|An interview with 16-year-old bassist and booker Ray Brown|
|by Jonathan Marty|
Flyer from the last of the "Bethesda Youth Shows"
At the age of 14, Ray Brown started a concert series in the Washington, D.C. area called “Bethesda Youth Shows,” aiming to combine talented teen bands with established D.C. music scene mainstays. After booking eight shows in a local government conference room, Ray saw his blooming event series meet its untimely death when a band sticker was found in the building’s lobby. Now 16 years old, Ray attends Catholic School in D.C. He has lived in Bethesda, Maryland his entire life and has been playing bass in his band The Black Sparks (whose new single is available in this issue’s mixtape) since 2008. I talked to Ray about his motivation for starting “BYS,” as well as his overall experience with DIY youth shows since its conclusion in April 2014.
How much of an attempt did you make to advertise that your shows were youth/teen-oriented? Or did you just present them as normal concerts that happen to feature teens?
Probably my biggest regret of the whole series was giving it the name, Bethesda Youth Shows. One of my goals was to try advance the “incorporation” of younger people into the DC scene even more (to clarify, the space where the shows happened was at a government conference room in Bethesda, MD about 5-10 minutes away from DC) and try and have the younger bands seen as just bands playing a normal show, which I tried to do by things like not putting ‘young’ in the description of the band on the Facebook event or something like that.
I came up with the name “Bethesda Youth Shows” not really thinking I had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or anything. I didn’t think the name would necessarily matter, but it became pretty evident to me that the name completely contradicted any goals of further unification by being an inherently ostracizing name. I could definitely sense a negative feeling towards the series by a lot of people for that reason of coming off as “by/for Bethesda Youth” only, especially since Bethesda Youth has a bit of a negative connotation anyway. Bethesda is home to places like NIH (National Institutes of Health), Walter Reed, and Lockheed Martin. We’re apparently the second-snobbiest and most educated town in the country too. So I’m sure you can imagine the kind of people who live and work here and how kids end up being raised by said people. I’m not going to say that for my whole life I’ve always been a complete exception to this, so I can’t really blame anyone on how they got those impressions.
Why do you think it's especially important to showcase young bands?
Young bands should be showcased because they’re bands; they just need some help to start off. It can be hard for younger bands to realize that they can play shows besides pay-to-play, battles of the bands, and stuff like that. My band definitely experienced this, and with a lot of help we started to see how relatively easy it was to play actual shows, and with the experience I had (which at the time I thought was massive, realizing in hindsight just how small of a taste it was and how much still I don’t know) that I could try and showcase some younger bands I thought were really great and who seemed to not grasp the concept of playing “actual shows”.
What did the audience look like at an average BYS show? How many people came? What was the age range? Were they mostly friends or were there randos?
For the most part, not a whole lot of people showed up to the shows to be honest, or at least not as many as we would’ve liked, probably an average of 30-40. I’d guess the age range was about 14-19 (though for the last show, most of the people who showed up weren’t in high school), and it was mainly the few friends I could recruit to show up and each younger band could get a handful of friends to show up. There were definitely (and unfortunately) no randos. Also, part of our agreement with the local government (and my parents) was that we would have some chaperones, so my parents and older siblings (usually with a few of their friends in tow) would graciously offer their time to roam around and supervise.
Our goal originally was to follow the pretty typical protocol of having the next show booked before the “current” show happened, so we could promote at the next show at the current one and hand out fliers, yadda yadda. We ended up miserably failing to meet that, and I’m not sure exactly why, but it didn’t seem to make too much of a difference even for the one time we did it successfully.
It’s really easy to look back on BYS and think of it as kind of a failure since we didn’t start a Bethesda Punk Renaissance or anything, and we had not-very-well attended shows that ended up being a lot more awkward than cool. But the fact that I was at least able to make something (eight shows -- we got kicked out of our venue after the last one, after a sticker of my band was found on a mural in the lobby and stickers were found in the surrounding area) happen in a place like Bethesda, and have at least a few people gather to listen to some bands (a good amount of whom were getting the rare experience from their perspective of playing something close to a “real show”), and have a few people come out at least entertained, and maybe even enlightened, can definitely attribute to BYS being viewed as a success.
It’s undeniable that the importance of being cool finds its way into DIY punk culture on a large and small scale. It’s important to acknowledge it and try and strike a balance between quality (if that’s essentially what “cool” means) and trying to just live life and make things happen, which has been something that I’ve struggled with a decent amount in terms of BYS, especially now that I’m look at it in retrospect. Whenever I think about the general attendance at the shows this issue always pops up into my mind I guess.
I'm really amazed that you booked several teen bands on the same bill as Priests and GIVE. Do you see much overlap between the "teen scene" and the greater local music of D.C.?
Compared to other places, it’s a little crazy just how much overlap there is. There’s still some work to be done, but nobody’s getting excluded for being young as long as they try, and it’s a lot more clear around here that the door for younger people is wide open. Robin Zeijlon’s been one of the most prominent bookers/musicians in the area for a couple years now, and he’s 19. There are lots of great all or mostly teen bands like Pure Disgust, The Obsessives, Dudes, Ladle Fight, Lay Em’ Dead, The Daily Mail, The Sweaters, Red Light Distraction, and plenty more that I can’t think of right now. It’s taken some time, but a good amount of the quality teen bands are getting opportunities to play real shows and get their music heard by the whole scene, and hopefully beyond eventually.
The whole scene’s unbelievably accepting and supportive too, especially in relation to what I’ve heard about other big scenes. While I haven’t seen it first hand, it seems like most DIY scenes revolve around things like DIY art spaces (Silent Barn, Roboto Project, 924 Gilman, The Smell, Death by Audio, etc) but here it’s almost exclusively basements, churches, restaurants, etc. This system makes it a lot easier for anybody to start booking/playing shows since there’s a virtually no ladder to climb to at least get the shows off the ground, and these places aren’t reliant on money made on these shows to pay for rent or whatever, so they can much more easily take the risk of booking a younger band that’s starting off and are most likely not gonna bring anyone. The Lab in Alexandria, VA and Charm City Art Space in Baltimore are both really awesome spaces that are not too far away, but as far as DC, there isn’t a straight up “DIY venue” with an established staff/council/committee.
Another great thing about being young and playing music in DC is how accepting and helpful the older people in the scene are to the kids. I’m still floored at how on multiple occasions, people who have to pay rent would come to Bethesda and play a show I put on for 30-40 kids. I could annoy people like Chris Moore from Coke Bust, Kevin Erickson from the All Ages Movement Project, and Adam Bray from Fredericksburg All Ages online asking for tips and they’d get back to me really quickly with really well thought out, insightful advice. I can’t say enough just how helpful/awesome it was to see that support. The bands/bookers are all really supportive too. While not everything that happened in the DC punk scene in the 80s is relevant today, that scene established a culture of younger musicians being viewed as forces to be reckoned with and respected which is still extremely prevalent around here, which makes me so happy to be in a music scene that unique and awesome.
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