We traipsed around Los Angeles for a week, my wife’s pregnant belly growing rounder with each passing day. Finally, two years after our marriage, we decided to take a honeymoon and for the first time, I found myself in one of my favorite cities on Earth without an agenda. I had no band behind me, no shows to play, no soundchecks to rush to, no record label work keeping me occupied. I was encumbered only by the desire to show Emily the little nooks of LA that I had come to love over my years in the music industry. The Cactus taco stand on Vine. Amoeba’s jazz room. Small World Books on the Venice Boardwalk. The panorama from Griffith Park.
During the week, I noticed everyone around me more than I ever had on any of my two or three dozen previous trips to LA. Perhaps it was my lack of a set professional itinerary. Perhaps it was that this was my first trip to a major entertainment mecca since I left New York. Perhaps it was simply the fact that I’ve spent the last two years living in the South, which has imbued in me a general concern for my fellow human (something most of us lack while living in a major city). Whatever the reason, my senses were far more attuned to those I passed every day.
I noticed and observed more closely than ever before the bartenders and waiters, the store clerks and the baristas. I wondered how many of them carried their dreams with them to Los Angeles. To Santa Monica. To Venice. To Silver Lake. To Hollywood. I wondered where they came here from and how many of them had a screenplay or a reel or a folder full of headshots in the back of their car. I wondered how many of them were, just as I was back in Chapel Hill, putting the final touches on their new albums.
And as I noticed and wondered, I thought of my own world back in Chapel Hill, where I live an incredibly inexpensive life of little hassle, almost no traffic, and a vibrant, supportive and nurturing community of artists, writers, creators, musicians and thinkers. And I wondered why I hadn’t thought of moving down there sooner.
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade trying to “make it” as a musician. Making it (quotation marks mercifully withheld henceforth) connotes something different for every artist. Some want to be in the biggest bands around, star in the blockbuster flick, host their own late-night talk shows someday, show at the major art galleries or top the Times’ Bestseller list. While others are content to simply create a record or an independent film or produce a niche podcast.
For me, the idea of success was somewhere in the middle. I had no aspirations to ever headline the major festivals or sell out amphitheater tours. But just creating something tangible wasn’t quite enough. For me, to have made it would mean to simply have been able to make a living, to support myself and hopefully my wife, just by playing the guitar.
I put out records, signed to a label, licensed my tunes to some independent movies, and wrote and recorded a song for a major sports league. I toured around the country, up and down the East Coast, played festivals and appeared on a handful of the biggest and most prestigious stages in the country. I recorded with people I’d once (and still) consider heroes and shared bills and green rooms with bands I’ve long admired.
Eventually, I left New York because of its cost. It has become near-impossible to live as an artist in New York City unless you have experienced a tremendous amount of success or are lucky enough to have a benefactor. I knew scores of successful artists, musicians, writers, actors and comedians who had scads of roommates or slates of day jobs despite their national – and sometimes international – renown. No matter their level of success, a living in New York was still eked out. So rather than slave away when I wasn’t on tour, working as many jobs as possible to afford my New York City rent, I left. I packed my things and headed for a place where life on an artist’s income was quite possible.
I’ve found a creative home in Chapel Hill and while we’re far away from New York or LA, my record is currently available on all the same services as any other band in the world. My writing is being read on several continents. The art that I create is as consumable as the art that comes from anywhere else on Earth.
That’s not to say that bands in those cities don’t possess certain advantages over me. A New York-based artist can readily collaborate with a much larger talent pool than I can. An LA band can easily invite scores of music supervisors from film and television to one of their local shows.
And that’s not to say that I don’t possess certain advantages over artists based in major cities. Namely, making a living as an artist – an achievement which defines my idea of success – is infinitely more attainable in North Carolina than in New York or California.
I wondered why and how the paths of the LA dreamers were any different than my own. After all, I am still making records and playing shows. And while the man-hours behind my dreams are far fewer than they used to be (that is to say, no more playing two-hundred and fifty shows a year with our new son on the way), I still crave the idea of making it. I still angle to have my songs placed in movies, I still hope that someday, some writer or some filmmaker will give my music that magical and perfectly-timed nod that will catapult my career to new reaches.
I wondered how many of them would make it. I wondered, conversely, how many of them would return home. I wondered if those amongst them would consider themselves failures or if they would look at their journey and realize their inherent success, as I have tried to see mine. I wondered if some might head back to Iowa or Ohio or Arkansas or New Jersey and write a book or make an independent film that might send them toward the success that eluded them in their time in the big pond.
And it reminded me that great art is made everywhere and while there are some parts of the entertainment industry that are inextricable from their locales, one of the most exciting surprises I’ve encountered in my two years in Chapel Hill is that there are places that aren’t New York or Los Angeles that nurture their artists, rather than grinding them up.
That’s not to say that you don’t need to be in Hollywood if you want to be a screenwriter or New York if you want to work with one of the major publishing houses or envision yourself a record man in the making. And none of this is to say that there is anything better or worse about living in Chapel Hill or LA or New York.
But for me and so many others, the realization that the world, as interconnected and readily available as it is, exists beyond the boundaries of the major entertainment meccas has been something of a beacon. A lifesaving understanding that for me to achieve whatever artistic goals I may harbor, I don’t have to go far to find my path. And I don’t have to sit in traffic.
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