The following is an excerpt from the other book I’m working on, tentatively titled Minimize Your Suck: Unsolicited Advice for You and Your Band
I grew up in New York City. Most of my friends and family are here. I’ve never lived anywhere else for an appreciable period of time, and I know that living in New York has given me access to a lot of things not everyone has access to, and I do consider myself lucky. But does this mean you have to move to a big city with a lot of musicians to do your thing? Read on. Spoiler alert: no.
I meet a lot of musicians who live in smaller or less culturally happening places, and are frustrated. And I feel where they’re coming from. I am sure it sucks to be the only hardcore band in Lost Springs, Wyoming (population: 4 according to the 2010 census), and have to drive two towns over to the nearest bar to share a bill with an acoustic singer-songwriter and a Top 40 cover band for an audience of people who are mostly there to drink, and no one pays attention, and you don’t get paid, and for all intents and purposes the whole thing feels like it might as well not have happened. I can’t even play like I truly know how this feels. I commend everyone who has the wherewithal to keep doing his or her thing in situations where there is little or no audience for it. However, in a different way, it can also suck to be one of hundreds of indie rock bands in Brooklyn, New York, and have to find a place to park off of Bedford Avenue on a Saturday night, and share a bill with five bands some promoter has decided sound like you but you hate them, and nobody even comes to your show even though it’s free because there is a way more popular show going on two doors down, and you don’t get paid, and for all intents and purposes the whole thing feels like it might as well not have happened. Both of these examples are somewhat reductive, of course, but you get the idea: the presence of a potential audience in your area does not guarantee they will care about your music. This is the basic problem of moving to a big city to “make it”: you are competing with hundreds if not thousands of other people who are trying to do the same thing as you. And unless you are really fucking exceptional, many of them are better. It is scary and humbling and not for everyone. Plenty of good, successful bands don’t do it.
Most of the people I know who are living sustainable lives as artists do not live in big cities awash in cultural capital. They are active participants in smaller local scenes, and they are fine with this. They play at a handful of places in their area, most of the people in that area who do anything artistic know each other, and when they can swing it they go on tour. Most importantly, they do not have the pervasive money problems that everyone I know in New York has, so they have more time to devote to making quality art. This looks like a pretty great life to me. Cost of living in a big city is legit fucked up. People in New York who don’t even know each other that well will casually ask each other what they pay in rent, and this is not seen as rude or strange; everyone is trying to gather intel, all the time. I have had a full-time job since I was in college and very nearly half of my income goes towards rent. For my less gainfully employed colleagues, the numbers are even worse. And rent is just the beginning: things that wouldn’t even occur to you, like car insurance, cost just a ridiculous amount more here than anywhere else. Basically, if you live in a big city, your cost of living is a sort of premium you pay to have access to the resources of the city. So if you’re not taking advantage of everything that’s going on, you’re not making the most of your investment. Those free movies in the park in summer? They’re not free. You already paid for them.
The internet has made it a lot easier to get your music heard, which means it is a little less important to be attached to a specific place than it used to be. If your shit is good and you keep hustling on a local level, someone will eventually notice. If you don’t live in a big city, and are considering moving to one to further your musical career, consider the following:
Where are you looking to live? The particular neighborhood or area where the thing you want to do is will change over time. Do your research. Talk to people who live there who are not realtors.
Once you know where you’re looking to live, how much will it cost? Look on Craigslist and see how much apartments are going for. If you’re new to a place, you’re probably going to be subletting rather than signing a lease right off the bat. But even subletting requires money up front: usually 1 month’s rent and 1 month security; sometimes 2 months’ rent and 1 month security. Rent is just the big one. You’ll also be responsible for utilities probably not included in your rent. And you’ll have to eat, and get around, which either means finding out the cost of public transit or gas if you have a car. And especially in the beginning when you don’t know anyone, you’re going to have to spend some money to go to shows and meet people. If you’re serious about making a big life change, know what you’re up against financially. If you live very far away from the place you’re moving to, you might have to take a place sight unseen, which means every possible problem you can have with landlords or roommates might happen. This is just a risk you take on living anywhere, of course, but it’s something to think about.
How can you get the money you need? The more different kinds of job skills you have, the better. Are you going to work a 9 to 5? This is more stable, but will impact your ability to tour. Are you going to work something irregular and shift-based, like food service or bartending? This gives you more flexibility, but a less stable income, requiring you to be thriftier. Every strategy has its pros and cons. Don’t make a big move until you’ve thought it through, and hang onto enough money for a bus ticket home in case it all goes to shit.
Once you get there and have some money, how are you going to proceed? If you already have a band and you’re all moving together, make sure everyone’s on the same page. If you’re trying to find a band, you are freer to make decisions as they come along but it will take longer to get started doing something. Basically, you need to think of places you want to play and meet people who play and hang out there. How long it takes to feel established somewhere depends a little bit on your social aptitude but mostly on luck.
Do you know anyone who lives in this place already? This helps immeasurably. A close friend or family member might let you sleep on the couch for a little while while you find a place. A more distant acquaintance will at least be able to introduce you to some people, and give you advice. Whatever your plan is, talk to your local friends and family about it. Their input will be valuable for making decisions.
You need good answers to 1-4 before you make a move. Before you make a decision, consider the alternative. Are the things you want achievable where you are now? Is there more you could be doing to get there? It doesn’t take much to have a scene. You basically just need one or more venues, and a handful of people of which some percentage can be relied upon to come to shows. You and your friends and your friends’ friends are more powerful than you think you are. Nothing is going to happen for you just because you moved somewhere and have aspirations. You are surrounded by people with aspirations. If you go to a more competitive place for opportunities, get ready to work like a fucking dog for years with no guarantee of success. Get ready to be humbled, disillusioned, and crushed. The experience will change you, and it might not work out the way you wanted.
This is not to say it’s all bad, or that you’re naive for thinking about making a big life change to pursue music. It is immensely powerful to be surrounded by like-minded people, and to feel a part of something. And for myself, and most people I know who make art, it was never a choice. Art is what we have to do to stand any chance of being happy. If this is how you feel, you need to put yourself in the best situation to make art, and part of doing that might mean neglecting things you find comfortable and familiar. Just adjust your expectations. Success is a combination of persistence and luck. Moving to a big music town increases your luck, but you’re still going to need the persistence. I’m ultimately happy with my decision to remain in New York, but I recognize the sacrifices it involves and the ways my life could be better if I left.
I know a lot of people who came up in New York, got fed up with the pressure and expense, and are leading happy, productive artistic lives elsewhere. This is not admitting defeat, it is choosing the life you think will make you happiest. I also know a lot of people who grew up elsewhere, and always knew something was missing, and have found it here. For all anyone knows, they might have found it somewhere else just as easily, but you can only ever tell these things in retrospect. All you can do is figure out what you want as best you can. No one else is allowed to define success for you. There are many ways to be a musician. If playing quietly on the couch by yourself after everyone has gone to sleep makes you happy and you do that, you are a success. If doing a gig once a month at your local bar for the same five or six friends makes you happy and you do that, you are a success. If playing a sold out show at Madison Square Garden makes you happy and you do that, fuck you, I’m jealous, I admit it.