Good places for singer/songwriters?
January 26, 2007 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Where are some good places for an aspiring performing songwriter to live? Not so much looking to sweep the pop music world as I am looking to find a spot on the long tail. But I've been thinking it might be helpful to look for locations where there are sizable audiences of people who regularly choose live but thoughtful music as an entertainment option and artists and venues that oblige them.

I've been writing and performing on and off for the last nine years, moving gradually from Teh Suck to the point where can often warm up an audience and I frequently get asked if I have recordings to sell. It's a hobby, one I'd enjoy leaving at that level, but for a while I've been thinking it might be worthwhile to give it a fair shake, quit hiding under the guise of an amateur, and see if I really can work harder, produce better material, and find an audience.

I live in Utah. From dabbling and living I have a small but helpful network here and some idea how to try to reach the local pockets of people I think might like what I do, but my sense is that it's probably a tougher than usual place to try to grow an audience, so I've considered changing that. I'm aware it may be hard everywhere, or that there may be harder places (during a stint in Ventura County a few years ago I was surprised to find that despite the proximity to LA and Santa Barbara, I felt there was much less going on locally there than here). But from visiting concerts and festivals or even just hitting the town in a few places across the country, I've gotten the sense there might be some better locales. For example, I was at a Dar Williams show at a coffeehouse in Bethlehem PA years ago, and was struck by the fact that the audience seemed more varied across age ranges than the teen/college/young adult crowd I see more often in my hometown. And I discovered when talking with people that many of them held "season tickets" to the shows regularly held there (not all of which were folk luminaries of the Dar Williams strata). The level of interest that seemed to indicate was intruiging to me, and I think that's part of what I'm looking for.

Some other potentially narrowing constraints:
  • I'm probably best classified in the hodgepodge taxonomic platypus category known by turns as "singer/songwriter" or "adult contemporary." (samples of nominal but possibly adequate production quality can be heard here). I'm guessing some locales are more friendly to certain styles than other. I've noticed that I do better with people over 24 or so and tend to wash right over the emo kids.
  • I'm lucky to know artists here who work hard on their art, but cooperate and enjoy association with each other rather than compete, don't have "making it big" as their primary benchmark for personal success, or take their identity as capital-A "Aahr-tists" too seriously. I've found mentoring and advice from these people very valuable. Finding other communities like that would be awesome.
  • Expensive places aren't absolutely out of the question, but somewhere you can rent even a small non-hovel for under four figures monthly is obviously a bonus.
So fellow MeFites, where have you lived (or performed yourself!) that was great for local live music? What places do you think would fit my constraints? Where would you go to build an audience? Any other general advice?

I'm aware the standard locations for this kind of thing are New York City or LA or Seattle or Nashville or Austin. I wouldn't mind at all hearing about those places and how they fit, but I'm also interested in less common suggestions too. I have some particular interest in Califoria at the moment, but *anywhere* in the world that might be good for English-speaking performers is game. Sophisticated Scandinavian city-center? Folksy town in the "flyover" U.S.? Feel free to mention it, no matter where it is, if you think it might be a good place to grow an audience.

Finally, I'm also interested in finding other forums that are good to ask this kind of question.
posted by weston to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
San Francisco?
posted by mrunderhill at 12:36 PM on January 26, 2007

It's all in who you associate with.

If you're looking for a community-minded music scene, most of the so-called "indie rock" communities I've experienced have embraced a diverse range of musical styles provided that the participants have the same values around making personally satisfying music, being part of a community, and not setting out to get rich by making toss-off music for the masses.

The Toronto indie scene supports everything from gospel-country to singer/songwriter to rap to electronic to dance to straight-up kids with guitars being earnest. The common thread is that they all have a similar interest in creating stuff for the enjoyment first. A number of them have made their living from it as well.

So what you want to find is a community with a similar worldview. With that in mind I can personally endorse Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax.
posted by loiseau at 12:42 PM on January 26, 2007

Austin Texas and coming soon SXSW
posted by raildr at 12:43 PM on January 26, 2007

Oh - and if you're interested in indie music in Canada you might want to browse
posted by loiseau at 12:43 PM on January 26, 2007

New York City is the place to be. You will struggle for non-hovel under 1000, but there is an audience for every genre under the sun here.

