Some city names spark stars in the eyes any young musician: Nashville. Austin. Seattle. Atlanta.
It’s natural for artists to gather in hubs; poets go to New England, filmmakers go to Los Angeles, found object sculptors go to Joshua Tree. As a young songwriter, I was eager to take on the legendary American music capitals. Eleven years ago I polished my songs and hit the road to visit them.
But I’ve always returned to Alaska. I can’t help it. It’s my lodestar – I’m setting down roots here, I’m inspired here.
I think my career as an independent songwriter is better here too. It can be a sacrifice to live away from the presumptive centers of great art. But it can also be an advantage in the internet age. If I’m fishing for concert bookings and publishing songs from my living room, does it really matter where my living room is?
The economics point me north as well. It’s expensive in Juneau, sure, but I could never make rent in Seattle or New York. I’d be exiled to outer Queens with five roommates and two dayjobs, hours from the so-called scene and too exhausted to write. Artists are driven out these popular centers every day because the rent’s too damn high.
Then there’s the competition. New York and L.A. bristle with the conflicted energy of masses ready to be “discovered.” Artists working there share the same few venues and resources with thousands of other hopefuls, competing with neighbors for every time slot, audition, and audience member.
Once I went to SxSW, the famous music festival in Austin. In 2008 it was already overcrowded. Late at night I wandered Sixth Street, hearing different bands in every doorway and buskers on the sidewalk. The cacophony was magnificent and deafening.
It didn’t feel like me though. I was hungry, but not to be noticed by a record executive. I just wanted to make more music.
Imagine my dismay when something crunched under my foot: a CD. Someone else’s precious creation was lying in the street, and I’d stepped in it. I looked up the sidewalk and saw three more. I felt ill. I went home.
Bridget Milligan is the founder of Kodiak Coats in Juneau. She’s also the woman who popularized bellbottoms by tailoring them for Cher. Bridget is responsible for the best business advice I ever heard:
“Don’t fish where everyone else is fishing.”
Nashville and New York are old friends now, I’ve stayed and played there so many nights. I adore Seattle and Austin, I’ve made albums in each. But I don’t live there or go to big music festivals. I see no promising path competing with hundreds of other songwriters.
Instead I embrace the different kind of Art Hustle that distance and geography demand. I fire up the laptop and find opportunities just as close here as they would be there. The money, the community, and the quality of life have all been better here in the place I love.