Since its founding in 1984, the nonprofit Washington Area Music Association (WAMA) has sought to galvanize the city's music community with childlike optimism, promoting the work of local artists while raising money for D.C. charities. The year after its founding, WAMA launched its annual Crosstown Jam, a citywide music festival and fundraising event, and inaugurated the Wammies, a local music awards program, to help D.C.-area musicians "make it" without leaving town.
To a certain extent, WAMA has succeeded in raising the profile of home-grown talent. But as it reaches adolescence, the organization is still confronting image problems. Its critics contend that WAMA seems less interested lately in helping lesser-known musicians make it than in stroking those who have already made it, such as Mary Chapin Carpenter. Plus, this year's Wammie Awards handout was marred by questionable campaigning tactics by the overwhelming winner, jazz crooner Tony Gil. And to make matters worse, this year's Crosstown Jam, held in June, lost money for the third year in a row. WAMA continues to get good press and plaudits from some in the music community for its support of local acts, but many devotees of the D.C. scene are griping that it fails to recognize and support the city's cutting-edge rock, jazz, blues, and world musicians.
"No matter what field you talk about, there are definitely people who think we don't cover it well enough," says WAMA President Mike Schreibman, a frank, low-key fellow who has worked as a music promoter since the late '60s. "We as an organization can only do so much to reach people who are not members, but we try." To wit, WAMA has distributed compilation CDs of area artists, held seminars on the music biz with Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, and given marketing advice to its 1,027 members. To the public, however, the group is mainly known for the Crosstown Jam and the Wammies.
This year's Jam presented 34 live shows at clubs throughout the area, mainly involving the same bands that play around town year after year. The lineup did include such varied performers as jazz musicians Peter Fraize and Ron Holloway, rockabilly act Jumpin' Jupiter, folkie Tom Prasada-Rao, and boogie pianist Deanna Bogart. But notably absent were D.C.'s go-go bands, electronica DJs, rappers, world-music acts, and alternative rock and pop bands associated with the Simple Machines, Dischord, Teenbeat, and Slowdime labels.
"[WAMA] are really business-oriented," says Teenbeat owner Mark Robinson with a shrug. "It seems like there's one of these [organizations] in every city."
Schreibman contends that reaching the region's audiences for less well-known types of music would have required "specialized marketing" by a costly PR staff. Yet Schreibman himself has been promoting music for years; and he admits that in putting together the Jam schedule, WAMA did not contact, for instance, outlets such as the Crossroads, a Caribbean music club in Bladensburg, or the Icebox go-go club in Northeast D.C., both of which draw crowds without help from high-dollar flacks. WAMA's omission of some of D.C.'s more interesting emerging acts adds to the perception that the organization is losing its ability to reach out to local music performers and fansthat it has instead become a petting zoo for D.C.'s musical establishment.
"We definitely have a good mix of people," Schreibman observes, referring to the variety of talent at January's Wammie Awards presentation at Lisner Auditorium. To a large extent, his claim is true. The WAMA Hall of Fame awards have recognized both veteran performers such as Ruth Brown and deceased artists such as go-go drummer Footz Davidson. But in most categories, WAMA has dispensed its awards in scattershot fashion, only occasionally reflecting critical and community consensus, and at times showing enormous musical ignoranceas when the pop-punk act Tuscadero inexplicably won the Wammie for best heavy metal band in '96. In recent years, WAMA has stretched the geographic borders of the Washington area to include Charlottesville rocker Dave Matthews, Baltimore's Dru Hill, and now-L.A. based artists like Toni Braxton and Me'Shell NdegeOcello for Wammie consideration.
WAMA groupies seem smitten by major-label music stardom, having awarded Mary Chapin Carpenter more than 40 awards. They have also given pet lesser-knowns such as Mary Ann Redmond and the members of Big Village countless trophies, and bestowed a mind-numbing series of laurels for best manager and best executive. Schreibman says the board has wrestled with the issue of award overkill, but the directors believe a long roster is the best way to be inclusive.
Some may argue that such a policy devalues the prestige of the award, but Schreibman disagrees: "It's an honor to be the runner-up to Mary Chapin Carpenter," he says. "Each Wammie a musician gets creates a ripple effect and helps their career." When it's suggested that Big Village hasn't turned its awards into either favorable world-music press or a record deal, Schreibman demurs: "Wammies seem to help some musicians more than others."
