Outside the music industry cities
Of course, there are benefits to living outside of New York and Los Angeles and Nashville. And this list is not limited to those who are more established, touring artists, and artists who use the internet to develop an audience. For the 35 artists, managers and agents who lived outside of Nashville, NYC, Atlanta, or L.A., some cited:
(a) strategic business benefits to being a bigger fish in a smaller pond as being helpful to musicians careers;
(b) others talked about quality of life issues leading them away from the bigger music cities.
(c) Interviewees also discussed the strategic value of certain non-industry cities, and the qualities musicians would seek in a music friendly city.
A. Bigger fish/smaller pond
While the higher concentration of opportunities in music cities makes them attractive destinations for artists, it also means it’s likely there will be significant competition for these opportunities. One interviewee from the classical field suggested that emerging composers avoid the big music markets:
I would say, go to smaller communities where you’re not going to be in competition with a seasoned pro who is vying for the same crap-paying job that you’re vying for. Unfortunately these days, at 23, you’re going to be up against a 60-year-old who wants that job too. That’s a sad state of affairs. In a smaller town you can develop your own niche.
– Classical Composer
This was echoed by an artist manager working with commercially-successful rock bands. Some artists may be able to develop traction in their own town, build on that, then leverage it into regional and, eventually, national recognition.
We’ve broken artists based out of Florida with no immediate music center or music headquarter near them… We’ve had various experiences where the hometown means a lot to the artist because that’s really were they were able to build out their first mass audience. Then it was about connecting the dots and growing [the fan base] off of that home-grown location.
– Country Music Manager
A few interviewees discussed how a regional identity can become a part of an artists’ brand. This sense of place was one further way to deepen a relationship with their audience and the media, and distinguish them in a national marketplace.
Where you come from and your home turf is way more important, and it’s a bigger source of pride, than I think it would be in rock. In rock it’s more about the logistics of getting a fan base. With hip hop it’s like a claim to stake. People will call out their city in the songs and performances.
– Hip Hop Manager
Particularly in a city like Portland or Seattle or New York or L.A., when you have the local media rallying behind you en masse then that’s really going to help you on a national level.
– Singer Songwriter
B. Quality of life
Some of the interviewees were very clear about how living in places like Los Angeles or New York might position them better for more lucrative or prestigious career opportunities, but it can come at a cost. Sometimes the cost is literal: Los Angles and New York are expensive cities to live in. Other times the cost is mental or emotional. For these musicians, many of whom had been doing music for a while, job satisfaction was about more than money or fame.
If I had stayed in Los Angeles, I’d be making much more income. I would probably also be unhappy because I’d be playing more industrial music [commercials, films] and less music that I have an actual interest in and passion for… in Los Angeles I could chase revenue and money but I knew I would not be as satisfied as a musician.
– Jazz and Classical Crossover Bandleader
In addition to the words ‘happy,’ ‘interest,’ and ‘passion,’ other descriptors of success included the idea of working with people who were excited to work with you.
I don’t want to be one in a stack of god-knows-how-many scores on a conductor’s desk waiting just to be heard. I want to be in the thick of it with an ensemble that really wants my music. The definition of success is not whether a major orchestra has performed your work or not. To me, the definition of success is, ‘Is anybody asking for your work on a regular basis?’ That’s what it is.
– Classical Composer
We also heard from a few interviewees that lower expenses in some locations can be a deciding factor in choosing where to live. With lower overhead, there is less financial pressure. Many artists who lived outside of very large cities referred to striking a balance between a reasonable cost of living and access to a rich cultural life.
We tour all over the world and we sell records all over the world so we could really do it from any place. If we were in a place like New York we might have more contacts but we’d have more expenses.
– Big Band Manager
I think that it’s been very helpful to live in a medium-size city that’s definitely a larger and more arts appreciative area than when I was in Spokane, but also the cost of living is still pretty reasonable.
– Jazz Musician
For one interviewee, Nashville has served as a refuge from an expensive music-oriented city.
Location is important. The main reason I left New York after almost 8 years and came to Nashville was to allow myself to pursue to the arts 100%. During almost 8 years in New York, I was dedicating 50% of myself to my day job (to pay my bills) and 50% of myself to my artistic career. It started to become very clear that I would only succeed 50% at either of those pursuits if this continued to be the case. The lower cost of living in Nashville allowed me to make music my central and solitary focus for the first time in a long time.
– Film Composer and Performer
And unlike Los Angeles and New York or some of the other larger cities, the cost of living is lower in Nashville, making it a more attractive city to live in for many musicians. In fact, artists are a higher share of the workforce in Nashville, TN than anywhere else in the United States.[Note 5]
C. Access to market
This last group of comments from our interviews focuses on the strategic value of certain locations. Many of these are specific to the experience of the individual artist. For two interviewees, their thoughts on location related to accessing the market as a touring musician.
You’re living in northern Maine. Just to get to Boston you have to go five hours. That’s your closest, best market. That’s 10 hours round trip. What do you think is going to happen here? You’re going to play a lot of Maine. You’re going to play the Blueberry Festival. You’re not going to play Bonnaroo because you’ve never been to Knoxville, ever.
– Booking Agent
If you’re going to break by touring… the Northeast is a pretty great place to live just because you can drive an hour and a half in any direction and be in a new music market.
– Band Manager
We also heard about the qualities one interviewee looked for in a location to try and break an independent rap artist. This manager focused strategically on locations outside of New York and Los Angeles to build momentum for artists.
There are certain parts of the U.S. that are just more conducive to selling music… it’s next to impossible to sell an independent record in New York, yet I could bring that same record to Atlanta and people would support it…
There are certain cities that embrace independent rap more easily than others. Three things that I look for in order to know whether a market would be easy or hard. If there was a source of distribution in that marketplace… is there a local independent distributor. If there is it shows me that there is a viable marketplace for distributing music. I would look at the radio stations. I’d look at their playlists to see if they played independent music because some radio stations will, and some won’t. So if there is a viable station in that marketplace that will play independent rap, then that shows me that it’s a good market. Then the last thing I would look for is, would fans purchase independent rap? In some cities unless you’re super famous, people won’t purchase. New York is a perfect example.
– Independent Hip Hop Manager
Note 5]: National Endowment of the Arts New Data on Artists and Arts and Cultural Production
(based on the American Community Survey 2006-2010)