Finding A Melody in the Medium: An Evolution of How D.C. Listens to Music
Professor Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message,” in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and, while music has been an influential medium throughout time, the way we listen to it has become more of its own medium every day (“The Medium”). With so many ways to access our favorite songs on demand and in the palms our hands, we still support the most archaic way of hearing sound: live concerts. Each city has its own venues through which music history has flowed including Washington D.C.: home to U Street, the entertainment center of the city since the early 1900s. Each venue holds a different past, a different genre of music, and a different group of isolated people that escaped into the dark rooms at night to find something, a fact that still holds true today. Whether it was to find an escape, a band, a photo, an immersive event, or just a memory, how people have listened to the sounds of D.C. have changed greatly due to the medium they have been perceived through: the venue. The way D.C. inhabitants experience music has thoroughly evolved over the past hundred years, from the glamorous 20s outings of the Lincoln Theatre to the underground 80s scene of the 9:30 Club; paralleling the changing genres of the past, the two venues represent how audiences have listened to music and and how their path within the 21st century shows them regaining their former places as musical mediums.
It’s a cold night on U Street, as marquee lights illuminate a dense crowd that stands outside the box office of the Lincoln Theatre. Faint sounds of a band echo out as ladies in beaded dresses and men in long coats open doors while clutching ticket in between their freezing fingers. Once inside, a gold lit room with plush velvet seats houses a grand stage that seems to sparkle with the excitement of the audience. This is the place to be on a Friday night, no matter who graces the stage. Last week, it was Louis Armstrong. Tonight, it’s a new jazz band hoping to find their big break. Who knows who will come next?
Deemed the “Jewel of U Street,” the Lincoln Theatre holds a prominent places in the black culture of Washington D.C. and provides key insight into how concerts were perceived by the public during the early 1900s (“Lincoln”). Opened in 1922, the theatre functioned as an entertainment center for segregated blacks and featured a thriving rotation of traditional media such as movies, theater, and novelty shows (“Lincoln”). The 20s saw the rise of the jazz movement, a new genre that “…was different because it broke the rules — musical and social” and, therefore, was not received well by the older, white society (Carter). It seems fitting that the Lincoln Theatre, a venue that emanated the same grand structure of the traditional theatres of the time, housed both a excluded group of people and a rejected genre of music; from the outside, the Lincoln could pass as any city play house, yet, on the inside, it was hosting a movement. A slew of jazz legends and big bands including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald made their way into the theatre throughout the years, drawing crowds who were now privy to their own special nights out (“Lincoln”). See, in the early 1900s, going to theatre was an outing within itself, no matter who was on stage. Whether it was to listen to an orchestra, sit to watch a Broadway show, or to sing along with a jazz singer, people took pride in their outings; it was a special occasion that required saving up to wear fancy dresses and suits for one night under the city lights. Even though the Lincoln fell close to the urban realities of the U Street area, located right next to the highly popular Ben’s Chili Bowl, it still acted as a grand escape from the real world (“Lincoln”). Audiences looked up to the theatre as a luxurious place; it made the performances special. Seeing Louis Armstrong play in a small, plain theatre in the middle of nowhere would pale in comparison to the trumpeter holding an audience captive in a glittering gold ballroom. The grand staging is what makes so many of the acts of the 1920s and 1940s so memorable; it put them on a new level and made them living legends to the audiences that flocked to them on those special nights.
The sun is just setting when the rowdy group of kids walks up to the large glass door plastered with the numbers 9:30. They have saved up for weeks to see their favorite punk band come to life on stage and play sounds that cannot be found anywhere else in the city. After getting their tickets, they make their way into a raucous crowd that stands in front of a simple stage lined with instruments. It’s an eclectic group of all ages, but they are all there for one reason: the band. This is their scene; this is the scene.