That said, I've heard great things about Austin, TX's music scene.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:44 PM on January 26, 2007

I hear Portland is great. There are also lots of venues to begin at here in LA
posted by DudeAsInCool at 12:48 PM on January 26, 2007

I'm in SF right now & I really haven't figured out the music community here yet. I mean, I know people who are playing... but for dimes. I hate to say this, but so far I've seen a lot of music that feels more amateur in quality than what I want to do. But that's me... and I'm still trying to discover stuff here so maybe I just haven't discovered the right people & places yet. This year I'm really trying though. All I know is that if I had started singing in San Francisco, I'd never have pursued it professionally. I found FAR more encouragement and learned a lifetime's worth from the people who encouraged me and collaborated with me when I lived in LA.

My personal favorite as far as original music is actually San Diego though, where I grew up. With clubs like the Belly Up & the Casbah & stuff, it's got some AMAZING local talent that do edgy stuff that's really cool. (I even have a friend in SD who had an all ukulele band for a while, and they were AMAZING!) It's close enough to Los Angeles that you can play & socialize with the great musicians there too. There's something to be said for having the influences of such a giant market being nearby. If that makes sense. If you want it to, it can really challenge your creativity where you might not push yourself otherwise.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:52 PM on January 26, 2007

By the way, I actually think LA is a GREAT place to be a musician. It's just that it can also wear people out. But there are SO many talented people & SO much great music... it's great to learn from, but hard to compete on the big scale. Living in LA, even the most talented people are still small fish. Thing is, if you find a way to really learn & grow from being a small fish there, you can become a big fish talentwise & take that with you wherever you go.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:57 PM on January 26, 2007

I spent 6 months playing shows in London and found it to be excellent. Very expensive, though. I've spent a little time in Portland, OR, but they seem to have lots of good bands and venues. I don't recommend Pittsburgh.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:06 PM on January 26, 2007


And not because of the silly "The Next Seattle" hype. Just because it's a nice, small city with lots of educated, artistic people.

And housing prices are low enough that you won't need to sell your soul to pay rent.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:09 PM on January 26, 2007

Athens, GA or other college town. This is similar to the Austin, TX suggestion I guess. Many many good venues and people travel from Atlanta to see certain acts. Or Atlanta proper is an option. Good music scene and cheaper than NYC/SF/London by a loooooong shot.
posted by zpousman at 1:10 PM on January 26, 2007

The reason Austin, TX is cited as one of the great musical centers of the US:
1) The history (Willie freaking Nelson)
2) The venues (Wikipedia claims over 600 venues stage live music each weekend, and I believe it).
3) The atmosphere (it's a total college town, but a lot of the college students never left, so there's a real diverse group of people).
4) SXSW and Austin City Limits are two huge music festivals hosted right in the City, not to mention Blues on the Green.
posted by muddgirl at 1:19 PM on January 26, 2007

Austin is obvious and for good reason - it's like Disneyland for adults, for those of us who either enjoy music (me) or those of us who create it (you). You'll meet lots of great musicians here, and you'll be supported in the community ie there are plenty of people living your dream also and you can hang with them and get tips from them, drink coffee with them in bad South Austin coffee shops. And Austin is fun, an oasis in the middle of the Southwest - Yeah, you're in Texas, and you don't forget it, but it's the heart of Texas, and the soul of it, and it doesn't suck. Don't think you're going to be supported financially though - there literally are singer/songwriters under every rock, behind every bush, and open mic nights are sometimes better here than showcases in other cities and I am absolutely not kidding when I say that. Having lived here fifteen years, I really can't imagine living anywhere else, though I have to say that the summers are death.

Less obvious? Fayetteville Arkansas. Another college town, maybe like Austin was forty years ago; inexpensive, fun, southern enough to be laid back but cultured enough that you don't slit your wrists; probably you'll see a foreign movie or two on the campus from time to time, you'll meet people who are cool yet warm at the same time - Arkansas is pretty nice. There've been a few singer/songwriter defections from Austin to Fayetteville (notably "Trout Fishing In America", also Emily Kaitz) and there is a fairly good music scene, or at least the makings of one. You'll find a place to live a lot less expensively than here in Austin.

Also. Don't forget the Kerrville Folk Festival. If you're really considering this as a way of life, you can't beat going there, soaking it all up, a charge or re-charge for anyone with your ambitions. It's almost impossibly cool, the level of musicianship is just out of this world, it'll either boost you enough to say "Yes, this is absolutely the life for me!" or scare you enough to say "No way can I ever make it in these waters". Either way, you'll see some of the best singer/songwriter acts on the planet putting their hearts out onstage and then get to sing with them all night around campfires, you'll swim in cold, clear creeks, get less sleep than ever before in your life, and sweat more than you've ever sweat before in your life also.

