Dream on: Flashband gives musicians a low-stakes place to pursue their high-volume hobby. Donnie Riggs

Flashband brings D.C.’s hobbyist musicians together for a rollicking concert of short-term bands. Here’s what I learned from my month-long stint.

On any other night, an amateur drummer playing her first gig wouldn’t expect to play to a sold-out crowd. For that matter, neither would a whole lineup of month-old bands that nobody’s ever heard of before. But on a recent Saturday night in D.C., Megan Cleary found herself taking the stage at a popular venue that even up-and-coming bands can find it hard to book.

“When I watched music videos as a kid, I always used to imagine being the drummer in the back. But I never thought that would be me,” said Cleary, a financial aid office worker by day who had only started taking drum lessons in earnest the summer before.

Her gig that night was no ordinary rock show: It was Flashband, a showcase concert made entirely of bands that have only been playing together for a month. When they come together, the result is a series of high-energy, 15-minute sets from about 10 bands, all wrapped around a common theme for the night. This time, it was number one hits, and Cleary’s band opened with Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time.”

Flashband isn’t just for novices, though. Cleary’s bandmate at the show, Scott Hollingsworth, has been playing guitar for about 30 years, but it wasn’t until he tried Flashband about three years ago that he started playing live in D.C. “I always joked that I’m the best guitar player in my apartment,” Hollingsworth said. As an attorney who works six days a week, he said he didn’t have time to put together a regular band and plug into the local music scene. “I was looking for the opportunity to get on a stage and play with folks, but you feel those nerves [that keep you offstage]. When I started doing Flashband, it encouraged me to become a more confident player. It’s a community where everyone in the band learns together.”

I know where Scott’s coming from because I’ve been there too. When I say I play guitar, I know the question that’s coming next: “So, are you in a band?” When I tried my chops at Flashband in February, I had an easy answer: “Tonight, I am!”

***

If you’re not musically inclined, you may wonder why otherwise talented musicians would devote so much time and effort (and even some money) to get a little time on stage with a band that probably won’t stay together. But finding people and space in a city’s live music scene can be a lot of work for a side hobby. Searching for bandmates via Craigslist ads—or alt-weekly classifieds before them—always had a bit of a sketch factor that can pose a real barrier to entry. Then there’s the problem of finding space to practice without invading someone’s small apartment or bugging a whole group house. Even if you get a gig, lug your gear to the show, and get over your stage fright, there’s no guarantee that pestering your friends with Facebook invites will result in an audience. Flashband smooths out those wrinkles and lets you get to the fun part a lot faster.

Here’s how it works: On a Sunday about a month before the show, around 50 musicians gather for a meet-and-greet jam session. We met at 7DrumCity, a lessons and rehearsal studio in D.C., for what might be called speed-dating for musicians. With a series of practice rooms equipped with drums, amplifiers, and microphones, we spent two hours mixing groups of five to 10 musicians, searching for the best match.

We had all been given a few songs to practice before the jam, and the online sign-up process helped ensure the right balance of vocalists, guitarists, bassists, and drummers. Pretty soon, musicians began floating song ideas, pulling up songs and lyrics on their phones, and testing out tunes on the spot. It’s the kind of low-pressure jam that gives musicians a better feel for each other’s skill and style, but it also pushes people to try new things.

“It’s a bit like a playground,” says Mashaal Ahmed, who plays drums and formed her own more-permanent band with friends she met through Flashband. “I get to try out music I may not have thought to perform otherwise. I have also learned a lot about managing band dynamics, especially with the limited time we are given.”

These go to eleven: Rehearsal space at 7DC gives musicians a place to practice from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends. (Mike Kim/7DrumCity)

By the end of the night, the group reconvenes to sort into the bands that will perform a month later. It was a little awkward to negotiate what band you want to be in. There isn’t enough time to glean everyone’s musical taste or personality, but there’s little risk in a one-month commitment: There’s always next time, and (almost) not enough time to let egos get in the way.

By the end of an indecisive shuffle, I landed in two bands: One crew of Flashband veterans with adult day jobs, and another of newbies ranging from ages 19 to 30. We quickly booked practice time in the rehearsal spaces and settled on a few songs that we’d focus on together in the coming month (the first band went with David Bowie, Bon Jovi, and Blondie; the second went with Outkast, Dolly Parton, and Ariana Grande).

