It isn’t Bob Dylan’s or Simon & Garfunkel’s New York anymore. Nor that of Lou Reed, Rosanne Cash, Leonard Cohen, or Patti Smith. (It’s definitely not the fictionalized, drab NYC of Inside Llewyn Davis.) Hell, it’s not even the same NYC from when Ryan Adams, Norah Jones or Sharon Van Etten made waves.
New York belongs to whoever moves or comes of age here next. “Remember that most artists in NYC are from somewhere else. So you should fit right in,” says George See, a.k.a “Shimmy” of the blog GaragePunkNYC.It’s a big pond but with many tributaries. Indie-psychedelic band Backwords’ Brian Russ says, “Be it bands, visual art at gallery spaces, literary events, comedy events, films, there are at least 25 high quality artistic events you can take part in any night of the week, pretty much 365 days a year. But on the flip side of this – it’s also one of the biggest challenges we all face as artists – how to get our voices heard amongst a vast sea of choices.”
Acoustic music is on the rise again. Erin Bru of honky-tonk band The Defibulators (whose music reminds one of Waylon Jennings if he called NYC home) jokes, “You can’t walk down the street in Brooklyn anymore without your mustache getting caught in a banjo.”
That’s not just true for original music. Jacob Silver, bassist and music booker for the venue Pete’s Candy Store, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, says, “When I first moved to NYC in 2003, I didn’t see much traditional folk music being played. Nowadays, I see tons of music played by people who have really studied traditional styles. Some people play it the traditional way and some are really taking it to a whole new level.”
New York is a city of constant turnover and disruption, energizing and morphing the physical and musical geography. Versatile folksinger Ramblin’ Andy Miller sees opportunity in the breadth and depth, saying, “I used to live in Portland, and once a month was about the most we could play without over-saturating the market. Here, I play all the time.”
Bru points out that economics and stylistic eclecticism run hand in hand. “Since NYC isn’t dominated by one single genre of music, musicians here are often fluent in various styles to give themselves access to the wider job market.”
RENT: NOT JUST A MUSICAL
In 1964, Simon & Garfunkel sang “Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleeker Street.” In post Mayor Bloomberg-NYC, Brooklyn rents recently surpassed San Francisco as the second highest in the U.S., behind Manhattan. (David Byrne addressed this issue’s impact on artists in a widely-shared 2013 editorial written for Creative Time Reports.)
Jason Russo, leader of indie rock mainstays Hopewell and homespun indie folk ensemble Common Prayer, says, “I often have to choose between working on music versus making rent. I’ve managed, but it’s not been easy.”
Olivia Mancini, who makes indie pop that sounds like Buddy Holly, echoes, “The high cost of living means I have to spend more time working my ‘day jobs,’ which translates into fewer hours left for what is supposed to be my primary occupation.”
Rising rents accelerate change. Mancini observes, “I see artists moving further and further out into the boroughs as more of what were artist enclaves turn into hotspots.” The cost of living doesn’t just affect musicians, either.
Ukulele-wielding femme fatale songstress Ellia Bisker of Sweet Soubrette (whose indie-pop albumBurning City just came out) says, “A lot of smaller venues that were friendly to emerging artists have closed in the past ten years because of the financial pressures of skyrocketing rents. Ditto for music stores for instruments and a few of the more affordable rehearsal spaces.”
Bushwick’s Goodbye Blue Monday is the latest casualty, reported to be closing at press time. It fostered up-and-coming artists and encouraged musical experimentation and arty weirdness – making it a quintessentially New York experience.
There is a silver lining, with artists earning more at their day jobs here.
HOW DO YOU GET TO CARNEGIE HALL?
“Without the energy of all the humans, this place is just a dump,” jokes Russo, continuing, “NYC’s greatest resource is the people.”
Bisker cites personal examples, saying “I met my current keyboard player hanging out after a mutual friend’s show. I found a songwriting partner by basically accosting him after seeing his band play for the first time.”
Rising singer-songwriter So Brown got a boost from top shelf NYC musicians, which came about after a trip to the sex store Toys In Babeland. Outside, she ran into a friend in the neighborhood. “He suggested I check out a show that night, Sasha Dobson at Rockwood Music Hall,” she remembers. That led, one-by-one over time, to her meeting Dobson, Tony Scherr, Jim Campilongo, Adam Levy, and Norah Jones, each of whom appear on her lovely new album Point Legere.
