FYI New York City

Top US Cities for Musicians

Top US Cities for Musicians
Written by Carolyn Albee

The musician life isn't an easy one. But for many people who feel the pull of creative passions, it sometimes doesn't feel like a choice. You need to play music—and you need to learn new things. No matter how many instruments you collect, their value never diminishes. We know your music gear is Made to Keep, but it's also made to play. So here are the best music cities in the US, from the perspective of those who don't just listen to music, but play it themselves.

You might be drawn to some for their low cost of living, others for their legendary music venues, but they all have two things in common: incredible support for artists and hungry crowds ready for the next big thing.

1. Athens, GA

Outside the Georgia Theatre in Athens GA
Image via Gino M./Yelp

The scene: Home to the gigantic University of Georgia, the "Classic City" is a well-known college town with a rich music history and bold new acts.

Famous faces: R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, Matthew Sweet, Of Montreal, and The Drive-By Truckers all started here.

Must-see music venues: The legendary 40 Watt launched the careers of R.E.M., Of Montreal, and more, and was vital in the punk rock and new wave movements. Tiny Caledonia Lounge is the definition of an intimate venue, hosting rock, indie, country, and blues. Head to the totally revamped Georgia Theatre for a bigger venue—they have music of all types.

Meeting of the minds: UGA's Willson Center for Humanities and the Music Business Program are great opportunities for musicians to meet, jam, and support each other. Not a student? Check out collectives like Elephant 6 and Athens Music & Arts Collective.

Music storage: Storage in the Windy Hill neighborhood is just 10 minutes from the UGA campus.

2. Provo, UT

Instruments at Noisebox Studios in Provo UT
Image via Dave Z./Yelp

The scene: Surprised to see Utah on the list? Put simply, the community in Provo is incredible. It's an all-ages, super-supportive scene, and it gets results.

Famous faces: Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, The Moth and the Flame, and Lindsey Stirling started here.

Must-see music venues: The all-ages Velour Live Music Gallery is where it all began and remains the center of the scene. ABG's Libation Emporium has live music and good vibes on weekends. And you can still catch the last of the Rooftop Concert Series on September 6.

Meeting of the minds: DIY is alive an well in Provo, and local 'zine Reach Provo proves it. Take a class at Recording Connection Provo or get behind the mic at Noisebox Studios for a recording session.

3. Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix AZ punk scene
Image via Derrick Austinson Photog/Flickr

The scene: Phoenix is the fastest-growing city in the country, and that's always a good place to be for musicians who want to draw a crowd. With warehouse parties front-and-center, there's a decidedly punk undercurrent, but all genres can find a home here.

Famous faces: CeCe Peniston, Flotsam and Jetsam (with bassist Jason Newsted, who went on to join Metallica), Meat Puppets, and Soulfly got their start in Phoenix.

Must-see music venues: The DIY spirit of the scene is felt in its venues, with places like The Trunk Space popping up in church buildings. The Lost Leaf, Rebel Lounge, and Valley Bar are other great venues to catch the Phoenix music fever.

Meeting of the minds: Independent labels like 80/20 Records support emerging musicians, while organizations like Trial and Error Collective keep music lovers informed with their site and free 'zine.

Music storage: Store your music gear at our facility just east of Downtown Phoenix.

4. Omaha, NE

Performers at the Waiting Room in Omaha NE
Image via Chris S./Yelp

The scene: Omaha was in the spotlight in the early 2000s, but the scene has only grown since then. The low cost of living draws musicians of all sorts, from rappers to indie rock.

Famous faces: Bright Eyes, Cursive, and The Faint are signed to Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records.

Must-see music venues: Slowdown and Waiting Room Lounge featured indie acts like MGMT, Vampire Weekend, and Macklemore before they were cool. Check out singer-songwriters and acoustic acts at Reverb Lounge and Harney Street Tavern. And if you like your music loud and dance-able, head over to Ozone Lounge.

Meeting of the minds: The 402 Arts Collective provides lessons, rehearsal spaces, and performance opportunities—plus a solid sense of community. When you're ready to record, head over to the state-of-the-art Make Believe Studio.

