[This post is by FMC contributor Daniel Eno]
Chris Naoum is the co-founder of Listen Local First (LLF), a Washington DC music initiative that supports the local music community through facilitating partnerships with local businesses. He’s also the former policy counsel for FMC. We talked to Chris about the initiative and LLF’s newest project, the Mobile Music Venue, which will create a new platform to promote DC musicians at this year’s SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.
Q: How did the idea for the Listen Local First initiative originate, and how did the project get started?
The idea began back when I was working with FMC and realized that there were people in the DC community that would come to FMC events year after year. I started working with those local musicians who I thought could be artist ambassadors for FMC initiatives and through that work I met Rene Moffatt, who I co-founded Listen Local First with.
We came up with the idea while we were sitting in a local coffeeshop talking about the trends in DC to “eat local” and “buy local”. We thought to ourselves: these local coffeshops and businesses should be streaming local musicians. We partnered with the DC business association Think Local First to create a platform to feature local artists each month and stream their music through local businesses.
Listen Local First also hosts DC Music Day once a month and we have local showcases that we pair with discussion panels to stir up conversation about local business and music. Last month, we held a panel called “The Roots of DC Hip-Hop” and brought in speakers from Go-go, Blues and Jazz backgrounds to talk about how the DC Hip-Hop community developed out of those scenes.
Q: Why do you think it’s important in a hyper-connected internet era to encourage people to engage with local music and build local arts communities?
In the ’60s and ’70s when local radio was booming, musicians had radio as a platform to build a local fan base. In the age of radio consolidation, local radio stations disappeared and local musicians lost radio as an outlet. Then, there was the rise of the internet and musicians were able to build a fan base from home.
Now, because of the advances in technology most musicians have turned to the internet, and as a fan it’s hard to keep everything straight; I see new bands flash in front of me every single day.
For musicians, it’s become difficult to differentiate themselves online, and the next logical phase is to move back to building up a strong local fan base. The internet is great for musicians and it’s important, but I believe what is becoming equally important is building up your local fan base.
Q: Have online social networks helped bring the idea of local back to the internet, and have you found social media services are a useful tool for Listen Local First?
Eventually, we want to develop an app-based mobile social networking platform for Listen Local First that lets you see what artists are playing on the [LLF] stream and find out when those artists are playing shows around you. I do think social networking is helping the local scene, but as a local music fan you have to go out there and look for it.
Q: What aspects of Listen Local First work to generate revenue for local artists? Is LLF creating a new type of “local music business model”?
We’re really focusing on making sure musicians are getting paid. Each business that participates in Listen Local First stream pays a fee, and that fee gets distributed to the musicians each month. And, the amount we’re paying them [per play] is much more than any web service or Performance Rights Organization, because we’re collecting money directly from the businesses and distributing it to the artists.
Another idea we’re trying to put out to businesses is that they need to have a budget for entertainment. Exposure for musicians is great, but we’re also trying to press the idea that if you’re a business holding music events, you need to include a budget to pay those musicians.
Q: Are there opportunities for fans to contribute and volunteer to help expose DC bands and music through Listen Local First?
What fans can do is go on the Listen Local First site, and share information about the site. We’re a tool and a platform, and fans can help promote and get other people interested in following Listen Local First.
Another thing fans should do is support businesses that are playing local music. Let those businesses know that you like what they’re doing, so they continue to pursue the avenue of supporting local music and paying local musicians.
Q: What inspired the idea for the Mobile Music Venue project that you raised money for through Kickstarter, the online funding platform?
We wanted to get Listen Local First involved at SXSW in Austin because we knew this would be an opportunity with 40 or more local DC bands playing in the same area.
The trip serves two purposes. We have a big painted van with a sound system, a sound guy, and a whole video crew. We’re going to do a number of pop-up shows and document musicians playing in front of the van and when they’re playing their showcases, and bring that back and make a bi-weekly web series. The web series is going to be used here in DC to feature and promote these local artists.
The other purpose of the Mobile Music Venue is to draw more attention to these artists. Each artist may only be playing one, maybe two shows, but by creating a pop-up venue we’re giving musicians another additional platform to perform additional shows.
Q: Do you imagine using the Mobile Music Venue to promote DC music in similar trips to other cities?
We’re probably not going to take the Mobile Music Venue to other cities, but we are going to use the Mobile Music Venue to do a series of pop-up shows around DC.
Part of being a musician down in Austin is that you meet lots of bands from other cities. [The Mobile Music Venue] is a way to facilitate connections between DC bands and bands from out of town. It’s important for artists to build their local scene, but also to start developing relationships with other artists in other cities.
Q: What advice would you have for someone trying to create something similar to Listen Local First in their own community?
Think Local First was our jumping off point, so you need to go talk to your local business development associations and local business initiatives in your city. You want to tie in the arts with the local businesses, that’s the first step.
It would be great if every city had its own Listen Local First. We want to make sure there’s a model that works here first, before we think about doing this elsewhere.
Q: Your Listen Local First co-founder Rene Moffatt recently released a song and music video called “Route 42” about a bus line in DC, which local DC businesses are promoting and supporting through special offers and products. Do you think it’s important for musicians to connect with audiences on a local level artistically?
What I like about what Rene did is that he was just doing what songwriters do. They write songs about something in their life, and he rides that bus [Route 42] every single day. But he didn’t just write a song about it, he thought of ways to leverage a song about a bus to get more publicity as an artist and spread the word. He received an arts grant from the DC arts council to create the video and then he started working with local businesses.
In a way, [Rene’s project] is exactly what Listen Local First is all about: creating alternate avenues for local music exploration. And how do you do that? You have to think about incorporating your local community, and incorporating your local businesses.