ithout question, nearly every musician has been given this advice at one point or another: “If you want to make it in this business, you have to move to New York or Los Angeles.”
New York. Los Angeles. The only two cities in existence. Maybe Chicago.
The allure is undeniable. Although jazz history began in New Orleans, it is New York that became the musician’s mecca. The romantic dream of life in the big city. Louis Armstrong headed up north during the exodus to join the Fletcher Henderson band. The Gil Evans writing factory set up shop in a low-key apartment in the thick. Et al. In Los Angeles, the grandeur of Hollywood and the historic sound stages goad countless young music students each year into shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for a stab at the scene. Regardless of which city a musician chooses, the fundamental goal remains the same: A life of struggle with the payoff of an appreciative audience, a community of like-minded progressives, and perhaps — a chance at a golden opportunity.
Music is fading. It is becoming less important as an art. What exists in the mainstream falls extremely short in content & quality compared to what shines in the progressive jazz & classical scenes. Cheap effects and gimmicks outshine true musical skill. Conversely, talented artists in the minority scenes create cerebral music which can only be understood and appreciated by a very small audience of peers.
Technology is changing. The process of composing music has become entirely accessible. With tools such as GarageBand, anyone with the patience to click a mouse for a few hours can create a somewhat compelling and accurate song, if not an entire album. That can be aggregated and sold on iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby within a few days. That music can be shared with the world easily using social media networks, blogs, and mass e-mails to the right internet publications.
The live experience is dying. The internet & social media keep people in their homes, providing the public with all of the essentials — online shopping, news, weather, media…even “social interaction” (the internet provides anonymity so we can share our true feelings without physical consequence). We’re becoming well-trained introverts. We’re forgetting how to communicate with each other.
Bearing all of this in mind, the prospect of a musician’s physical location dictating the ultimate level of their success is outdated. The inherent need to seek out the Jazz utopia is role-play. We want to be Louis Armstrong. We want to live his experience. Our musical ancestors did what they did out of necessity; opportunity in other cities was scarce, and often times, natural disasters or dismal living conditions flushed them from their homes. There weren’t university jazz programs in nearly every urban area each with an academic degree plan geared towards becoming a proper jazz musician. The corporate world had not hardened art into a marketed and controlled product. They were making decisions based off of the musical climate of the time, and at that time, New York must have seemed like a beaming pillar of light.
Don’t misunderstand — the purpose of this article is not to criticize the majority of young musicians who share this dream. Quite honestly, I made a few grand efforts to move my home base to New York or Los Angeles. Each time, I found something holding me back — a wonderful job opportunity, a great quality of life, a low cost of living. I realized that largely due to the saturation of music programs in education, opportunity exists ubiquitously in our day and age. Academia has engineered a future generation of educated listeners. Although music continues the struggle to find a foothold alongside technology in our current exponential wave of change, the fact remains that orchestras, shows, bands, and other high-quality musical productions maintain residence & thrive all over the world. Touring shows allow musicians the opportunity to see the world and network while providing the flexibility to call anywhere home.
To a young student or musician weighing the decision of “should I go” but struggling with the details, I urge you to consider your own reality. Examine your life, your aspirations, your long-term goals. See them clearly. Determine if you’re going because that is where you truly want to be or if that is where you were told you were supposed to be. If you find it to be the latter, set your own goals. In the do-it-yourself era, find your own way to stand apart from others and believe wholeheartedly that you will succeed. Maybe New York and Los Angeles are not the single determining factor of a musician’s success. Perhaps in this day and age, a musician’s quality and resourcefulness will allow him or her to stand apart from the inadequate. Who knows.