News & Politics

Meet the Musicians Who Are Driving Skadden, Arps Bonkers

"You really think a string quartet is going to stop us?"

The Spread Love Band just wants to play. Skadden Arp says go away. Photo by Harrison Smith.

The Spread Love Band has been playing on DC streets for about nine months. They play McPherson Square, Gallery Place, Metro Center, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown. But the best spot of all—a “gold mine,” as their drummer says—is just outside the Treasury building, at 15th and New York Avenue, NW, where tour buses park and many out-of-towners see street musicians for the first time.

On Friday afternoon, you could hear echoes of Lonnie Shepard, Stixxx, and Country, three members of the band’s five-man lineup, from the North Lawn of the White House, two blocks away, and catch some of their words inside White House Gifts, right across the street:

“I’ve been working all week / Back and forth on my feet / It’s time to sit on down / Have a shot of this Royal Crown.”

“It gets annoying,” one of the gift shop cashiers admitted, “but we tune it out.”

Apparently that’s just not possible at Skadden, Arps, “Wall Street’s most powerful law firm,” whose DC office is just above White House Gifts at 1440 New York Avenue, NW.

On Thursday Above the Law reported that partner Mitch Ettinger‘s secretary had sent an office-wide email detailing efforts to keep the buskers—who are performing on a public sidewalk—away from the Skadden office building. Ettinger could not be reached for comment, but according to Above the Law, the email began,

As many of you are aware, a group of musicians have established themselves on the other side of 15th Street near the Treasury Building, and their “playing” is making it difficult for people in the 1440 building to work. Originally, they were only performing between noon and 2pm two days a week, but as of this week, they have been performing every day and longer hours. We tried negotiating with the band to relocate to another location, but were unable to convince them to move.

What does “negotiating” mean to a powerhouse law firm? According to the band, the head of security at the 1440 building came by a few weeks ago, saying tenants in the building were complaining and asking them to move. The band apparently tried to explain themselves. “This is our job,” says Stixxx, Spread Love’s drummer, as the band was between songs Friday. “Every day; seven days a week; rain, sleet, or snow. We start at 7 o’clock in the morning, we go all the way to 7 o’clock in the evening.”

Do they really play in the rain?

“Hell yeah, we’ve got tents. Money never stops. Bills never stop.” And on weekdays, the tour buses never seem to stop coming.

Around two weeks ago, the band says that someone from Skadden offered them $200 a week to play somewhere else, anywhere else. “But you can’t give us $200 a week when each man makes, on average, $200 a day in this spot,” says Stixxx.

“You can’t. You can’t. What do you want me to do? I have bills, two children, my family.”

According to Above the Law, the Ettinger email continued:

We reached out to the DC Police, the Downtown BID and the US Secret Service, but all three organizations told us that the musicians were “legal” and that there was nothing that could be done to have them removed.

We have determined that the Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2008 might help us. It prohibits daytime noise above a certain threshold. We are purchasing the device required to conduct the decibel measurements. If the noise exceeds the legal threshold, and the law enforcement organizations still refuse to enforce, we can take the issue to the DC Council and the Mayor’s office.

Stixxx says this isn’t the first time the band’s had a complaint from an office. Once, when they were playing at Farragut North, a doctor from the building above the Metro station “came down and said, ‘Hey, I can’t talk to my patients, it’s really noisy and causing conflict with my patients.’ And 30 seconds after she said that a patient came down and said, ‘Thank you guys so much, y’all make me feel so good.’

“So we’re talking about a doctor who didn’t want us to play, because of her patient, and the patient saying Thanks, guys. You can’t please everybody, but the majority of people love it. Sometimes it’s an inconvenience, because the best spots are near office buildings. That kind of sucks. But, like, other than that we don’t get too many complaints.”

The Skadden email noted one other “measure” the firm might use to remove the band: “hiring a string quartet to arrive earlier in the day and assume their spot.”

What if the firm follows through on that idea? “Doesn’t matter,” says Stixxx. “We’ll move on down. And then if we really wanted to be assholes, we’d outplay the string quartet. Come on now. We outplay speakers outside of the Verizon Center.”

“We can blow ’em the f–k out of the water,” Stixxx says, as the band has done when other groups have tried to take its spot outside Metro stations. “You really think a string quartet is going to stop us?”

“This is public property,” says Lonnie. “There’s over 200 people against one person. I mean, what are we supposed to do?”

Secret Service agents, who work right next door at the Treasury Building and White House campus, supposedly tip them every day, dropping bills into a bucket that’s set up next to a blackboard. “The game is on,” the message reads on Friday, “and we still Spread Love.”

Isabella, almost 4, lives in Washington but is visiting Capitol Hill with her parents. After a song ends, the girl takes a bill and drops it in the bucket. “Thank you for the music!” she says. The band had let her play the tambourine.

Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith (@harrisondsmith on Twitter) has contributed to the Washington Post and Chicago magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]