The Trouble With Local Efforts like Listen Local First want to extend the buy-local ethos to culture. But helping artists is a little more complicated.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Last month, dozens of bands and music boosters from D.C. made their way to South by Southwest, the manic, annual see-and-be-seen industry gathering in Austin, Texas. For the most part, the D.C. delegation stayed in its usual perch: the periphery.

Sure, Bluebrain, the experimental-pop duo known for its conceptual one-off performances, created the festival’s musical smartphone app. And Dave Nada hosted a grimy-glitzy party starring moombahton, the global-bass microgenre he created here. But if you wanted to see most other music from D.C.—organized by blogs like Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, labels like Lovitt Records, and gatherings like the five-year-old D.C. Does TX party—you probably had to step off the official festival grounds and visit one of the dozens of grassroots, and often decently attended, showcases that coincide with South by Southwest.

René Moffatt, a singer-songwriter, and Chris Naoum, a lawyer who specializes in music policy and broadcast rights, didn’t want to stay in the margins. Last year, the two friends formed the advocacy group Listen Local First. This year, they went to Austin with the goal of placing D.C. at the center the action. Their strategy came from the old punk-rock playbook: Jam Econo .

This winter, Listen Local First raised $5,570 via a Kickstarter campaign in order to repair and rent a 1985 Ford Econoline, paint it Technicolor, and drive it to Austin, where it would serve as a “food truck that serves music.” The “mobile music venue” set up on street corners, where D.C. artists who’d also made the trek gave impromptu performances that were filmed.

The scrappy road trip was Listen Local First’s latest effort to elevate the profile of the D.C. scene—not just the D.C. folk scene, the D.C. indie-rock scene, the D.C. rap scene, or the D.C. electronic scene. The group throws itself behind the D.C. music scene. All of it.


It’s a crusade in keeping with our age. Over the last year or so here, cultural locavorism seems to have become endemic: Listen Local First highlights D.C. acts each month with its Local Music Day, for which local businesses turn over their sound systems to a selection of local albums. For several years, Metro Music Source has held monthly networking events for local musicians. There are two new eclectic, all-local music streams: Hometown Sounds (motto: “Showing the World How D.C. Rocks”) and the Scoutmob-backed Scoutsounds. The site D.C. Music Download launched in January; it features wide-eyed coverage of a spectrum of genres and organizes concert rendezvouses through the service

It’s not just music. Small theater troupes like Active Cultures and fairly prominent stages like Theater J have launched reading series dedicated to local voices. Theater J’s D.C.-playwright festival, Locally Grown, was apparently successful enough that the troupe is retaining the branding for two of its productions next season.

As a consumer, I’m well-placed to sympathize with these efforts. I edit a newspaper section that’s almost entirely focused on local arts organizations and artists. When I admire art made by locals, I write enthusiastically about it. On my own time, much of the music and art I consume is made by area names.

All the same, as someone who values a Washington whose cultural life is both distinct and worldly, I’m nervous about this sort of genre-agnostic focus on what area code artists happen to live in. Those who advocate for eating local make an environmental pitch that has to do with carbon footprints. Proponents of shopping local make an economic argument that has to do with the influence and labor practices of large corporations and the diversity of shopping opportunities.

But in consuming culture, I’ve never felt “local” to be an inherent plus. Not exactly. What matters, or ought to matter, is whether something is interesting, forward-thinking, vibrant—and mostly importantly, good.

Before D.C. was listening local, it was thinking local. Those goodwill-dispensing decals—yes...we’re LOCAL—that you see in the windows of some businesses? They’re the work of Think Local First, a campaign that the Latino Economic Development Corporation began in 2006. The group promotes local businesses to consumers, forms relationships between local entrepreneurs, and advocates for local-friendly policies. Like a lot of marketing campaigns, Think Local First’s comes off as at least somewhat sanctimonious on first glance, even if it’s hard to knock the good intention.

Think Local First and similar campaigns around the country rely on two assumptions: that you can convince consumers they should take pride in shopping local, and that stores selling locally made goods can channel consumer goodwill into more business.

Listen Local First got an early thumbs up from Think Local First. One hope of Moffatt and Naoum’s monthly Local Music Day is that music can offer similar possibilities for the local stores, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants that participate—that the altruism of customers enthusiastic about local music could, just maybe, generate more sales. When I interviewed Naoum last November, he described the event as an experiment to which he’d already introduced some tweaks: Some businesses, for example, might choose to deploy the local music selections later in the month at a special event, or have one of the featured artists do an in-store performance.