5. Lawrence, KS

Performer at a Live on Mass event in Lawrence KS
Image via Andrew Johnston/Flickr

The scene: Flyover state? Not so fast. Everyone from Green Day to The Chainsmokers played here on their way to the top, and you'll find live music every night of the week. Lawrence rocks, and that's all you need to know.

Famous faces: The New Amsterdams, Minus Story, and The Get Up Kids started here.

Must-see music venues: After a night at rock-and-roll-plus-pinball venue Replay Lounge, you won't be able to get The Who's "Pinball Wizard" out of your head. Need a beer? The Bottleneck has you more than covered, and serves up rock-and-roll, too. Fans of other genres can get their fix at The Granada, which also hosts free Live on Mass street concerts in the warmer months.

Meeting of the minds: If you're looking for music so underground, you're not even sure what it's called, Love Garden Sounds probably has it. Meet up with all your new friends at summer's Free State Festival, which brings together music, comedy, film, and art for a not-to-miss extravaganza.

6. New Orleans, LA

Street performers in New Orleans LA
Image via Woody Hibbard/Flickr

The scene: New Orleans music needs no introduction. NOLA is one of the world's most famous music cities, with a history even New Yorkers envy. It's got a low cost of living for a major city, but the real draw is simple: New Orleans is just plain fun.

Famous faces: Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Revivalists, Better Than Ezra, Master P, and bounce music legends Juvenile and Big Freedia are New Orleanians, and tons of jazz and blues groups form here every day.

Must-see music venues: Music is everywhere in this city, but for the real NOLA experience, get away from Bourbon Street. Explore stages across the city at spots like Maple Leaf Bar, Siberia, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, Tipitina's, and Gasa Gasa.

Meeting of the minds: Search out indie record labels like Bubble Bath Records and United Bakery Records to meet potential bandmates. Meanwhile, stores like Louisiana Music Factory and Disko Obscura keep vinyl enthusiasts well-stocked. And the music festivals are on another level in New Orleans. Be sure to see the Jazz and Heritage Fest, Buku, and Voodoo Music Experience, among others.

7. East Nashville, TN

A band plays at Grimey's New and Preloved Music in East Nashville
Image via Jennifer P./Yelp

The scene: East Nashville is a close-knit community where opportunity thrives, especially in the indie music scene. Bonus: Nashville, one of the best music cities in the south and voted one of the best places to move in 2019, is just across the river.

Must-see music venues: The Bowery Vault clothing store moonlights as a rock venue and sits above swanky-casual speakeasy The Fox. The 5 Spot has music every night, The Cobra leans cutting edge, and Inglewood Lounge brings the jazz.

Meeting of the minds: Get to know the scene up close and personal at DRKMTTR Collective, shop for gems at Grimey's New and Preloved Music, and try to impress the execs at labels Cold Lunch Recordings and Dualtone.

Music storage: Our facility in East Nashville is conveniently located right off I-24.

8. Ypsilanti, MI

A band performs at Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center
Image via GabboT/Flickr

The scene: Home to Eastern Michigan University and 20 minutes from the colleges of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti hosts a steady stream of students looking to see—and be—the next big thing.

Must-see music venues: Catch up-and-coming folk and roots musicians at the super-intimate nonprofit venue The Ark, and expect the music to be front and center at Ziggy's, too. Alternative rockers can find like-minded—and louder—crowds at Maidstone Theatre, while Ypsi Alehouse hosts everything from honky-tonk to cover bands.

Meeting of the minds: Hip-hop gets love at Hiiigher Minds, a media production company promoting local acts. Technical Equipment Supply is the famous record store in town—Aphex Twin released an album on their label. For a volunteer project, check out River Street Anthology, which records local musicians for historic preservation.

9. Ithaca, NY

Buildings in downtown Ithaca NY
Image via James Willamor/Flickr

The scene: Ithaca embraces its roots as a college music town—and then goes even bigger. With EDM nights in country bars, reggae in dive bars, and underground shows that are more punk than a 12-inch mohawk, there's definitely no place like Ithaca.

