A guide for musicians considering the move East or West
The bi-coastal feud between New York and Los Angeles has waged on furiously for decades. You’ll hear the digs from New Yorkers: “People in LA are fake”, “You can’t walk anywhere”, “What’s life without spring and fall?”. And you’ll hear shots back from Angelinos: “New Yorkers are so uptight”, “Why would I want snowstorms in April?”, “In-N-Out puts Shake Shack to shame”.
But does the competitiveness stem from a deep-seated jealousy of what the other city has to offer? Or is there a genuine basis for the beef?
I made the move recently, leaving behind the dense, dynamic urban jungle for the perennially sunny, sprawling oasis. Culturally, the two cities couldn’t be more similar: large young, liberal populations, diverse food options, and the frontlines of trendsetting (for better or worse). But when it comes to lifestyle, day-to-day, and the music scenes, LA and New York can feel worlds apart.
Considering the trek east, or perhaps a little westward expansion? Here are some pointers to help with your decision.
It goes without saying that each city has its own aesthetic and, accordingly, attracts certain genres. Generalizing broadly, more pop- and commercially-oriented sounds find their home on the West Coast. There’s a huge opportunity to join writer’s circles or meet and grab studio time with a synth-pop/R&B/chillwave singer. However, in my first fortnight here, at least five people told me that artists who move to LA end up selling out. So, proceed with caution.
And with the omnipresence of the film industry in LA, a lot of musicians and producers drift into film scoring – not to mention the extra bucks floating around.
On the other hand, New York will forever be the epicenter of jazz, with the Village Vanguard, Apollo Theater, Minton’s Playhouse, and many more housing hundreds of years of history. It also wins out in the world music and electronic categories (see: 72-hour Berlin-style raves deep in Bushwick).
Indie, singer-songwriter, and hip-hop are mostly a wash, especially as the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry still blazes on. By no means will you be unable to find a high level of jazz in LA or a cheap, indie basement show in NY – they’ll just require some extra digging.
Quality vs. Quantity
If you pay rent in New York, you don’t need to hear about hustling for that monthly payment. For the same price of your windowless, 60-square-foot, 5th floor walk-up, it’s likely you’ll be able to afford an open-concept, Bauhaus-influenced, two-bedroom villa in Santa Monica (did someone say backyard?). Ok, maybe not quite that, but you get the point.
At the simplest level, LA just has more to offer. It’s a bigger city, with freeways branching out endlessly from its heart. It wouldn’t be rare for you to jam at a studio 15 miles north in the valley or head to a concert 20 miles east in Highland Park. Hand-in-hand with LA’s affordability comes more up-and-coming, amateur artists and DIY, pop-up shows.
But more music doesn’t equal better music. If you’re striving to be surrounded by the best musicians and shows at all times, NYC is the move. It’s arguably the only city that’s a must-stop for every performer on tour and, due to its spatial limitations, filters through the highest level of artistry. New York’s energy is also unmistakable – you can hop from the East Village to Bushwick, Harlem to Soho, or the Lower East Side to Gowanus in a single night, catching multiple shows along the way.
Collaboration vs. Competition
If New Yorkers are known for being closed off, then it certainly spills over into the music scene. There’s traditionally been a separation between performers and audience members, lending an air of inaccessibility.
A friend of mine opened for Masego’s LA show in February; post-show, he was approached by at least seven different people, asking about his background or to collaborate in the future. In 6½ years in New York – usually attending multiple shows per month – I’d never experienced this level of openness.
And with New York’s first-class music scene comes cutthroat competition. You could be the 15th best bassist in the city and piecing together gigs. But just as with exposure to top-class shows, if you want to be challenged by the best, it’s New York.
So what do you do?
None of these generalizations are hard and fast. For instance, James Blake resides in LA, but his 100-person show at Lincoln Center overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park ended up an intimate, uniquely New York experience.
LA may be more conducive to starting a career whereas NYC would push it. Ultimately, what matters is determining how each city will affect your music.
Perhaps you’ll find that LA opens it up, injecting vitamin D into sunshine-deprived pores and life into your vocals. Or perhaps you need a dark, brooding winter for your art, whiskey in hand as you contemplate the snowfall outside the window you wish your New York apartment had.
Devansh Pasumarty is a musician, writer, improviser, and public education analyst based in Los Angeles (for now). He digs jazz, soul, and funk, and the forms they’ve taken on over time and around the world. He’s currently working through a love-hate relationship with his trumpet.