Not long after the Lincoln closed down in 1968 due to race riots, a new underground venue called the 9:30 Club helped usher in a new genre of music to the city while facilitating the band-centric ideals of the 1980s (“Lincoln”). As a river of rock and punk performers flooded the music scene, the club was created as a space within a city that had limited creative spaces for such artists: “There weren’t very many clubs anyway. A lot of the shows were in churches or church halls and then houses in the very early ’80s because there wasn’t any space to perform in” (Bray). The first club, which opened in 1980 in the renovated Atlantic Building on F Street, only held around 200 people but allowed D.C.’s local scene to begin its growth (“9:30”). Promoter Seth Hurwitz provided smaller, typically ignored bands a place to share their alternative art while giving fans of all ages a place to listen to their favorites, creating an inclusive, expanding purpose that was seen in the Lincoln as well (Bray). Local bands such as Fugazi and Dain Bramage found their place in the venue while other national acts such as the Ramones and Green Day made stops there on their tours (“9:30”). Both bands and fans alike saw how important the venue could be in creating their scene. It did not matter how small it was or how many people it could fit; it just mattered that it was there. Photographer Cynthia Connolly described the post-Lincoln, pre-9:30 Club plight perfectly to Consequence of Sound, showing just how important the venue’s addition was to the music community: “There wasn’t anything happening in downtown DC except for some amazing old businesses that actually had lasted from the ’50s and were still there… They were sort of using these spaces as they were from the ’50s or ’60s, so they had this sort of lonely feeling” (Bray). In the 1980s and 90s, people simply wanted to listen to music; it was the bands that ruled their world, and they would follow them wherever they went. That type of thinking brought people from simply being audiences looking up to performers in massive theaters to becoming fans standing face to face with their favorite bands in intimate spaces. A concert no longer connoted a fancy night out for adults but a gathering of all ages. 9:30 was more than a time or a place; it was the start of a movement that allowed people to simply listen to music and not have to worry about where they were going to do so.
Hozier tunes his guitar as the tech crew continues to build up the stage around him. He looks out at the grand spectacle in front of him, taking in the same views as many of the greats before him. Tonight, the red seats will fill with bodies waiting to take in every note of his performance. But how do you fill such a space as just one person? How can you command something that seems like it could swallow you up at any second like a gold lion’s open mouth lined with blood red teeth?
That night, as he begins “Jackie and Wilson,” the theatre takes over, letting the cords radiate off the sides of its walls and up into the balcony. It’s just Hozier now, as the theatre directs all eyes to his song as it has for some many other performers. It’s modern and vivacious yet classic and simple, exactly how it used to be (“Jackie”).
Green Day steps on to the stage, surveying the new land in front of them. It has been a while since they’ve seen a venue so small, spending years on the road playing to huge crowds around the world. Tonight, they go back to their roots and to the scene they fell in love with so many years ago. But how can you put a rock sensation back into such a small box? How do you even make a show that can sustain the powerhouse band in such an intimate setting?
That night, as the chords of “American Idiot” radiate throughout the room, a wave of energy hits the crowd. This couldn’t happen anywhere else, at any other venue or in any other room. The 9:30 Club is in control of this performance, containing the seemingly uncontrollable fire that is punk rock. It’s big and loud yet intimate and inclusive, exactly how it used to be (“Green”).
Since their inceptions, the Lincoln Theatre and the 9:30 Club have acted as mediums for music by facilitating very unique experiences for every person that walks through the doors. Concerts have gone from glamorous nights out to band-centric gatherings, but, in the past fifteen years, we’ve seen the concert experience go a different route. Both venues lie under I.M.P.’s control, a local production company that books many D.C. concert halls. They have a long history with 9:30 (which has moved to its current location on V Street), but the Lincoln is a recent purchase from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities that is just beginning its revival (Fischer). While both have seen successful years of booking both national touring acts and local community events, the way D.C. has experienced such nights is a far cry from how they used to. The concert economy has changed, becoming less of a ‘I want the full experience’ and more of a ‘let me prove that I was there’. Technology has become a hot button topic, with artists debating that phones and cameras at shows both ruin the audience-act relationship and distract from the people taking in all the elements of a show (Silva). Yet, a phone might not be the only cause for our inability to have nights like those in the 1920s or 1980s. We, as a society, have changed in our mindsets when it comes to experiences, whether it’s a concert or a building. It is not enough to walk into a venue and tread on the same floor as some of the greats; artists have to heighten their spectacle to please people because playing in a historical theatre isn’t enough. Yet, how much of that spectacle is really how they want their music to be experienced, and how much of it is just to entertain? And, if it is just to entertain, do we ever get to see art in its fullest state? See, it’s not the problem of whether we see the show through a lense or through our own eyes, but whether the show itself was made to please the audience or please the venue.
The audience isn’t the medium; the venue is. The people who come to shows don’t make the show unique. There are thousands of music fans across the world who could provide the same type of energy and same decibel level screams as any other crowd. The people who attended the shows at the Lincoln Theatre and old 9:30 Club did not make the venues what they are; the people who performed there made the venues what they are known as today. They brought experiences and art to the city and many of the artists today are beginning to realize that the experience/atmosphere of a show are just as important as the surroundings itself; you can’t choose your audience, but you can chose how to present your art to them. Since the Lincoln and the 9:30 Club are equal in capacity, a artist choosing between them might think, “How might the venue change the way my show is perceived, and how can I utilize that space to my advantage?” Some artists who are beginning to ask those questions are people like Norwegian producer Lido, all star rapper Kanye West, and even the most eccentric Lady Gaga. Lido brought his recent tour to elaborate theatres across the country saying, “We chose very special rooms in each city to get the perfect vibe. You might’ve never been there before, maybe you’ll never go there again. But we wanted to showcase the most beautiful venues in your cities…” (Lido). The producer wanted his album, which creates an experience within itself already as a concept piece, to be heard by audiences in an atmosphere that could add on to the art.