The license Naoum came up with allowed for that flexibility: Businesses pay a fee to access the stream of local albums. The eight participants in each month’s stream split the revenues, which came to $65 an act during the first Local Music Day. Because many local businesses pay fees to performance rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI, Naoum says he’s considering creating a blanket license for a cheaper, all-local stream that businesses could play every day of the month. It’s hard to argue with an effort that’s about finding more revenue for local musicians.

At the heart of Local Music Day is another hard-to-criticize goal: to tell people who may not have realized that, yes, some good music is made in the D.C. area—or at least unobjectionable music. Although each month’s event spans an array of genres, the music is mostly coffee shop-appropriate. You won’t find any local metal, for example. The presumption is that on those days, patrons of participating stores might find themselves tickled by albums from wholly different genres.

It’s that more subliminal aim that loses me: Certainly, one person’s musical appetites can make room for, say, Afropop, New Romantic synthpop, and backpacker rap, but they’re a lot less likely to make an emotional or ethical investment in all of those things. To my mind, the presupposition might as well be that listeners should care more about the artists’ city of residence than about their actual art.

That’s not how local music scenes actually work. Scenes grow and nurture their artists because listeners find art, as well as an intimacy with the artists, that are worth their time and help define their lifestyle. When we talk about a D.C. music scene from the consumer’s perspective, we’re really talking about a collection of scenes. Ditto a D.C. art scene, a D.C. lit scene, and a D.C. theater scene.

Luckily, the Listen Local First guys seem to appreciate this. Naoum told me, back in November, that they might tailor genre-specific streams in the future: The local skate shop will get the local skate tunes, assuming such things exist.

But the bigger concern remains: What does it say when you’re picking art based on criteria other than whether or not it is good?

Local theaters’ play-reading series involve a serious curatorial effort that nevertheless draws from an inherently constricted pool of submissions. At a recent discussion during Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival, one board member questioned whether new-play development ought to focus on local submissions or simply strong ones. “I’m a supporter of the festival,” the board member said, “but just the fact that you all live here doesn’t move me.”

Listen Local First is also lightly curated—for the November iteration of Local Music Day, Naoum asked me for a recommendation—but for the most part, that seems to mean the casual suggestions of people involved in music whom the organizers know. To my ears, the quality of the music on offer tends to vary; the event is promotional, after all, not critical. Maybe more erudite listeners could find something to appreciate in each of the event’s selections, but even if every album out there was peer-reviewed and juried, its value would still be up in the air. Art is subjective; that’s why we don’t support it whole-cloth.

Taken to its extreme, the logic of embracing something because it was made here can go in some troubling directions: Would it have obliged a 1930s Parisian to shun Josephine Baker for someone more traditionally Gallic? Or, more to the point, would it have obliged the 1970s Washingtonians who kick-started this city’s hardcore scene to avoid the imported British punk albums that helped inspire them? In addition to a vibrant music scene with a rich history, one nice thing about Washington is you can see Italian opera and Senegalese pop and countless hip-hop microscenes from across the United States. Against that backdrop, Listen Local First’s noble goal of supporting hometown artists elides into something that seems rather parochial and insular.

A city’s quality of life has a lot to do with its cultural life. And part of that certainly means having a city that is nurturing to working artists but is also competitive enough that they’re making work that’s world-class. If you want the local masses to care about D.C.’s arts, you shouldn’t appeal to the back-patting ethics of economic locavorism. You should push artists toward greatness.

The truth is, artists in D.C. do need help for a whole host of reasons. What most intrigues me about Listen Local First isn’t its booster efforts but its interest in identifying government policies that could make Washington a more welcoming place for musicians. The group has hosted a series of panels involving folks with some involvement in the local music scene (I appeared on one panel of music journalists). Inspired by a study of the Denver music scene conducted by the Western States Arts Foundation, Listen Local First is also hoping to conduct research on the economics of District music-making. Naoum sees other roles for the group, like helping artists and venues with the bureaucratic hurdles of securing performance licenses, identifying cheap practice space for local groups, and expanding public performance opportunities. (Busking in the Metro, anyone?)

That Listen Local First even exists is a positive sign. D.C. has never wanted for scrappy artistic types, but as the city’s population has grown and changed in recent years, there’s been a boom in the business of creativity that should be apparent to anyone who keeps an eye on local culture. I couldn’t say whether there are more people making art in D.C. than there were several years ago, but the low-level infrastructure—bloggers, upstart publicists, pop-up-shop middlemen, photographers, and magnanimous organizers like Naoum and Moffatt—has very clearly ballooned.