This year's Wammies certainly put the spotlight on Tony Gil, who won seven awards, including artist of the year and album of the year (for Tenderly: A Tribute to Felix Grant). Gil took an aggressive approach to winning. He has acknowledged that some of his votes came from friends whom he prodded to pay WAMA's $30 membership fee for the right to drop ballots on his behalf. The singer says he sent "hundreds of letters" to WAMA members, offering his CD free to anyone who contacted him. And, like a number of nominees, Gil placed an ad in the WAMA newsletter "requesting support from the members."
Gil recalls that before he joined WAMA "I noticed that the same people were receiving all the awards year after year." When he was first nominated in the vocals category, he says, "I made the decision that if I did not receive enough votes, it would be because people did not like my music, not because they did not know me or have the opportunity to hear my music."
Schreibman defends Gil, noting that "self-promotion is part of getting ahead in the music business." He concludes that it would help if the voting members were more knowledgeable. "We have 1,000 members, but not 1,000 members vote. We need to work on reaching out and getting broader participation in the [various] types of music. Then it would be OK for Tony Gil to campaign, because there would be an offsetting vote."
The musician's lobbying efforts were perfectly legal under WAMA rules, and Gil's margins of victory were large enough that his tactics didn't determine the outcome of any award. But the dust-up brought back memories of the Wammie Awards' ignoble beginning in 1985, when the cover band Downtown stuffed the public ballot and took awards for artist of the year, debut recording of the year, and rock artist of the year, among other honors. After that scandal, WAMA switched to a members-only ballot process, but it's been a one-step-forward-two-steps-back affair.
Among WAMA's more celebrated accomplishments has been its ability to raise money for local charities with proceeds from the Crosstown Jam. WAMA's Web site boasts that it has raked in $150,000 since starting its signature events for about 40 charities, including the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Save the Bay, and Martha's Table. But a recent report prepared by Schreibman discloses that this year's Jam lost $6,062; Schreibman admits that WAMA took a bath in 1996 and 1997 as well.
At Crosstown Jam events, performers play for free, and participating clubs give WAMA 100 percent of door revenueswhich makes three straight years of red ink hard to reconcile. The main problem, Schreibman explains, is that WAMA hasn't had a sponsor of the Jam since 1995. Until that time, Miller Genuine Draft paid for many of the event's expenses, including advertising. But starting in 1996, Schreibman says, the beer company decided to take its money where it could reach more people. Schreibman says that WAMA approaches beer and soda companies every year to solicit sponsorshipits policy prohibits asking tobacco companies for moneybut "getting sponsorships is a full-time job, so it's hard to expect that volunteers will be able to arrange [them]."
Without a corporate sponsor, WAMA might have cut back its expenses. But to the contrary, the group spent $16,340 from its general fund for the Jam this year. That total included more than $5,000 for advertising, nearly $2,500 for graphic design and printing costs, and over $8,200 for items such as T-shirts, catering, and equipment rental. For this investment, the showcase events each drew an average paid crowd of 70 (WAMA members, participating bands, and the media received free all-event passes), bringing in only around $10,000 total, including ticket and T-shirt sales.
"Nobody's pleased with the idea that we lose money," Schreibman says. "But we also feel that we've been doing this event for so long that it's a centerpiece of what we do, and it would have been wrong to not have the event."
As it turned out, WAMA had the event late; scheduling problems pushed the Jam from its traditional April date to June, when many locals are away. Plus, Schreibman laments, "Times have changed. It's harder to get people out to hear live music." In the past, the Jam had consisted of more than 70 shows, but WAMA's board of directors voted to cut back the number of shows to create stronger bills and focus the public's attention to draw larger crowds. The strategy, Schreibman reflects, didn't work.
While Schreibman freely acknowledges certain problems with WAMA's work, the group's board members are more defensive. In angry e-mail messages, board members Nancy Ford and Patrick Jackson declined to respond to questions about Jam debts or Wammie Award winners, instead suggesting that such questions were merely curmudgeonly attacks on WAMA's hard-working volunteers and their dedicated "community leader" Schreibman. Board member Chris Holt argued that an organization whose board is stacked with such well-known local industry veterans as lawyer/manager John Simson and entertainment lawyer Jay Rosenthal should not have its musical judgments questioned. Jackson asserted that "the community is behind WAMA 110 percent." But it seems WAMA's community is getting smaller rather than larger.CP