It’s not an uncommon refrain: A local musician who’s got chops and hails from a small music market — anywhere but New York, Los Angeles, Nashville or Austin — wants to move to make more contacts.
So move on up s/he does, to one of the aforementioned cities, in order to make it large, become famous, own the charts, sell out and live the life.
But what if you’re from the Baltimore-Washington region?
Some of that good stuff, area musicians say, is available here, as is a little more normal existence. They can still hone their craft, record music, sell CDs, play live, make decent money — and sleep in their own bed.
In fact, many of the region’s artists feel like the constant influx into those major music markets only increases competition, which decreases the odds of “making it” and even the ability to earn a living.
Mapping It Out
Naked Blue, the husband-wife duo of Jen and Scott Smith, said the music scene in the Baltimore-Washington area is so active that it spurred them to quit their day jobs in 1991 and immerse themselves in their music.
“We considered moving to Nashville or New York, but came to realize that this is one of the few regions where you can make your living as a musician,” said Jen Scott. “You can’t do it in L.A., because it’s an industry hub and [artists] who live and work there are willing to pay a club owner or an artist to play for exposure, in hopes that the right person sees them. The venues have artists banging on their doors.”
And that’s the deal in the larger music markets. “Around here, we have ample opportunities to make money,” Scott Smith said, ranging from house concerts to small clubs to festivals to outdoor concert series. “Depending on the season, we can pack 10 shows in eight days.”
That can mean a show at the Columbia Lakefront or a gig at Quiet Waters Park, in Annapolis, or at Catonsville’s Lurman Woodland Theatre. And, depending on the size of one’s radar screen, the major cities that are within a few hours’ drive, such as Richmond, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Pittsburgh, present more opportunity.
Naked Blue not only performs (and has opened for such major acts as Foreigner, Joe Cocker and John Mayer), but the Scotts also have an in-house studio, where the duo has produced acts like neo soul artist Eric Scott, roots Americana artist Tony Denikos and pop singer Lucia Valentine.
Do It Here
It’s hard to discuss the Corridor music scene without talking with keyboardist Deanna Bogart, who moved to Southern California in 2013, but lived in Western Howard County for 37 years and returns often. Interestingly, she didn’t move to Southern California to benefit her career and was on the road more than she was home, but agreed that “there is more work here [in Maryland]because there [is less] competition, despite the winter weather challenges.”
So, like the Scotts, she’s grateful that her career “happened” in a locale with solid access to the rest of the Eastern Seaboard.
“This was, and still is, one of those lucky areas where you can work,” Bogart said, noting the house concerts, corporate events, restaurant and festivals, as well as the Columbia Lakefront and even the heights of Merriweather. “It’s a neighborhood-esque state, and building relationships here can end up really working for you.”
On that note, she pointed to the relationship of I.M.P’s Seth Hurwitz, the promoter for Merriweather, and rock star (and area native) Dave Grohl. Hurwitz met the then-teenaged Grohl at the original 9:30 Club, in Washington, D.C., more than 30 years ago; Grohl eventually became the drummer for Nirvana, and for the past two decades has fronted the Foo Fighters.
That eventually resulted in, among other things, the Foo Fighters headlining their 20th Anniversary concert at Washington’s RFK Stadium in 2015; this fall, the Foos will open I.M.P.’s new, 6,000-seat venue, The Anthem, on D.C.’s Waterfront.
While Bogart has played plenty of major halls, many locals will recall her long-time gig at Columbia’s Last Chance Saloon, “on the last Saturday of every month,” from 1987–95. In fact, she once opened for the Moody Blues at Merriweather, then dashed to the Last Chance for a second gig that night.
Route 95 Circuit
Singer/guitarist Patty Reese is another local artist who has spent plenty of time cruising Route 95 who feels there’s plenty of work here. “I can play solo or with a band, anything from big festivals to house concerts, which is like a whole submarket,” she said. “Some of the hosts even have a sound system.
“It’s easier getting paid gigs in the area, especially when you have a reputation here,” Reese said, noting events from the Chesapeake Bay Blues Fest to Columbia Festival of the Arts to Wine in the Woods. “If you hustle, you can make good money.”
One city where even hustling might not help much, she said, is New York. “There are people who do well there, like Dan Hovey, but he’s a union guy who works on Broadway shows” and also teaches at Montgomery College.
Reese also noted that, while a solid income is attainable, “it would be hard to have a house and raise our family on what I make. My husband has a good job.”
“Hurricane Kevin” Lebling can be said to work in a submarket of the region, as he mostly sticks to gigs in and around Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, with the occasional gig in D.C., “though that can be tough,” he said, “because you can get a ticket for parking in front of the venue while you’re unloading.”
While Lebling (who used to videotape Bogart’s shows 30 years ago) is in his busy season in the state capital, he is among the artists who have kept their day job. “I’ve got five regular gigs, on average, every week this summer,” he said, “and I also work soundboards.”
Also know that it’s a nice feeling to know what you’re getting paid. “You hear a lot of the staff at bars complaining about their tips,” he said, “but hopefully, my playing a gig will equate to a better night for the bartenders and wait staff.”
While the market is healthy, it still doesn’t equate to what it used to be. Reese said that could be because of this age of distraction.
“I used to have house gigs at certain establishments in the area every week with my band,” she said. “Now I do solo gigs, but I think people don’t go out as much anymore.
“I think [that’s to do with] the Internet and access to so much distraction in the media. Before, we had FM radio and went to concerts,” Reese said. “Think about what the music scene in Georgetown area used to be like, with The Bayou, The Cellar Door, Desperados, The Crazy Horse, The Psyche Delly, Mr. Henry’s,” etc. “They all had bands virtually every night.”
Still, the beat, and the strum, go on.
Jen Scott offered another indicator of the happening scene.
“My voice coach, Pete Strobl, lives in L.A., and has a studio there. I’ve been bringing him to Maryland to do workshops a couple of times a year, and now he and his wife are moving to Baltimore because he likes working here,” she said.
It sounds like Strobl gets it about, as Quincy Jones famously said, leaving one’s ego “at the door.”
“Pete said, in L.A., everybody wants to be a star. But here, everybody wants to work hard and be good at what they do,” Jen Scott said, “so I wonder sometimes if we’re not right at the center of the industry. Here, it’s less competitive, and we have an atmosphere that fosters more collaboration and community.”