What Makes a Great Music City?
As of today, I will have been to 26 of the 50 states in this country (that’s a majority, for you mathematicians out there). I’ve seen a fair few music cities and music communities in my time touring, and as I round the corner on six years based in Boston, I’ve been thinking lately about where else I might like to live. This has led me to wonder what exactly it is that makes a great music city.
One of the things I love the most about Boston is that it’s a wonderful town for music, but it’s not really known as an “industry” town. A lot of great bands on the roots scene and beyond have gotten their start in Boston, due in no small part to its many music schools (Berklee, New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, etc.). There are local musicians who have stayed close to home and been staples of the scene for decades. There are great venues who present and support local bands, like Club Passim and the Lizard Lounge. But there isn’t the high-powered, high-pressure, schmooze-heavy energy that I sometimes feel in other cities. In Boston, the emphasis in the music scene is much more on music than business, which suits my taste.
Nashville, by contrast, is a rapidly growing and well-known industry town. It feels like I see a friend move to Nashville every other day (this feeling is validated by the fact that Nashville has been recently ranked by Forbes and other publications as one of America’s fastest-growing cities). And its reputation as Music City is not an unearned one, as any ND reader would know. I have to say that I sometimes get a bit uncomfortable at events like AmericanaFest, which took place last week, where everywhere you look someone is talking about their publicist, their single release, their publishing deal, the development of their brand. Nashville has a bit too much of this energy for my taste, but it’s got more great music per capita than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been. (And great tacos.) And the flip side of the schmoozy vibe is that you’re surrounded by people who are well-connected in the industry, who work hard, and who are committed to success.
Despite their differences, though, there’s a crucial thing that Nashville and Boston have in common: musicians go to each other’s shows. This, to me, is one of the indicators of a great music city with a thriving local scene. Musicians tend to have friends in many towns, and it’s always a nice feeling to have friends come to your show when you’re on tour in a new town, or to support the friends who are passing through your town when you’re at home.
The Boston music scene has a number of mainstays who aren’t musicians. They keep the music scene alive in a serious way, and every good music community has them. They’re dedicated music lovers who go see live music multiple nights a week, bring friends, buy merch, donate to artists’ crowdfunding campaigns, and volunteer at local music nonprofits. Musicians know these folks by name. These are the people who stay for the whole show, rather than just the band they came to see, to check out some new artists. That kind of behavior is among the norms that develop at certain venues and certain towns, and the mainstay folks — whether they’re music fans or musicians on a night off — have a crucial role to play in creating those norms.
Another key element of a good music city has to do with the balance between local and touring acts at venues. As many venues become owned and operated by national production and booking companies, local independent bands start losing gigs to touring bands with good publicity and industry connections. On the flip side, there are venues that only book local acts, which makes it difficult for out-of-town bands to develop an audience in new areas. The best music venues have a healthy balance of both, and I believe that locally operated venues tend to do this better than nationalized ones. They keep an eye out for new talent coming through the area and will put them on bills with local artists who can draw a consistent crowd. This is why it’s great to have the kind of crowd that stays for the whole show! We’ve had local openers in new towns who were responsible for bringing out new fans, and we’ve also been the local openers who helped expose our audience to new music. It can be a beautifully symbiotic relationship when done well.
Lastly, I can’t talk about music cities without bringing up a question on every musician’s mind these days: Can I afford to live where I live? New York City, though it’s an incredible cultural capital, is basically unaffordable for many people in the so-called “creative class.” Boston is right behind New York, with the rent rising constantly and the affordable neighborhoods moving farther and farther out from the city proper. The cycle of gentrification is an old one – creative artist types who don’t make much money move into a low-income area. Eventually, the rent rises, the artists displace the working-class folks who used to live there, and the area becomes “cool” and “funky.” Then middle-class and wealthy people move in, eventually displacing the artists who made the neighborhood attractive to them in the first place. Rent rises, apartment buildings are converted into condos, and low-income folks (including artists) are pushed out to the fringes of the cities. I won’t pretend to be an expert on gentrification, but I do believe that artists, who often end up being the first wave of gentrification, have a responsibility to get involved in affordable housing issues where they live.
But it’s also more complicated than just the cost of living. New York is laughably expensive, yes, but any decent musician can work every night of the week, sometimes playing multiple gigs, if they’ve got some hustle. Nashville is more affordable than both New York and Boston, but it’s difficult to play gigs locally – most Nashville musicians spend much of their time working in studios or touring, which isn’t for everyone. And smaller cities will be cheaper, sure, but there will be much less work available. Like anything else, it’s a tradeoff.
The more I see, the more I learn about what’s possible for a music scene, or a music city, to be. Wherever I end up next, I hope I’ll find my new favorite venue, my favorite long-running local residency, my favorite live music bar – the hidden gems that are really the backbone of a music city. There are many different ways to build a music scene, and I feel lucky to live in one that’s tight-knit and supportive, and that has outposts all over the country.