“None of us are working right now, and we can only do that in a place like Philly where we can focus on making music and pay our rent with whatever we make from our art.”
I wasn’t particularly pleased to have noticed the trend, nor did Gerry Livsitanos’ words reassure me. Livsitanos, bassist for Palm, an indie rock quartet that recently relocated to Philadelphia from Hudson, New York, affirmed a pattern I’ve seen repeated over and over when talking to bands over the last few years: they move to where rent and rehearsal space is cheap. More pertinent to my interests – artists will come and perform in DC, but they probably don’t stay in town if they’re serious about making art full-time. Cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Montreal, (and for the really adventurous, Berlin) hold a much grander appeal, with their inexpensive rents and abundance of old industrial structures that can be easily converted into rehearsal space or a DIY venue.
D.C. is a culture vulture’s dream city – it offers something for everyone even as it remains small and navigable. Sadly, things are a little bit different if you’re trying to make art your primary career focus. The truth is that steep rents, lack of dedicated spaces to create (RIP Union Arts), and the lingering perception that you’ve got to leave town to make it as an artist all pose unique challenges to living the dream.
While D.C. is home to a wide variety of outstanding music venues from an audience perspective, it’s an altogether different story for the homegrown artist trying to break through. You always hear about friends and their “side hustles” – but what if your side hustle is your day job, subsidizing your creativity? There are a lot of factors at play, and sadly, economics plays a particularly outsize role. Which is why I ask: should your band move to Philadelphia?
Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love – a place where true Phanatics come through even if it’s not Always Sunny (sorry). With a population just north of 1.5 million, our nation’s first capital has plenty to offer up and coming artists: several arts-friendly neighborhoods, including Fishtown, Fairmount, and Kensington, decent proximity to major metropolitan areas on the Eastern seaboard (including D.C.!) and most importantly, cheap rent and access to rehearsal spaces.
“It would be impossible to do it in New York City, or anywhere with high rent.”
Livsitanos might have a point here: according to Neighborhood Scout, the average rental price for a studio apartment in Philadelphia starts around $900, considerably cheaper than the low end average studio price of $1500 in DC and $2500 in Williamsburg (like you’d ever live in Manhattan, noble artist). One bedroom apartments start at $1400, and two-bedrooms at $1600 – and predictably, average per room price goes down if living with multiple roommates in a group home type situation, something most D.C. residents are quite familiar with. Basically, if you and the rest of your band bunk together and split the rent, you could each be saving at least $400 a month on rent each by simply moving a couple of hours up I-95.
Of course, the next most important thing is access and affordability of rehearsal space. Finding a place to jam and work out your sound is increasingly difficult in D.C., as high demand and a constant influx of new residents puts pressure on building owners to maximize residential space. While D.C. is sorely lacking when it comes to rehearsal spaces – 7DrumCity, which recently expanded and relocated to North Capitol Street and is the only permanent one I could find within District limits – Philadelphia has us beat on this front if simply by virtue of volume and choice. Looking to book some studio time for your Hall & Oates tribute act? Check out Far Outside, Apex Rehearsal, or The Boom Room, with hourly rates between $11 and $35.
To be fair, 7DrumCity rehearsal rooms start around $25 and include quite a bit of gear for that price, but they only have four rehearsal rooms, and seem to be the only people in town that offer this service – that, or others are doing a pretty poor job letting themselves be known. Another benefit to living in Philadelphia: your neighbors are unlikely to care if your band rehearses at home, something I see as highly unlikely in our District of type-A people. The short of it is that you won’t magically be a great musician the moment you move to Philadelphia, but at least you’re giving yourself a fighting chance to practice, improve, and live a decent quality of life simply off of your art. Again, back to Livsitanos to remind you, “There’s a great music scene in Philadelphia, with really good bands and a lot of shows happening…but it’s mainly the affordable thing.”
It’s the affordable thing.
And while we’re talking about being able to pay rent, it’s worth knowing that it takes considerably longer to find a job in D.C. than it does anywhere else in the country. According to a recent DCist article (and Glassdoor) “people in the District have the slowest hiring processes compared to job seekers in other cities across the country…it takes 33.2 days on average to land a gig in the District. The average nationwide is 23.8 days.” While this is probably related to the higher proportion of government and government contractor jobs that require security clearances and background checks, it means that you might find yourself working multiple part-time jobs trying to make ends meet – precious time you could otherwise dedicate to practicing your craft.. And yes – I’m aware that DC’s larger economy means there are more opportunities to make money bartending banquets and driving for Uber or Lyft, but the reality is that you’ll have to invest a lot more by way of hours just to break even.
Also, in this Internet era, does it really matter where you live? As long as you have wifi, you can pretty much explore, learn about, and create any kind of music and art from around the world. As James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem front man, recently put it when talking about bands and artists moving to New York these days, geography is irrelevant. “Why would you live someplace you can’t afford? Also, locality doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore. A scene is not a scene of people who know each other and borrow each other’s van. A scene is a style.”
Sounds to me like yr city’s a sucker.
Listen, D.C. is a great town. Add in our rich legacy and influence in the music industry – from Chuck Brown to Fugazi to GoldLink – and the ever growing list of small and medium-sized venues, means that there are plenty of places to cut your teeth at as a performer.
“I think the nightlife/live music scene in D.C. is the biggest it’s ever been,” says Bill Spieler, General Manager and co-owner of popular venue DC9, known for booking and hosting tons of amazing bands you’ve not heard of yet, but will in the next six months. And Spieler is right – D.C. is fantastic if you want to see live music and have the money to spend on tickets. “Right now on any given night there is the capacity for 6,700 people to see live music at anyone of the many venues in the D.C. area.”
That being said, this huge amount of choice doesn’t always translate well to getting people out for your singer-songwriter night performance. “It’s still really hard for local bands to get their friends to come out and see them,” Spieler continues via email. “Friends are always complaining about being out late on a weekday night or so many things to do on the weekends. So I think it is still hard for local acts to truly survive on just making music in this city.”
On the other hand, Philadelphia seems to have a healthy underground music scene and community, where creativity is both a product of deliberate though as well as simply having the time and proximity for unplanned interactions.
“I live with three people [in Fishtown]. My roommates all get it,” says native Philadelphian (Sandy) Alex G, a guitarist, vocalist and producer in his own right who was recently tapped by Frank Ocean to play on Blonde and on this summer’s tour. “Kyle plays drums in a band. Mike plays bass in a band called Blue Smiley, as well as in a burlesque production – it’s really cool. My other roommate Amelia doesn’t play music, but I met her through going to shows. They’re all pretty great.” Imagine that – an entire house of artists, just waiting for you to join them in creating something real, man.
The truth is that so much of “making it” depends on at least the following factors, if not many more: the quality of the music and the quality of your show, your ability to tour aggressively (meaning – you’re not in your home town much, ideally), the cost of living of the city you call “home”, and finally, the team you have around you – how good are your manager and agent, and how much do you they have your best interests at heart? Even if leaving D.C. might seem like the solution, it’s no guarantee that your band will be the next The Roots.