scale, D.C.’s biggest hip-hop star, Wale, caught headlines last year as he developed an unlikely friendship and collaboration with Seinfeld, who the rapper has long admired. Working with one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry isn’t exactly a replicable formula, but that’s partly what makes the improbable pair so fascinating to watch.
After years of delays, avant-pop band Beauty Pill is finally gearing up to release its first record in 11 years, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are. The group recently signed with Butterscotch Records, run by producer Allen Farmelo (the Cinematic Orchestra), where other high-minded, unconventional artists, like Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco, have entrusted their work. The label prides itself on ultra-high-quality vinyl and digital products, which should highlight bandleader Chad Clark’s obsessive attention to detail—perhaps the vital element that sets the group’s new LP apart.
Taking a more community-based approach, the eccentric artist Marian McLaughlin recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund her forthcoming chamber-folk record, Spirit House. The attention her debut caught earlier this year from critics like NPR’s Bob Boilen should only add fuel to her now-viable future endeavors.
With so many different plans mapped out for 2015, there is no guaranteed or authoritative strategy for success. D.C. continues to benefit from new ideas in both music and commerce—its many musicians work with different forms and changing formats and, now as much as ever, a gifted few resonate with audiences well beyond the city limits.
Photo by Shervin Lainez