Maybe you'd want to go to Kerrville in the spring before you make up your mind to really jump into this way of life, maybe you can use Kerrville as your litmus, spend a few weeks and a few bucks and see if it's for you.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2007

Not Boston.
posted by mykescipark at 1:49 PM on January 26, 2007

Boston, Boston, Boston. It's a scene where people who are a lot like you make an actual living. The list of songwriters who got started here is quite long. Patty Larkin, Martin Sexton, Chris Smither, Kris Delmhorst, Ellis Paul... it goes on and on.

The live-music culture here is excellent. Lots of smaller, warm venues where people listen and the audience is more mature and sorta thoughtful and paying attention. And there's a lot of good potential for regional touring around the New England city venues (Burlington VT, Portland, ME, Northampton/Amherst, MA, Providence RI, Hartford, CT, the summer resorts of Block Island, Martha's Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Nantucket, down to NY (it's not that far on the train) and in the vast number of colleges. You aren't limited to just what the city has to offer; you can hit the road even if you have just a few days, and cover awesome little venues in six states with never ever more than five hours' driving.

I know this sounds left-field, but when you look at the list of grownup singer-songwriters who've come out of Boston, you have to admit there's something to this scene.
posted by Miko at 1:51 PM on January 26, 2007

mykescipark: ?
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on January 26, 2007

Chapel Hill & surrounding towns are worth checking out--the scene feels strong and lots of local artists are getting national attention these days. Could be a little more "indie" than you're looking for, but there seems to be an audience for more traditional/folk-based music as well.
posted by statolith at 2:07 PM on January 26, 2007

Portland, maybe? But I'm not sure. I’m not part of the music scene and I don’t go out much at all, but I’ve known the drummer in a heavy metal band, a female vocalist for a punk band, several jazz musicians, and an '80s-rock-style guitarist. I also know that bluegrass, folk and acoustic shows tend to get good crowds. The folks who make a living at their music are generally also teachers. Otherwise they have day jobs.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:45 PM on January 26, 2007

It's been 5 years since I lived there, but Austin did have a critical mass of players and listeners so that live music is on everyone's radar when they want entertainment. I made a good living playing music there. (Although it was in a much less crowded musical genre than singer/songwriter.)

I have two friends who are singer/songwriters currently in Austin. One has a day job, the other plays other styles of music to support himself. Although they do just fine accompanying themselves on guitar, they both have full bands. There is a good supply of willing sidemen there. Lots of good places to record. Plenty of places to perform, but most wouldn't pay enough to live on. It's not hard to get on the radio. There are several radio stations (2 college, 1 public, 1 commercial) that play local artists, live and recorded.

I now live in Portland and although I haven't been pounding the pavement looking for gigs, I think the scene here is much smaller. Portland does not appear to have the critical mass of players and listeners to create steady opportunies for live music. The musicians I know are always scrounging for gigs.

Good luck! And nice job on the tunes. You have a nice voice.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 3:02 PM on January 26, 2007

Knoxville, TN and Morgantown, WV.

Bet no-one else would recommend them.
posted by punkrockrat at 5:29 PM on January 26, 2007

I second both Athens and Atlanta, particularly Athens. I could go into greater detail but the appeal is more or less the same as Austin or Chapel Hill and that has been covered pretty thoroughly already. My e-mail is in the profile though. I can go on and on about how great Athens is all day long if you'd like me to. I loved living there and still go to hang out frequently. Atlanta, where I'm living now, and Athens are only about 60 miles apart.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 5:59 PM on January 26, 2007

Oh, and good luck!
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 6:01 PM on January 26, 2007

I have to join in the chorus of folks recommending Austin. I lived there for 5 years before moving to the Boston area, and while I love Boston and think it is a vibrant city, I don't think it quite compares to the intensity of the music scene in Austin. The entire culture of Austin is centered about it being the "Live Music Capital of the World," and it really is a major focus of daily life. Plus, in terms of cost of living, Austin is waaaaay less expensive than Boston. It would be quite challenging to find something for under four figures in the Boston area. We sold a *house* in Austin for the same price that someone here was selling a *parking space*.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 6:16 PM on January 26, 2007

Montreal is pretty good if you can handle the freezing cold. Its generally quite affordable with the lowest rents you'll find in a big city in North America. Although most day jobs are quite shitty for English folks. The scene is fairly niche oriented and it might take you a while to get going there, but its a hell of a lot of fun if you want to spend your life doing music.
posted by dobie at 8:00 PM on January 26, 2007

Fort Bragg, CA. A few active local bands, at least two other really dedicated musicians your age, (and a bunch of older ones), small town, supportive community, cheap living, great climate, right on the ocean, lots of artists (Mendocino etc), and in driving distance to San Francisco.
posted by salvia at 12:41 PM on January 27, 2007

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