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Music for Music's Sake

Over the years, local bands that play and perform original music have mostly struggled to succeed in the Northern Virginia area. Even the most dedicated musicians encounter hardships in this area. People like bass guitar player Sean Meyers, for example.

Meyers, 24, is a young man bent on honing his artistic craft and succeeding in the music business. He is a Sterling native who has been playing guitar since middle school, around seventh or eighth grade. It all started when his parents bought a guitar, which was actually for his sister.

"She lost interest and I just picked it up. I listened to CDs and tapes and tried to find those places on the guitar," Meyers said.

Meyers was also tutored in the bass as a freshman and sophomore in high school by friends like Erik Bradford, who he describes as a "very proficient bass player." Bradford, 25, was 13 when he started playing guitar.

"In middle school there were four music options: they had band, general music, chorus and then they had guitar," Bradford said. "The only thing that I liked was guitar."

He explained that he thought that general music "was boring," chorus was "for girls," and that band was for "geeks and nerds."

"Playing guitar was kind of a social status thing," he said.

NOWADAYS BRADFORD drives a school bus for a living. Besides his day job he still practices guitar often.

"I try to play in D.C. about once a month," he said. "Music is my specialty. My music is always there for the public." Bradford plans to eventually move to Nashville, Tenn., where a friend is starting a record label. Bradford hopes to release an extended-play disc there, once the company is up and running.

"It takes some time and some luck," Bradford said.

Meyers, on the other hand, does not plan on leaving the Sterling area.

"There's something to be said for locals who stand their ground," he said. "Bands get frustrated and leave and it's something that's lost. It's great talent that's lost. They go anywhere with an established scene. New York, California, Nashville."

Even bands that really want and try to make their careers blossom in Northern Virginia usually can't get it done. Meyers' former band, Sapphire Project, which he formed with three good friends, recently disbanded. They performed together for about two years and did about 30 shows.

One of their biggest performances was at a house party hosted by a friend. It was the friend's 21st birthday. Meyers said it drew more than 200 people. However, it's usually free to get into a house party and Meyers explained that capitalism is basically to blame for the failure of local acts like his.

"It's all about who can make the most money for the establishment," said Meyers about how most local bars and clubs operate. "That's the attitude in this area in general."

MEYERS EXPLAINED that a big reason that bands that play original music fail here is that local bars cater mostly to cover bands. Those bands play music that most bar-goers are familiar with.

"It's the music that drunk people love to hear," Meyers said, citing songs like "Marguaritaville" as favorites of local bar hoppers.

"I agree with that 100 percent," said Aaron Sheldon, 24, the former lead singer and main songwriter of Sapphire Project. "They [club and bar owners] require you to be a cover artist."

Sheldon said that people like to hear "traditional Irish drinking songs," and when it comes to original music "bars and grills shut it out."

People do not usually know the words to songs created from scratch by bands like Sapphire Project and therefore, logically, cannot sing along.

"Anybody who thinks you've got a good [original] project going will tell you to get out of this area," says Sheldon. "There's hardly anything out here when it comes to rock clubs. There's just a lack of venues in entertainment overall." Sheldon also said that bars charge a bit too much for people who do want to come and support local bands. He talks of people having to pay $8 to get in and then having to pay $8 more for just one drink.

Besides prices, Sheldon says that another problem with going out to bars and clubs in the Washington, D.C.-area is the crime.

"It's hard to get people out there in D.C. because things can get wild, like crack heads trying to harass. People will try to steal your [music] gear right off the street while you're unloading it," said Sheldon of trying to get shows started in D.C.

"No one likes to commute out there," said Meyers of the area, "it’s a nightmare."

BESIDES THE CRIMINAL element, Sheldon said that club and bar owners don’t give bands enough time to perform when they are actually allowed into clubs.

"You only get to play for 45 minutes [at most]," said Sheldon. He also said that clubs tend to "overbook people" and there isn’t always time for several bands to play at one venue on the same night.

"Their scheduling is the problem," said Sheldon.

He also explained that club owners are always trying to "change details on you at the last minute."

Meyers and Sheldon also blamed promoters, booking agents and managers for not handling their band properly. Meyers remembers playing at a concert where "the show wasn’t promoted at all."

"Whatever the booking agent tells you is not consistent with what it ends up being like," said Sheldon.

Meyers also said that a lot of young people can’t get into some of the area’s more prestigious venues, like Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, to see shows because they are under 21 years of age.

"A lot of my friends are right up on that age mark," he said.

Meyers and Bradford said that local bands tend to perform a lot in their own basements at home because a lot of their supporters are underage. Meyers said that there a few rare places like Jammin' Java in Vienna where they sometimes have "incorporated shows and it’s all ages," but places like that are hard to find. He also named TT Reynolds in Fairfax as a place where local bands can play together and compete to see who brings in the most patrons.

MEYERS SAID that he is pursuing a musical career for the pure love of it. He even left college twice to pursue his musical ambitions, despite his parents’ initial disapproval.

"It’s what makes me happy," he said.

He is working at an animal hospital to make income and plans to be in a new band before the end of the summer. He says that he and the other former members of Sapphire Project are all "still great friends."

His former band mate, Sheldon, says that moving an entire band to a new area is "very complicated" and therefore is looking at being a solo artist and having his music "produced and released online."

"MySpace is fantastic [for releasing and exposing new music to the public]" adds Meyers. "You can target all these people at once."

On the downside, he said that "there’s so many bands that do that that no one really pays attention anymore. They just think it’s another crappy band."

Still, there is hope for Sterling and Northern Virginia’s local music scene. According to Meyers there are, in fact, successful, veteran local acts such as Rude Buddha, who get spins on local radio.

"They draw a pretty descent crowd," said Meyers. "It’s 99 percent hard work and 1 percent luck."

Will the next band that Meyers is in succeed where Sapphire Project failed? Only time will tell.