But asking listeners to directly care about a wide swath of music whose only common denominator is geography is the wrong paradigm for Listen Local First’s efforts—or any booster’s. You can’t ask people to take a blanket stance of support for something whose worth is subjective. Instead, you can ask them to support the kind of conditions—say, space for artists to work, fair booking practices—that make D.C. a place where artists want to live, something everyone should want. Artists in D.C. need a hand, not a nonjudgemental megaphone. Make artists want to live here, and you’ll find locals who’ll listen.

Our Readers Say

John while I agree with you in part I think you have painted a somewhat naive picture of Listen Local First's purpose. There is a lot of music being made in DC. People like some genres and dislike other genres. Often times a fan of afro bop, or folk music will type in the artists that they already know on Pandora and Spotify, but may not know that there are some talented artists in these genres making music right here in their back yard.

Jon told me that there are very few things as exciting as seeing a band that you like grow up around you.

While Fischer does not like all the music on the stream each week. The music is not all there for him. I would never ask Jon for a suggestion about a singer song writer, but that does not mean there are people out there who don't appreciate that music.

No one should embrace an artist solely because he/she is local. They should like the artist because they are talented, or something about their music/ art work strikes a certain emotional tone with the listener/viewer. There is no way to quantify this, the feeling is person by person and you cannot speak on behalf of everyone. This article is simply about Jon Fischer.

We simply highlight those artists who are literally making music close to home.
Why did I have to click on this on Twitter? I'm going to be going back and forth about it all day now...:)

I get what you're saying and I doubt that you'll lose any friends over it. No one should say they like or dislike an artist based on where they live.

On the other hand, if you know definitively that you'd like to see more artists inspired to pull up a spot on a street corner (or even better a new small business/gallery/venue) to show their talents and/or if you believe art & music creates positive energy and draws people and businesses to communities, then why not carry a sign that promotes more music and art overall in your community?

Also, I understand your concept of "build it and they will come", but would they really? Would an extraordinary artist from Austin, NY, New Orleans, LA, Chicago, San Fran, Seattle move to DC? I love this city, yet I'd say "No". Not even if policies were changed and a few more cool venues were opened. I can think of a few greats that have moved out though and wonder if they would have if the "music scene" of the city they were moving to didn't have more vitality and local pride for artists.

I don't think ThinkLocalFirst is asking people not to like bands or artists because they're from a different geographic area other than DC. I think they may just be highlighting DC artists who benefit from much needed attention.

P.S. You seem a little edgy today.


I apologize for the grammar mistakes in the last comment, it was written on the fly.
I realize that this an opinion piece and that perhaps some decent points are made by John. It is sad however that the purpose of Listen Local First is lost to anyone who doesn't read this article to the end. "What most intrigues me about Listen Local First isn’t its booster efforts but its interest in identifying government policies that could make Washington a more welcoming place for musicians."

The ultimate goal of LLF is to create avenues for those local artists who ARE talented enough to make an impact on the greater arts scene but do not currently have the means or the reach. LLF aims to use economics as a tool to lobby for more opportunities for talented local musicians. These local musicians will benefit from the growing community and government support and in turn the local economy will benefit as well. It has to start somewhere. Non-discriminatory partnerships between local business and local musicians was an excellent first step.
As someone that lives and breaths Indie the premise of that supporting local music over those outside is not really an crazy idea. For DC to not understand the impact that the music scene has on the our economy and our failure to embrase it and support it means that we'll not be able to tap into it in a meaningful way --even though we are one of the top markets for live music and physical sales and for the DMV to get stronger we will have to pull together and do it ourselves. Do do otherwize is to Haliburtonize our own eco system.

So If you're a DMV musician , professional or service co please join
Mr. Fischer questions the legitimacy of promoting musicians based on their proximity. I personally believe that musicians are creating a lot of great and amazing music right here and it deserves to be heard. The way people listen to music and discover new musicians is evolving at a rapid pace, and I think there's a valid place for local music promotion in that mix.

Being a fan of local bands means you get to see them play live more often, maybe even meet them and make friends with them. Their friends' bands play shows with them, maybe you like them too. Everyone wins! The goal of Hometown Sounds is to make it as easy as possible for people to hear these local bands and make up their own minds. No one's gonna like everything, but I bet most people will like at least some of it. We play different genres at different times of the day, and strive to highlight the best and hottest stuff while giving up-and-comers a chance to gain new fans.
If these guys spent half as much time on their music as they do organizing support groups and circle jerks, they might not have as much trouble getting the recognition they are so actively seeking.
The trouble with local, is that most of it is crappy. The general population has been burned too many times by going out on a Friday night to a new band, and left without being moved or excited about the music.  There are a few gems in the rough, but most of the past few years of local DC offerings have had almost no artistic appeal.  Hence, out of town acts or cover bands are stronger for venues.  I agree that I would love to see a stronger local music scene (being a local musician myself) but we need to improve the MUSIC if we want that to happen. 

