Finding a Smoking Gun

Finding a Smoking Gun

Smoking guns have found new currency these days.

Did United Nations inspectors find a smoking gun in Iraq? Is there a smoking gun linking Martha Stewart to insider trading?

It’s a moot point for Peter Silverman, who has a different kind of smoking gun in mind.

“A ‘smoking gun’ is somebody on the rise,” he said. “They used it in the early 20th Century – ‘He’s a real smoking gun’ – it means he’s an entrepreneur.”

It’s an etymology Silverman hopes to capitalize on. The T.C. grad returned to Alexandria last year to start Smoking Gun records, his own independent label. It was a decision he made after spending three years in New York, learning the tricks of the music trade at Atlantic Records, skills he now wants to put to use in the DC scene.

“I was born and raised in this area,” Silverman said. “I wanted to get away from that huge scene… take what I learned and get back to my roots.”

D.C. ROOTS MEAN Silverman grew up in the area’s thriving independent rock scene, with bands, clubs and labels scattered around metropolitan Washington. But so far, he said, he is the only independent label in Alexandria.

“There’s a thriving rock scene in DC, and I feel like it almost gets left out of the loop,” he said. “A lot of people don’t come here as permanent residents, and they don’t take time to get into the scene.”

Silverman, 21, grew up in Alexandria, 10 blocks from City Hall, and graduated from T.C. Williams in 1999. He went to New York City for college, spending a year at Marymount Manhattan College, while at the same time at MTV.

It was the nexus of the teening of America, but to Silverman, it was just too confining. He talked about what he really wanted to do, and some of MTV staffers put him in touch with Atlantic.

“I started in the rock department, but my big break was with the group Nappy Roots,” he said. “I ended up working directly with their manager, Kevin Mitchell, booking shows for them.” The Nappy Roots ended up nominated for a Grammy this year, for best rap song.

But before that happened, Silverman cashed in his chips at Atlantic, and came home. Looking for a local connection to his work in music, he started Smoking Gun Records. He had some precedent, in the area, home to Teenbeat records, Simple Machines and others. But many small labels are content to carve out a small niche, and issue vinyl singles or a select few albums a year.

The real inspiration, Silverman said, was Dischord Records, an Arlington-based label that has had real national and international impact, started by Ian MacKaye, of the local indie rock legend Fugazi.

IT HAS BEEN a slow start – “It’s a one-man show right now,” Silverman said. But he has gotten past the first, and biggest obstacle: signing the first band. “The hardest thing is getting the first band. They have to really believe in what you’re doing,” said Silverman.

He found a willing band in Critical Days, a foursome from Arlington that live together in a house in Rosslyn (coincidentally, also all T.C. alumni). Silverman went to see the band after hearing them from a friend on the lookout for unsigned local bands. After the show, he sat them down and told them his aims. The band agreed to give it a try, in large part because Silverman knew the nuts and bolts of the industry, said Mark Barrett, Critical Days’ bassist. “We got sold because Peter has this experience we don’t have on the business aspect. His goals are about the same as ours,” said Barrett. “His business experience surpasses his age tenfold.”

They’ve put together a demo album, and Silverman has been booking local shows, the most crucial part of helping a band make it big, he said. “The heart of the band has to be locally, you have to build a local fan base. The aim should be to sell out a dive in DC before you go on tour with national acts.”

It’s a gospel that Barrett believes. “It’s all about buzz,” he said. “We’re hoping that somebody walks away from our show, and tells one of their friends that they saw a great show last night, and brings more people the next time we play.”

SMOKING GUN WILL be a success, said Amy Pickering, if Silverman made it clear to Barrett and his bandmates the kind of effort they will have to put into the band.

“That’s a better place to start than a band having expectations based on what they think is being done,” said Pickering, one of the skeleton crew that runs Dischord. “That’s going to work out better than looking at the label as all opportunity and no-work.”

Most bands that sign with any label, major, independent or start-up, don’t understand that to win fans and get their music out, the label will have to work alongside and not instead of band members.

Working on winning over local fans is smart too, she said. “That’s a really good way to build a label. You want the music to sell itself. Getting music outside the immediate area, outside the realm of the live act, that’s always the trouble.”

Silverman hopes to build up to that level, but will be happy with local success first. “One of my few ultimate goals is to breathe new life into the DC scene,” he said.

Which is not to say the scene is dead. “I have to credit Dischord for doing it for 20 years now. I believe they are one of five all-time great independent rock labels,” Silverman said. “But it’s healthy to have another label come along.”