Disclaimer: This article is one man's view.
In short, yes. Location matters in any career, and this is especially true in music. If a town is inundated with plumbers, it’s probably not a good place to start a career as a plumber. You should always be looking for where the opportunities are.
That said, it’s not like every musician has to pick up and move to L.A. or Nashville to find success. Depending on what you want to do with your career, you can make any number of living arrangements work. There are bands and bars and festivals everywhere. You can make a go of it if you put in the work!
It’s important to realize that there are several “music cities” scattered across the world. L.A, Nashville, New York, Austin, Toronto, London – all of these centers have very high concentrations of artists and people making a living in the music industry.
In almost any reasonably sized city, there will be a music industry presence – small labels, maybe a management company – but they will mostly be small. So, if you’re an artist rubbing shoulders with industry, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with fairly small fish for the most part.
When you move to L.A. or Toronto you immediately increase your chances of meeting people who will have a truly measurable effect on your career.
What you must figure out for yourself is where you want your career to take you and what exactly you want to be doing.
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When You Should Move To A Music City
I don’t want the take away from this article by saying that everyone should pick up and move to Nashville, because that definitely isn’t the answer. The answer is having goals and knowing how to achieve them.
Here are some thoughts on when you should move to a music city depending on what your goals are.
If You're An Artist
In my young career, I have definitely learned how useful it can be to live in a music city. As a Canadian artist, moving to Toronto is definitely on my mind, despite the fact that I live in a city that actually has a fair bit of industry.
If you are an artist, and you’re feeling like you’ve exhausted what your local scene has to offer, maybe it’s time to move. A bigger city offers new musical connections and new, improved business connections.
As an artist, a move can provide new musical inspiration. If you’re feeling stuck, try a change of pace! Moving to a place with rich musical history can be hugely inspirational for many people.
If You're Interested In The Industry Or Business Side Of Music
Depending on what part of the industry you’re interested in, moving could definitely be a good option. Working with labels, licensing, music programming, and working for larger management companies may require a move.
That said, promoting shows, event organizing, festival booking, and even lower scale artist booking/management is all possible from a smaller center. You’ll just find yourself traveling to bigger cities for meetings, conferences, and other events often.
If You're A Side-Musician
If you are a side-musician, it’s quite possible that moving can be good for your career. There are higher-caliber gigs, more musicians, more low-key weekday gigs, etc. in the right locations. Simply being in a place where there’s lots of music can be very fun.
That said, being a side-musician involves a lot of time spent building connections and moving up the ladder. You may move to the big city, find it tremendously expensive, become a small fish in a big pond, and simply burn out.
If you move back a couple years later, you may also find that some of your reliable gigs have been taken over by other musicians, which can be very disappointing.
When You Should Stay In Your City
There are also times when staying in your city is a great decision. Here are some things you should be thinking about.
As An Artist
I know several artists whose careers are doing quite well, and they have opted to stay in Winnipeg instead of moving to Toronto.
There are many reasons for this, but I think it boils down to a couple things.
Big cities are expensive, so if you're making a comfortable living for yourself without having to get other jobs, moving might not be in the cards. Sometimes, this outweighs all other considerations.
Sometimes, you’re simply the most comfortable and creative in your hometown, and you just don’t want to mess with that.
As An Industry Person
As I mentioned before, there are some music industry jobs that require you to stay in your hometown. Concert promotion, event organizing, festival booking are the main ones. But also live sound engineering, lighting, stage managing, all of these don’t require moving, though they may require going on the road.
You may also decide to stay in your hometown in order to bolster the local scene. It’s hugely important to have a couple of good managers, a label or two, a booking agent, and so on, even in a small scene.
As A Side-Musician
If you’re making a comfortable living without any supplemental income, don’t move. You’ve got it good. Unless you’re sure that the opportunities you’ll get from moving are worth it, just try to gig within your local scene and keep building your career.
Downsides Of Music Cities
Nobody said moving was going to be easy. In fact, it’s almost definitely going to be hard. Here are a few things to be prepared for:
- You’ll be a small fish in a big pond. You may have built up a great hometown audience, but that may all disappear in a new center. There is a ton of competition, everyone is vying for the same amount of attention, and it may feel overwhelming.
- Competition for any music-related position will be fierce. Everyone has similar experience and there are only so many jobs. Be prepared to send out quite a few applications when looking for an industry job.
- Cost of living will be high and your income will be low. Music cities (with the exception of Nashville, weirdly) tend to be very expensive. Be prepared to get a second job, and live tight to the line.
Alternatives To Moving
There are always ways to avoid moving. As I said before, I know several artists who have consciously opted against living in a major center. If you choose to do things this way, you’ll need to work at making those connections some other way.
You may need to tour and travel a lot. You’ll want to be playing those major centers consistently, and you’ll want to be attending all the major conferences and events.
You’ll need to focus on online marketing and radio promotion. Most of the major Spotify playlist curators and the major trend-settings radio stations are in major centers. You’ll need to focus your efforts in these areas to make an impact.
Build your hometown crowd. A strong hometown crowd goes a long way towards capturing the attention of industry people.