Kanye West brought his Saint Pablo tour to huge arenas, not only to accommodate his large fan base but also to bring his giant, floating stage to life (“Saint”). The stage design and venues had to work hand in hand to produce the ‘god-like’ effect he wanted, something that could not have happened in some randomly picked venue.
In contrast, Lady Gaga went on a small dive bar tour to promote her new album, which let the fans interact with her and her music in an intimate way (Hudak). For an artist who was used to playing huge arenas, she saw the benefit in going back to her roots and allowing the venue to contain her spirit. These artists work with the venues themselves and do not compromise if that partnership fails for they see how the show will drastically change in another space; Lido actually cancelled half of his tour due to production issues, stating that, “I would never want to give you a half-ass version of this show…” (Lido). Artists now can begin to build relationships with space in relation to the sounds they create, relationships that will be necessary as we move into the new era of music. No longer is the music the only medium; the venue is as well.
We are heading in a new direction for how we experience and listen to music, one that draws from the old days of exciting nights and gathering places. While there are bound to be artists who push themselves for the sake of spectacle, more and more artists will begin to bring true and full art to venues like the Lincoln Theatre and 9:30 Club. Some fans might crave the ‘old days’ where bands could simply play in basements or rise above the audiences in grand theatres, but not all of that is lost. The 9:30 Club can still host a stripped down punk show and act as a medium that facilitates energy and excitement with memories of the past. The Lincoln Theatre can still be a shining jewel for upcoming stars and provide them with a stage where all eyes will be on them. But, both can be mediums for new art as well. Musicians will come along and paint the walls with lights and decorate hours with sounds of their hearts. The venues will become part of the stories they are telling, and we will continue to listen to them, just like we’ve always have.
Bray, Ryan, and Len Comaratta. “All Access: An Oral History of DC’s 9:30 Club.” Consequence of Sound, 19 May 2014. www.consequenceofsound.net/2014/05/all-access-an-oral-history-of-dcs-930-club/2/.
Carter, María Agui, and Calvin A. Lindsay. “The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz.” Culture Shock, PBS, www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/beyond/jazz.html.
Fischer, Jonathan L. “I.M.P. Productions to Take Over Operations of Lincoln Theatre.” Washington City Paper, 27 June 2013. www.washingtoncitypaper.com/arts/music/blog/13079440/i-m-p-productions-to-take-over-operations-of-lincoln-theatre.
“Green Day – American Idiot Part I – 930 Club.” YouTube, uploaded by Wild Man
TV, 5 Oct. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLP3Oc0xO8o.
Hudak, Joseph. “Lady Gaga Talks Dive Bar Tour, Super Bowl Show, ‘Authentic’ New LP.” Rolling Stone, 6 Oct. 2016, www.rollingstone.com/music/features/lady-gaga-talks-dive-bar-tour-family-vibe-of-new-joanne-w443659.
“Jackie and Wilson – Hozier.” YouTube, uploaded by Laura York, 11 Mar. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTz40zx-lgA.
Lido. “New York.” Twitter, 11 Nov. 2016, twitter.com/Lido/status/797235324787290112.
—. “We chose very special rooms in each city to get the perfect vibe. You might’ve never been there before, maybe you’ll never go there again.” Twitter, 1 Nov. 2016, twitter.com/Lido/status/793606864638386176.
“Lincoln Theatre (Washington, D.C.).” Wikipedia, September 30, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Theatre_(Washington,_D.C.)
“The Medium Is the Message.” Wikipedia, November 7, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_medium_is_the_message
“SAINT PABLO TOUR – clips.” YouTube, uploaded by Ashley Marie, 29 Sept. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vKvvdr3OH8.
Silva, Zach. “Turn it Off: Cell Phones and Concert Culture.” Huffington Post, 2 June 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/north-by-northwestern/turn-it-off-cell-phones-a_b_5432289.html.
“9:30 Club.” Wikipedia, October 22, 2016.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9:30_Club
Additional Photo Sources
Mazur, Kevin. Kanye West performs during The Saint Pablo Tour at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 5, 2016 in New York City. Billboard, www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/7504872/kanye-west-waves-off-fan-who-tries-to-climb-pablo-floating-stage.
Lido. “LA Show.” Twitter, 12 Nov. 2016, twitter.com/Lido/status/797642317813387265.
—. “Tonight. Getting all these feelings out.” Twitter, 9 Nov. 2016, twitter.com/Lido/status/796512947585499136.