I would love to see more collaboration as peers. There are great voices here that can't write songs to save their lives, and there are great songwriters who can't really sing. If we want to create a scene worth people's time, we need to move them with the music, not beg them to listen to us. And getting the local population to trust local live music again will take time and more curation. Oh, and inspiring artists.
As a very active consumer of music in DC, I really like this article, Jon, and agree with many of your points. I also am a supporter of LLF and really like what your doing, Chris. I like to do whatever I can to support local music, but generally just the music I really enjoy sincerely. But for the new and exciting music to come up, support structures and an audience need to be there. And thus I will be there at the side of the club encouraging things I enjoy. If I don't like something, it doesn't mean I want it to go away or not be supported, it's just not my thing.
I have attended several LLF events since the organization's inception and have recognized an incredible transformation, not only within the events themselves, but the overall music scene of the city. On the surface, the events have become more crowded, and have started to attract a more diverse audience. I have been surprised to run into people that I never thought I would see at a concert (awkward co-workers... always a pleasure). However, digging deeper, I've noticed that the panels are more stimulating, showcases more eclectic, and sponsored events more frequent. People are talking – not just about the organization, but the actual music, the artists, the venues– the effort.

LLF started a mere six or seven (perhaps?) months ago. Since then, it has produced monthly free music showcases, hosted panels on relevant topics and managed raise enough money - higher than its goal - to drive down to Austin, Texas and throw a week-long musical performance out of a van.

Impressive is an understatement.

I have to hand it to the organizers, Chris and Rene, they are on to something here, and I believe the organization can only continue to stimulate the music scene in DC. Every month I know that I will have the opportunity to go check out some live music, some of it I might dig, while some of it might not be my jam - but it is art, being performed, for free (donations suggested). How can you not appreciate that? Call it what you will, argue against their music choices, or the model they employ, but you cannot ignore the fact that they are making a difference in this city with respect to the music scene – that is, they are making it accessible.

New venues seems to be popping up every month, something that will eventually allow DC to become one of the big players when it comes to booking and providing entertainment. While LLF is not solely responsible for such things, (or perhaps not at all), it doesn’t matter, one thing is clear: there is no way LLF is hindering any of these changes - it is only helping the music scene grow and prosper. I understand and respect certain points of this article – I too was pretty skeptical about the whole, “local” thing at first as well, with the same “why does that make it good” mentality. But you need to step back and look at the big picture. By promoting local music, the organization is stimulating innovation, its stimulating art and music as a whole. ‘Think globally, act locally,’ although cliché, makes a whole lot of sense in this context. Right now, LLF must cater to the masses in order to gain support, momentum, and overall, awareness. The music industry has changed with the introduction of the internet, digital music, etc., and it is in dire need of a new business model. LLF provides the venue for these local artists to get a chance to get their names- and music- out there.

Finally, lets not forget that this is DC – a place that (I think) prides itself on its diverse locale, its transient environment. The eclectic choices of local music that we are provided through LLF's efforts, truly represents the melting pot that exists in Washington, DC.

Chris and Rene - thank you for all of your hard work in this effort, I look forward to your organization's growth.

This article seems contradictory just for the sake of being contradictory, which if I'm not mistaken is a terrible practice in the world of journalism. That's great if you've found an opportunity to bash on something just because nobody else has yet, but in the end you must realize that there is only good to be found in amplifying the voices of local, relatively unknown musicians. People will decide for themselves later if they like the music, but every musician deserves a shot. If you polled other cities (and their respective musicians), I'd put money on them being envious of such an initiative. LLF is not hurting anybody, only helping. Don't be a dick.
Slow news day, I take it?

So hold up, doesn't the City Paper do reviews on ONLY local music themselves, yet they are poking at these websites for doing the exact SAME THING?