***

Flashband began back in 2011. Neal Humphrey was a fiddle player whose bluegrass band had just broken up after grad school, and he was on the hunt for new bandmates. He started the search by throwing one-off theme parties at friends’ apartments in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

The shows were a hit, and as word spread, they grew too large for Humphrey to ask his friends to host them in their apartments. That’s when 7DrumCity’s rehearsal spaces came into the picture in 2014. Miles Ryan had been teaching drum lessons in the city since 2011, first out of a room in his group house before expanding into its own operation. Humphrey approached him about the idea of booking space for bands to practice for a Flashband show pegged to Washington, D.C.’s Funk Parade in April 2014.

“Neal’s vision was to make a Facebook for musicians,” says Ryan, who bought the brand from Humphrey in 2017. “His business card from the time says ‘Real musicians, no Craigslist.’”

Graham Robertson, a local professional sax player who now organizes Flashband, says he remembers how hard it was to put a band together using the internet. As a freshman at Georgetown University in 2007, he searched for bandmates in the D.C. music scene. He exchanged messages with a guy via Craigslist because they shared the acquired taste for Frank Zappa’s music and wanted to write original music just as ambitious. “On paper, this guy wrote really interesting and demanding stuff and I thought this was going to be an incredible band.” But when Robertson went to meet his bandmates, they could hardly play their instruments. “Out of tune, out of time,” Robertson recalls. “It was terribly awkward and a big waste of effort. If you start with the in-person interaction, you really avoid such a kind of nightmare situation like that.”

While the web offered an opportunity to connect musicians, Flashband’s true success comes by turning those digital profiles into analog connections. Some of what it offers—lessons, live sound, and even an adjacent repair shop—resembles roles local music stores have traditionally played. But those spaces have struggled in recent years, mostly becoming showrooms for gear that people end up ordering online. Instead of selling equipment, 7DrumCity shares it.

“We’ve created a place that’s welcoming to hobbyist musicians,” Ryan said. “That can be anybody, and we’re thriving because it’s inclusive and provides a low barrier to entry.”

At the front desk, it feels like you’re back in Ryan’s living room, just letting time fly by with a couch, an upright piano, a bin full of music books, and a mantle covered with swag, guitar picks, even earplugs. One of the days when I’m waiting for practice, Ryan pops into the room to set up a device called a Drumometer, which counts drum hits over seconds and minutes. He takes the toy for a few rolls and writes his score on a whiteboard like a drummer’s pinball high score. By the time I’m back two days later, the board is filled with different drummers’ names. If Flashband is like a sports league, then 7DC is its playful workout gym. “It’s like if you don’t want to be a Major League Baseball player, you just want to play baseball,” Ryan said. “You just want to hit some balls, join a club team, but it’s all for the love of the game.”

***

Back at the show, it’s a load off your mind to have someone else putting on the production. I just have to show up with my guitar in hand, while most venues ask musicians to supply their own equipment and soundman. Flashband takes care of the stage logistics as well as the audience: The novelty of the event, plus the sheer number of musicians in the show, helps draw a crowd.

Sharing the stage also makes performing less scary when you don’t have carry a whole evening. “If you give someone a month, anybody can pretty much master 15 minutes of material,” Robertson said. “It’s an affirming and confidence-building activity.”

You’re a shining star, no matter who you are. (Donnie Riggs)

That was certainly true for me. Playing with other musicians will always be the best way to improve on an instrument, and my time with Flashband pushed me to think about timing and coordination.  I mastered a guitar solo I had wanted to learn since I was a sideman in my high school band (Cake’s cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”). I even caught myself playing the teacher once or twice, too, as we worked on song arrangements.

When you’re not in a band, it’s easy to come up with excuses for why you can’t participate in a local music scene. Playing live seems a lot less intimidating after my bandmates told me about all the local venues where they book gigs for their weekend warrior bands. One of my groups even took our act out to an open mic night to get over our nerves before the big show. Showing off for an audience is the dopamine equivalent of a thousand likes on Instagram, but it’s the little boosts along the way that make you realize your talents.  

At the concert, there’s plenty of encouragement to go around. You might meet your bandmates’ friends and family, or cheer on the other bands as they play one of your favorite songs, or just wait for the professional photos that capture your rock-star-est moments. Even if you miss a beat, the thrill of getting in front of an audience is enough to get most musicians to want to do it again.

“I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing people dancing and singing along, and that was really energizing to see people enjoying the music. I think that was when I was really able to relax,” Cleary said. “That’s what made this different from any other experience I’ve had playing—just being able to connect with the crowd and see them having fun.”

And who knows, that rocking solo you nailed might just inspire someone in the audience to find their own band for next month’s show.

This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to pitches@citylab.com.

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