D.C. isn't necessarily known for its music scene.
But the plethora of musicians who leave for other places make way for a group of people who find that government workers, like everyone else, need entertainment. The five musicians interviewed say that though the music scene might not be as vibrant as in other places, it does exist. There’s the advantage of not being a small fish in a small pond, being able to test music out over and over again and having an audience known for being hard to impress. If musicians can make it in D.C., they can make it anywhere. This is why they stay:
Wes Felton – hip hop and soul musician
Wes Felton grew up in Capitol Heights, the "tough" neighborhood that produced Marvin Gaye. His father was infamous D.C. jazz pianist Hilton C. Felton. Felton has been performing since 2001, and has not moved mainly because of his nine-year-old son. He says D.C. has a lot of drawbacks: a lack of interest in music from residents, and a culture where it's only when an artist leaves and makes it big that the city embraces the artist as its own – even, he says, including Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye.
However, the tough audience makes musicians "better, tougher, but then also, the danger of it is it can turn them into monsters...By that time you're pissed off and you hate your city." He says it happens with a lot of artists who come from D.C. and tour, himself included. "I'm just like, wow, I got to go back home now? And that's a sentiment that most of us have that we won't say out loud.
"It's definitely a great training ground, [though.] 'If you can make it in NYC...' Shoot, for real? If you can make it in D.C.
, you can make it anywhere."
Felton released a new album, "'Live' at The Blue Note'" Feb. 20 and will play a show March 30 with local artist Raheem DeVaughn called "Pandora's Box," which has a secret location given out a few days before via twitter handle @wesfelton.
Acoustic rock solo musician Dan Fisk
Twelve years ago, Dan Fisk moved to D.C. from Syracuse, N.Y. for a job. Two years ago he decided to quit his job for music, playing cover gigs and, once a month, original music. He says because there are so many bars in the area and not an onslaught of musicians, he "could play seven nights a week if I wanted to. Unfortunately, from a music purist standpoint, a lot of that is a bar gig, and I can't tell you how many times I've played 'Sweet Caroline,' but that's what plays the bills."
Unlike in other cities, bar gigs pay money, up to $250 for four hours. He uses that income to record original music.
To leave would mean he would have to uproot the foundation he has in D.C., which includes a community of photographers, videographers and publicists who charge little because of their love of the art, which isn’t often found in bigger hubs. He acknowledges that there are barriers to huge success if a musician stays in D.C., but to get over the "hump," it just means going on tour.
"To go from Jammin' Java to the 9:30 Club is … attainable. However, what's the next step? Opening up for some huge band is a level that you can't quite get to [in D.C.], and even though those are two rungs, some rungs are much harder to attain."
Dan Fisk plays Sunday, March 17 at McGinty's Public House in Silver Spring.
Ted Garber – solo blues and Americana singer/songwriter
Blues-rock musician Ted Garber says he lives here because playing music at bars pays — a lot.
"If you live in Nashville you can't make a living if you're a session player – you can't make a living in those industry towns. 'Why should I pay you $300 to play on a Friday night when this guy will do it for tips?'"
Now in his mid-30s, he finds himself tired of playing bar gigs, wondering if he will have to leave—at least on tour. However, he now sees more of a future for original artists in D.C. because of new venues and organizations.
"These events like the Wammies at the State Theatre [in Falls Church], organizations like the Songwriters' Association of Washington, these are people determined to flesh out the artists in this town trying to make their mark and make this an industry town. And that's why I've decided to stick around. Do I think it'll complete with Nashville in the next decade? No way. But I do see more TV shows filmed here, more movies filmed here, and you hear about more musicians coming out of here."
Garber plays at The Hamilton March 6, opening for Rebirth Brass Band.
Heather Mae – Singer/songwriter
Heather Mae grew up in Sterling, Va. and left in 2006 to study theater. She came back in 2011 after finishing a project to write and record one song a day for a year, during which she realized that her largest fan base was back home in D.C. The only way she would move away, she says, is if a record label picked her up and asked her to, but "the only reason they'd notice is because the market here is strong enough." In D.C., her career has flourished, which she credits to a town where other artists leave, leaving more space for other artists.
When she lived in NYC, there was "so much music happening, it's hard to pick what you're going to do that night, and you can get lost in the sea of music. The thing I don't miss is the massive amount of competition with nightly events. You can get lost, and the amount of time it takes to be noticed is times two – it's the whole … little fish in a big pond."
Heather Mae plays at Light Horse Tavern March 28 in Alexandria, Va.
Flex Mathews, aka The Handsome Grandson – hip-hop and MC
Mathews moved to D.C. in 2002 after growing up around the world with his military family. He freestyles in five local bands that range from bluegrass to progressive reggae. He takes care of his grandmother, which he says will always tie him to D.C., but even if that was not a factor, he says, "I always knew that D.C. was a place I came back to. … As an artist and as a man, in my eyes I owe much more to D.C. than I could ever give back."
He says the audiences here make musicians have to work even harder. "People in D.C. are so skeptical, you have to make them believe it. You have to rock it consistently for them to be like, 'O.K., this kid is good.' If you can move a crowd here you could move a crowd anywhere."
Flex Mathews opens for Lupe Fiasco at the Fillmore Feb. 27.