I'm confused by these people who seem to be reading this as some sort of attack on LLF or the concept of supporting local music as a whole. Did you read the article? The tone is definitely more of "LLF are doing good things to support local music and are a new, developing organization working on figuring out strategies that work. However, it is important to remember that music isn't good because it's local, it needs to be appreciated on it's merits other than proximity." Did I miss something in reading this? This is a more nuanced article than that, it's not an attack of anything.
I agree with PTRQ, everyone needs to calm down. Good journalism look at two sides of the coin. If this was a glowing article about LLF it would be bad journalism. Just like if LLF only talked about the good things DC local government does for it's artists, it wouldn't be an effective organization. This sounds like a lot of people on their high horses supporting one side or another based on a personal connection to the initiative and not the issue at hand...arts, funding and support for artists. The lawyer should stick to focusing on policy, not playlists and parties. As for the artists, how about LLF showcases where one artists or band curates the monthly show. There is some great music talent in this city, agreed, so how about those who know the craft and who might have a better sense of quality do the curating.
This article is titled "The Trouble With Local," yet as far as I can tell the author seems to think the only trouble with it is treating the 'local' as more important than the 'music'. Best captured in this quote: "To my mind, the presupposition might as well be that listeners should care more about the artists’ city of residence than about their actual art."

Here I think the author is questioning a non-existent agenda that he is projecting onto Listen Local First. While I can't speak directly to Chris and Rene's intentions, I don't think their goal is to prop up these local musicians just because they are local, but more to build and strengthen DC's music scene. And who better to start with than the musicians that already live among us? They are offering these musicians promotion and exposure, but they aren't asking you to brainlessly support them solely because of where they are from.

Toward the end of the article I think you start to touch on some of the bigger picture goals of Listen Local First, like the policy work aimed at making DC a more music and musician friendly city. But I feel this point gets lost behind a misguided criticism for the sake of being a critic.
Why are we talking about Chris and Rene so much, when we should be talking about the artists, arts, etc.? We should be prop up artists, not the egos of the guys behind LLF.
LLF will remain irrelevant as long as it continues as a thinly veiled guise to incessantly showcase the mediocre music of “René Moffatt - A Singer & Writer Of Songs” (yes, that’s his self-titled FB page name). This organization appears as little more than a means of self-promotion for one of its founders as well as his friends. These guys give themselves way too much credit.
I've been to their events. Music is usually weak and it's a bunch of friends patting each other on the back. No more impact than a house party.
If anyone thinks LLF is not about the artists they are mistaken. I agree with Bunny’s comments that this was a balanced article. My disagreement came with Jon’s suggestion that we expect the community to like an artist just because they are local. That point was incorrect.

Our goal IS to continue to meet with DC government and DC Arts to push the envelope and promote policies that create additional avenues for local music exploration. The reason we have showcases and panel discussions is to spread the word about LLF in order to get more businesses to participate in DC Local Music Day and raise awareness about local artists.

The more businesses that participate in the DC Local Music Day stream, the more the artists get paid. The more people that hear these streams, visit the LLF website, and end up downloading these artist’s albums, the more the artists get paid. It is simple.

The insults above are completely immature and unnecessary.
Naoum, you probably would have done yourself a favor by not responding to the comments. It's all a bunch of biased ( one way or the other) Live and learn. Im not saying dont respond to the article with your own op-ed, but to address comments is a waste of time. People who comment on these boards, positive and negative often have nothing going on for themselves. All y'all need to get a life, pursue your own dreams, stop wasting time commenting on message boards in the middle of the day.
James - I think it is terribly ignorant to say that LLF is a "thinly veiled guise to incessantly showcase the mediocre music of René Moffatt". You can say the sky is green if you want, but it doesn't make it true. They showcase dozens of local bands, and René is the most humble singer-songwriter I know. (Being one myself here in DC, I know dozens). René would be selling himself short to not try to promote his music whenever he can, but I think they have done a great job of NOT pushing his music in the name of LLF.
Wow, I wanted to sleep on this before contributing to the dialog.
I must say that I agree with Jonathan's assertion that a community should not support an artist solely on the coincidence of their zip code of origin, But not with his concern: "What does it say when you’re picking art based on criteria other than whether or not it is good?". I do not doubt his taste in music, a music journalist of his experience should certainly have a good ear. But I did not sense that he qualifies his concern to actually be the case - in his opinion.

Young talent requires nurturing and maturing, and that requires a local audience. As it does, a local audience that supports it's deserving artists creates a culture. It so happens that the DC area has an extraordinary number of talented artists that deserve to be supported, not the other way around.

What LLF and other grass roots groups are trying to do is not just support and promote deserving local artists to the local market, but to the national and international market (at SxSW). And for that, I applaud their efforts.
Silence pour les Marseillais. Il sera temps de laisser filer. contactée par les villageois, ceux d’un . un arrêté décide du ? Jér? En ao? Il va donc falloir se rapprocher de quelqu'un. c’est 4?%d’audience par cha?Même si le symbole est fort.
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