If you want to sing or play music for a living, you probably know cities like Nashville, Los Angeles and New York are where lots of musicians go to “make it.” But while the traditional music hubs have countless venues, record labels and recording studios, they also have sky-high costs of living and fierce competition for paying gigs.
These days, you don’t have to go to the obvious destinations to get your big break. Here are five less ubiquitous but still happening music cities where you can go if you want to earn a living making music.
In this western North Carolina city – located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains – the music scene is a big deal. In fact, it’s such a big deal that Rolling Stone dubbed it “the new must-visit music city.”
Asheville’s music roots are in the bluegrass genre, but the current scene is pretty eclectic, with local venues featuring live acts of any genre you could think of, from Americana to alt rock, jazz, electronica and more.
Asheville has venues of every type, genre and size, from the smaller, funky Odditorium to the iconic concert venue the Orange Peel, which has a 1,000+ capacity and occasionally hosts big-name acts along with a line-up of top local artists.
Another popular spot is the Mothlight, a music venue whose mission is to “provide a home for local and traveling musicians alike who value creative artistic expression and intellectual freedom.”
Even more classically-inclined musicians can make their mark in Asheville, which boasts its own professional opera and orchestra companies, the Asheville Lyric Opera and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra.
Though music venues abound, musicians don’t even necessarily need to book a venue to get in front of an audience. Asheville’s street music scene is legendary, and you can find talented buskers on many of the city’s sidewalks, performing for tips.
Asheville is also home to the highly-regarded Echo Mountain Recording Studios, which counts the Zac Brown Band and Steve Martin among its past clients.
As for Asheville’s livability, starving artists will likely fare better here than in one of the major music hubs like New York or L.A. While the overall cost of living for Asheville is higher than the rest of North Carolina, it’s right on par with the national index, according to AreaVibes.com.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a non-profit think tank that carries out economic research, a single adult living in the Asheville metro area needs to budget a total of $3,232 per month to cover basic living expenses such as housing, food, transportation and other needs.
Louisville, Kentucky is chock-full of hip venues and great music. The city was named one of “America’s Best Music Scenes” by Time.com, a title it has certainly earned. Aspiring musicians will find no shortage of enthusiastic fans here – Louisvillians love their local music scene.
The local public radio station, WFPK, features local alternative artists in addition to more widely-known ones. The station also hosts a weekly series called “Live Lunch” during which artists perform live in front of an audience in the station’s performance studio.
WFPK gives local musicians yet another opportunity to perform at its Waterfront Wednesday Concert Series. Held on the last Wednesday of the month and lasting from April through September, Waterfront Wednesdays showcases emerging artists who have been featured on the radio station.
Louisville also has plenty of traditional venues, including Headliners Music Hall, which hosts rock, metal, acoustic, hip-hop and alternative acts from both the local and national level. The bar Zanzabar, another popular venue, is a more intimate space you can go to see local or touring acts while having dinner or drinks.
The cost of living in Louisville tends to be a little lower than the overall U.S. For monthly budgeting, expect to spend around $2,682 on living expenses.
If you’re surprised to hear that Madison, Wisconsin has a great music community, you shouldn’t be. This college town – home to the University of Wisconsin – has been churning out talented artists for years. It’s where albums like Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish” were recorded, at producer Butch Vig’s Smart Studios. It’s also the place where Vig started the band Garbage.
Some of the top venues in the area attract big-name and budding talent alike. The Sylvee, Overture Center for the Arts and the Alliant Energy Center– to name just a few – all regularly welcome local artists to the stage to participate in the rich culture of live music that exemplifies Madison.
At the same time, a flurry of musician-led development programs for new artists are ushering in the next wave of talent. The Madison Music Foundry offers 17 studios and a comfortable atmosphere for musicians to learn, rehearse and record, while programs like the Girls Rock Camp offer the area’s next generation of artists instruction on a variety of instruments and the chance to play for a live audience.
Not only is Madison a top spot for musicians, but it also consistently makes it onto lists of great places to live. Aside from the diverse music scene, Madison has great food, tons to do and plenty of job opportunities.
EPI says that a single adult should budget $3,108 per month for basic living expenses.
Minneapolis, Minnesota is a major player in music history, cultivating the early careers of such legends as Prince and Bob Dylan. All these years later, the city still has a fabulous music scene full of local artists who are blazing new trails.
There’s no shortage of venues to jump-start up-and-coming talent. First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, perhaps Minneapolis’ most iconic venue, is the historic club that was used as a filming location for many scenes in Prince’s movie “Purple Rain.” Today, the club continues its long tradition of showcasing both emerging and well-known talent. The whole building is actually two venues, with smaller, lesser known acts playing the 7thStreet Entry while bigger acts play the main First Avenue room.
Icehouse, a two-story restaurant, bar and live music venue, is another great spot for local musicians to play. For more unique performers, the Cedar Cultural Center is a haven. The Cedar is a nonprofit music venue whose mission is “to promote intercultural appreciation and understanding through the presentation of global music and dance.” The Cedar features a wide variety of programming and performances from both local and national artists that include a variety of genres, such as global roots, folk, indie, experimental, bluegrass, Americana and blues.
It doesn’t take much looking to find a staggering number of bars, dance clubs and speakeasies throughout the city that make Minneapolis one of the best metro areas for getting booked.
Minneapolis is another frequently-ranked top place to live, with plenty to do for artsy and outdoorsy types alike. Each month, expect to need around $3,081 for basic living expenses.
Historically, the city of Omaha, Nebraska has been a hot spot for talented musicians. It began in the early twenties, when the Dreamland Ballroom was booking acts like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the Nat King Cole Trio.
While the Dreamland Ballroom closed in the sixties, the spirit of live music lives on in Omaha. Not only is the city a popular tour stop for some of the country’s foremost musicians, the music stylings of the locals can be heard in bars and clubs throughout the city, making it a great place for new artists to get in front of an audience.
The Sokol Auditorium and Underground, a popular venue, regularly hosts local and touring indie rock bands. The Waiting Room lounge features live music nearly every night of the week.
You can’t talk about the music scene in Omaha without bringing up Saddle Creek Records. The nationally-renowned independent record label was founded in Omaha in 1993. Some of the groups that have been signed to the label since its inception include Azure Ray, Bright Eyes and the Faint.
Right next door to Saddle Creek Records is the Slowdown, a club and music venue named after the band Slowdown Virginia (which split up in 1995 and reformed as the band Cursive), one of the label’s first and favorite bands. The Slowdown’s lineup features both emerging and well-known musicians.
The cost of living in Omaha is fairly reasonable, as it’s a little lower than the national average. A single adult would need around $2,863 for living expenses each month, according to EPI.
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