Must-see music venues: Wait, EDM nights in country bars? Yep, The Range is mostly country, but it sometimes busts out the decks for aspiring DJs to play their original electronic music. Local collective Ithaca Underground hosts the city's loudest punk shows at Chanticleer Loft, and The Haunt is your local reggae (and everything else) dive bar.

Meeting of the minds: Angry Mom Records' tagline is "New, Used, Rare, Weird," and you can stop in to chat about any of those things. Ithaca's labels are doing interesting things too: 73 Records is youth-run and youth-made, and New Vine checks all the boxes—it's a non-profit record label, production studio, and artist development company.

10.Nederland, CO

Quaint downtown of Nederland CO
Image via Amy Aletheia Cahill/Flickr

The scene: Nederland may be small, but its music scene isn't. According to Songkick, when ranked by gigs per 1,000 people, Nederland is number 5 in the country. That's a lot of live music!

Must-see music venues: Nederland was the home of Caribou Ranch recording studio, which saw the likes of Billie Joel, Elton John, and Tom Petty through its doors. Today, the city has the Caribou Room, an insanely popular live music venue featuring both local and national acts. For a chiller scene, check out live music and open mic nights at Very Nice Brewing Company.

Meeting of the minds: Learn a new instrument with lessons at Brightwood Music or just stop in to chat with the owner, Doug. In such a small town, you'll literally just run into other musicians, but the best place around to meet them on purpose is at the High Peaks Arts Festival.

11. Fort Collins, CO

A band performs in downtown Fort Collins CO
Image via Paul L Dineen/Flickr

The scene: If you dream of the "struggling musician" life, don't come to Fort Collins. Thanks to the Bohemian Foundation, founded in 2001 by businesswoman Pat Stryker, there are more opportunities for local musicians than you can shake a drumstick at.

Must-see music venues: Washington's is the most state-of-the-art spot in town, if that's your thing. If dark bars are your thing, head over to Hodi’s Half Note, where you could hear anything from rap to indie rock. Want to play? Magic Rat Live is the place to be for jam sessions.

Meeting of the minds: The Music District is a one-stop shop for rehearsal space, mentoring, classes, and conversation. And the music festivals! Bohemian Nights at New West Fest features local talent for three days each August. Thursday Night Live is a summer concert series, and Fort Collins Live Music Experiment (aka FoCoMX) kicks off in April with shows by local artists all over town.

Music storage: Our facility in the San Cristo area is central to all Fort Collins has to offer.

12. Durham, NC

Inside Chaz's Bull City Records in Durham NC
Image via Giang-Tien M./Yelp

The scene: The "Research Triangle" of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill isn't just a huge college area. Those grads stick around to work at the top companies in the area—and to attend the shows of local musicians.

Famous faces: James Taylor and Ben Folds Five are from here.

Must-see music venues: The Pinhook may have psychedelic pandas drinking PBR on its walls, but that's actually not the coolest thing about it. It also has a diverse music lineup from acoustic to pop-rock. For a totally epic night, head to Motorco Music Hall, Durham's biggest music venue. Want to be classy? Check out the intimate atmosphere of Arcana.

Meeting of the minds: Chat about the latest indie, punk, electronic, experimental, and more at Chaz's Bull City Records. If it's underground, they've got it. The Living Arts Collective has open mic nights and classes—haven't you always wanted to add freestyling to your list of musical skills?

Music storage: Check out our facility right off Route 501 on your way to Chapel Hill.

13. Fort Wayne, IN

A performance at the Clyde Theatre in Fort Wayne IN
Image via Clyde Theatre/Yelp

The scene: Fort Wayne is more than awesome venues and famous music festivals—although it has plenty of those. Music supplier Sweetwater Sound brings in the biggest names in the industry for conferences and lectures, so you just might learn a thing or two.

Must-see music venues: Get up close and personal with local bands at The Brass Rail, where they're steps away. Check out the diverse lineup at The Ruin, which hosts everything from hip-hop to post-punk—or perform there yourself. And the stage at the Clyde Theatre isn't just for big acts; it frequently spotlights local bands, too.