Keeping a band together may be harder than forming one. Mancini advises, “Recognize that most of the time your bandmates are putting in a lot of effort for minimal compensation beyond the joy of playing with you. I try to give my bandmates a lot of musical freedom – and I bring beer to practice.”
Bru suggests, “You’ve got to find that place where you would play and sing the same as if you were standing in the middle of an open field.” Rehearsal spaces are generally available by the hour or as monthly leases, the latter sometimes shared with other bands to defray costs. The Sweatshop in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Ultra Sound in Midtown, Manhattan are hourly spaces with house drum kits and amps.
Saltlands in DUMBO, Brooklyn, is a community of rehearsal rooms, studios, and musicians. “We play on each other’s records, we share equipment and expertise, but sometimes it’s just as simple as saying hello in the hallway,” says Steve Salett of indie-folk project The Poison Tree, who runs Saltlands with others. “Many of us work in creative music full time and that’s a tough gig so we have to help each other out. There is a sense that the better each of us does, the more opportunities find their way into our little basement.” Plus, it’s expanding. “We are always meeting new people and building new rooms,” he adds.
Another option exists, if you and your bandmates do the dishes. Backwords lived in a house in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn for two years, rehearsing and recording two albums in the basement.
Gigs are no guarantee right away. The Lumineers’ Jeremiah Fraites told The New York Times of his experiences living in New York before moving to Denver, “We always wanted to play the Living Room, or Pianos, or the Mercury Lounge, but we never got anywhere close to that.”
Ramblin’ Andy laughs, telling me, “Most of the shows when I started out were terrible. Any club that charges a high cover, gives you a terrible time at night, and then gets upset when nobody shows up – it’s a bad business model. There’s never a built-in crowd.”
“Everybody comes in and sees their friend’s band and shuffles out,” Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers told the Times. “It was impossible to build, to break through that.” My own indie-Americana band, Leland Sundries, took shows on Easter and Super Bowl Sunday early on.
Brian Russ suggests, “Go out to a lot of shows. When you become friends with other bands, a lot of doors open up. Don’t leave a gig after your set – sure we all have work in the morning – but it’s essential to check out each others’ music.”
FIRST WE TAKE MANHATTAN
“There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening,” sang Leonard Cohen in 1971’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” A few blocks away on the Lower East Side,Rockwood Music Hall is a favorite of musicians and a hub of the acoustic music scene, with three rich-sounding stages of varying sizes.The Sidewalk Café in the East Village is the center of the anti-folk scene. Bisker says, “The Sidewalk open mic [on Mondays] is legendary. There’s a lot of talent and a good vibe.”
Miller cites Caffe Vivaldi in the West Village (or Greenwich Village) as among his favorites to play. Open mic is on Mondays. Nearby on the same night, blues musicians jam at the Red Lion. Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar in Turtle Bay, Manhattan hosts a bluegrass jam on Sunday and Monday, an open Irish jam on Tuesdays, and an open mic on Wednesdays. Thursdays are reserved for the longest-running Irish seisún in America.
Uptown lies atmospheric Postcrypt Coffeehouse, below a church on Columbia University’s campus, established in 1964. Despite a tiny capacity, it recently hosted Spirit Family Reunion. Among larger venues, Hill Country Live is a Manhattan center for Americana, blues, and country music that recently established a Brooklyn satellite. (Many venues provide amps and drum kits. Cabs are plentiful but expensive so many musicians travel by bicycle or subway.)
THIS IS BROOKLYN COUNTRY
Miller says Brooklyn is now the center of the music scene. “Thetruth is, the Lower East Side is very different than it used to be and you’ll be mostly playing in Brooklyn,” he says.
It’s thirteen miles from Newtown Creek in Greenpoint to Coney Island (by bike), so one part of Brooklyn is quite far from another. Olivia Mancini points out, “New York abounds with venues and with people who might not be able to see you on a given Saturday but will come out if you’re playing their neighborhood the following Tuesday.”
Over and over, artists cited Jalopy in Red Hook and Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg as among their favorites. “Pete’s has the bonus of being a converted old railroad car with a warm, old-timey vibe,” adds Mancini.
Pete’s talent booker Jake Silver says, “I seek a spark, something that instantly engages me, draws me in, makes me want to hear more. It doesn’t have to be a polished recording, just something that takes me out of the world I’m in and into the world of the artist.” He also admonishes, ‘Be friendly to the staff!”
