Tracy Hamlin and Elise Perry
Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images
Beyond The Beltway: A Closer Look At Washington D.C.'s Vibrant Music Community
With a rich history and a bright future, the Washington D.C. music scene is truly alive. In fact, new music venues, both traditional rooms and more eclectic spaces, have been flooding the Washington D.C. area of late. Want to hear a band play inside of a pie shop? No problem. Require a sommelier as part of your concertgoing experience? Sure thing. Want to see a show from the inside of a geodesic dome turned giant snow globe in the middle of summer? No sweat.
An exact count is difficult to come by, but earlier this year, The Washington Post estimated roughly 24 new music venues have opened in the region, which includes part of Virginia and Maryland, since 2013. That’s in addition to existing venues—a mix of stadiums, arenas, concert halls, opera houses, amphitheaters, clubs, warehouses, at least one converted Baptist church, and a slew of coffeehouses, wineries, and breweries that also serve up live music.
The region’s penchant for creating a music venue out of pretty much any interesting standing structure is one of the things that makes the scene in D.C. stand out, says Carl “Kokayi” Walker, artist, producer, educator, and current board trustee of the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy.
“We’re not all about policy and politics—we’re about creativity,” Walker says. “From intimate spaces like Songbyrd… to the Anthem when you want to see bands get crazy, to alt spaces, I think those are the things that make a difference in the music community here… This is the place where punk rock originated, the place where our own indigenous music, go-go, comes from, and a place we strive to make sure other musicians live up to their musicianship.”
Carl "Kokayi" Walker
One of the goals, and challenges, facing the leadership of the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy is making sure D.C.-based musicians have the resources they need to benefit from changes in the area’s music scene and ensure that homegrown artists always have a platform.
While growth and diversity of performances in the area is a boon for listeners, the impact on area musicians is trickier to parse. The opening of new venues doesn’t always translate into more performance opportunities for locally-based artists. And, amid all the grand openings have been a slew of closing parties for beloved local musical institutions that once served not only as show locations, but places for artists to gather. How does a scene that spans dozens of genres, covers three states, and now plays out at a dizzying number of venues stay strong and connected?
“My goal for the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy is really to create a situation of engagement among the professionals here,” says Elise Perry, producer, composer, arranger, film/television director, and vice president of the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy. “Whether it’s an entire art and music symposium or just some form of showcasing artistic talent and performance specifically, the more things we do to engage people, the more it helps the community and the more we can be seen as an engaged, connected community.”
Perry, who grew up in D.C., says that a childhood spent performing with the DC Youth Orchestra and playing “desk drums,” to recreate the beat of popular go-go groups, meant “musical experience was absolutely part of what D.C. had to offer me.” As a result, she works to “insist that there’s recognition of the music community here and that there are spaces for our artists, so we can continue to make sure people are being seen and heard.”
Singer, songwriter, music educator, record label owner, and Recording Academy trustee Tracy Hamlin says she sees her role in the D.C. Chapter as working with her fellow board members to “engage, connect, support, and educate” members of the D.C. music community.
“When I first joined the chapter, I was an inactive member,” says Hamlin, who has been on the D.C. board for seven years. “But I said to myself, ‘You need to come closer. You only get out of it what you put into it.’ I encourage [everyone] to come closer.”
At a time when the region and its music scene are growing and shifting, Hamlin is pulling people in and building community among artists by creating unique opportunities for performance and connection. In October, she held her inaugural Sweet Jazz and Wine Festival, an event with a charitable component—it raised funds to give two artists from low-income families a year of private instruction in their desired instrument. In a region where rents and the cost of living continue to rise, it’s a much-needed model that brings together D.C. musicians together in support of their fellow artists. Hamlin says the event is typical of the generosity of the area’s music community.
“There are a lot of folks here connecting with people from different genres, people building rapport and friendships and collaborating,” Hamlin says.
Von Vargas, hip-hop artist and producer, and the current D.C. Chapter president, enjoys the challenge of serving the different “pockets” of artists in D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, and notes that artists seeking community and fellowship should look to service.
“Being in the entertainment industry, our careers can sometimes be more self-driven,” he says. “Sometimes it’s good to put that aside and try to make a way for others. I think serving others, taking time out to do that is important. Being [an Academy member] is one way – serving in the Academy is a selfless effort.”
Priscilla Clarke, president and CEO of the entertainment public relations firm Clarke & Associates, says that although the Washington area is more than just political ties, artists in the area should take advantage of Washington’s position as a seat of political power to advocate for themselves and others.
“Know what opportunities and resources exist,” says Clarke, who has been involved in the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy for 16 years, and is its current secretary, “Learn more about the chapter…and get involved in other groups with other music markers to learn what’s going on in your city. It’s important to know that you do have a voice and you can utilize it to make a change.”
Walker says that no matter how many new venues crop up, or how much the music scene in D.C. changes, a tight-knit network of dedicated artists will always be a strong, consistent presence.
“We’re a specific, special community that watches out for our own,” says Walker. “For our creators and creatives, and people who are involved with music, and have a love of music and the business of music.”