Not far from Pete’s on one of the most trafficked blocks in Williamsburg is Spike Hill. Mancini says, “I always have a great time at Spike Hill. It’s usually free admission and consequently boasts appreciative and attentive audiences. I love Rocket Hub’s open mic on Tuesday nights. Always eclectic, often inspirational, the weekly lineups draw performers from all over the city.”
Gustavo Rodriguez books Spike Hill and plays in the band Brian & Silbin. He also books Queens’LIC Bar, a songwriter-friendly venue to which The Who donated a PA after Hurricane Sandy. Rodriguez says, “Ideally, I want artists that are ready both artistically and in terms of audience/following – and artists that know how to put on ashow! They don’t have to wear leopard skin and jump off of amps but they have to have some kind of on stage presence and charisma that will connect with an audience, something that lets people in.”
Rodriguez recommends thick skin, saying, “This is a tough town to be an artist. Manage your expectations and get ready to be tested. Don’t come here thinking there’s clubs full of people just waiting to hear your original music.” He also recommends, “Don’t book shows every night of the week. You will wear out your welcome with venues very quickly.”
Jalopy is the center of the traditional scene. Tuesday is open mic night but Jalopy goes one further in fostering community, offering classes and workshops on everything from clawhammer banjo to harmony singing and selling affordable, vintage instruments. Morgan O’Kane – whose hard-driving album The One They Call Wind just came out – enjoys Roots & Ruckus on Wednesdays, which showcases traditional folk performers in half hour sets. “It’s a great night for anyone ready to play their heart out for a great crowd in a great space.”
Country musicians gravitate to Skinny Dennis in Williamsburg, which has a steady, younger crowd and Hank’s Saloon in Boerum Hill, which may have a population of middle-aged drunks or of rowdy fans, depending on the night. Rockabilly/noir singer Ruby Rae once played a show during which Jimmy Fallon wandered in.
The city’s best old-time music jam takes place on Mondays at Lowlands Bar in Gowanus while the recently re-opened Sunny’s in Red Hook, which saw significant damage in Hurricane Sandy, hosts a Saturday night old-time, folk, and bluegrass jam.
Newer venues are constantly opening – or reopening – continuing to disburse the scene. Russo attests, “The scene is the same old thing, I just need a bike to get to it [now].” Freddy’s, a beloved Prospect Heights joint immortalized in song by Andy Friedman, was forced to close when The Barclay’s Center was built, reopening several years later in South Slope. The most recent roots music venues to open are Bootleg in Bushwick, Beast of Bourbon in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bar Chord in Ditmas Park. Opened in 2013, Baby’s All Right has become a standard bearer for indie rock. Russ says, “They treat bands really well and the sound is great.”
Shimmy says, “Whether the venues for the music you’re into are in Ridgewood, Park Slope, or Spanish Harlem, just go where the music is good.”
SWUNG ON MY OLD GUITAR, GRABBED HOLD OF A SUBWAY CAR
Non-traditional shows are on the upswing. Miller remembers, “My first show was at a farmers market in Fort Greene.” Brooklyn and Queens are home to numerous DIY venues, many of which are in Bushwick.
Banjo player Morgan O’Kane – whose hard-driving album The One They Call The Wind just came out – often plays for tips in the subways. He says, “Busking in NYC has been really good to me. It’s a beautiful experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Busking also used to be a part of Miller’s earnings. “I would work in parks. I’d set up near the Central Park Zoo or ice skating rinks or in other parks where families hang out and are just looking to have fun. Sometimes you’ll only make five dollars in two hours, but sometimes I made hundreds.”
57 VENUES (SOME OF THEM GONE)
Backwords has played 57 different New York venues. Russ says, “We still haven’t figured it all out – in terms of making a living out of the art – but when you think about it almost no one ever does. In New York City, there are at least a thousand really good bands. When you start taking it all in, you see the beauty of this community. In the long run, sure, one or two bands will rise up, get signed, and become household names, but it’s more so about challenging each other. It can be difficult to circle back to the reasons you came here in the first place – but when you focus on those – they always revolve around – you came here because you had an artistic vision inside of you that only Brooklyn or NYC could bring out.”
Miller says, “It’s a great town for a working musician. You can play five nights a week and get paid, but it’s a hard town to get discovered in. [But] all of the opportunities to play live and the competition will make you a much, much better performer and musician.”
Many things in New York have changes since Levon Helm encapsulated his experience in the documentary The Last Waltz, but some aspects of the NYC experience remain the same. “New York, it was an adult portion. It was an adult dose. So it took a couple of trips to get into it. You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off. As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it.”