Meeting of the minds: Sweetwater Sound hosts events like GearFest and Rock Camp to educate interested minds of all ages. And its Sweetwater Studios is just as state-of-the-art as you'd expect from a top music technology company. Meet like-minded musicians while you dance the night away at Middle Waves Music Festival, one of the up-and-coming music festivals of 2019.

14. Bellingham, WA

Outside at Boundary Bay Brewing in Bellingham WA
Image via Ted P./Yelp

The scene: Take the free spirit of Seattle, add family-friendly venues and festivals, and factor in a lower cost of living compared to the skyrocketing rents of the big city, and you've got Bellingham, a great city for musicians.

Famous faces: Death Cab for Cutie and The Posies are from here.

Must-see music venues: Bring the kids and the dog to Boundary Bay Brewing to catch live music—or so they can watch you play. For late-night fun, hit The Shakedown for local indie acts and Wild Buffalo for everything from EDM and hip-hop to jam bands.

Meeting of the minds: Find more family fun at Downtown Sounds—it started in an alley, but now it's a weekly summer block party featuring local artists. And Make.Shift Art Space runs all-ages live music events, plus has rehearsal space, an art gallery, and a radio station. That's a lot of ways to make music-minded friends!

15. Manchester, NH

Skyline of Manchester NH
Image via Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

The scene: New Hampshire's biggest city has a diversity of talent to match, but it stands out in the punk and metal scene, with tons of underground shows.

Must-see music venues: Metal heads must see a show at Jewel, but other fans will find plenty to love. Shaskeen Pub puts the focus on hip-hop, and Strange Brew Tavern hosts open mics on Wednesdays and a long-running blues jam on Sundays. Penuche's Music Hall even has bass nights and open decks on Thursdays for aspiring DJs.

Meeting of the minds: Get involved in the 'zine, events, art exhibitions, and more at Wrong Brain. Got more of an indie, folk, or funk vibe? Attend events put on by Salty Speakers to find your people.

16. Austin, TX

A live performance at Mohawk in Austin TX
Image via Juan P./Yelp

The scene: Keeping Austin weird is just part of the goal for the "Live Music Capital of the World." Local musicians also want to keep it inclusive, inventive, and inexpensive—and ensure it remains one of the best music cities in America. So far, so good.

Famous faces: Shakey Graves, Voxtrot, Ben Kweller, Explosions in the Sky, and Okkervil River formed here.

Must-see music venues: To house all the music festivals and shows Austin produces, its venues step up to the plate. Some standouts include Hole in the Wall, Cactus Café, Saxon Pub, Elephant Room, and Mohawk.

Meeting of the minds: Your chances of getting signed might be highest in Austin, where there's a ton of eclectic record labels, including Holodeck Records, Steady Rhythm, and Super Secret Records. Want to keep your collection current? With in-store performances, artist signings, and tons of vinyl, Waterloo Records is as old-school as it gets. And don't forget the festivals. You can still make it to Austin City Limits Music Festival, happening October 4 to 6 and 11 to 13 this year.

Music storage: The CubeSmart on West 5th Street is about as close as you can get to downtown.

17. Bakersfield, CA

Shopping at World Records in Bakersfield CA
Image via Kynan C./Yelp

The scene: This city works hard, it plays hard, and its music scene is no joke. Whether country, reggae, or jazz, Bakersfield takes genres you think you know and makes them its own with a little grit and a lot of anything-goes.

Famous faces: Korn, Calico Sunset, Adema, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard got their start here.

Must-see music venues: Buck Owens' Crystal Palace is the gold standard for country, but Bakersfield isn't a one-note town. Real locals head to Riley's Tavern for boot-stomping good times. Sandrini's makes variety the spice of life with reggae, jazz, and more, and even old standby Jerry's Pizza and Pub is diversifying its music lineup with classic rock and blues.

Meeting of the minds: Get on a first-name basis with Pat at World Records and meet others who want to talk "shop." Then stop by Bakersfield Music & Recording Studio for lessons from guitar to audio engineering. For the true musician, there's always more to learn.

18. New York, NY

A performance with colorful balloons at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC
Image via Gab G./Yelp

The scene: Where do we even begin? NYC's music scene spans every genre, class, and skill level. The city has birthed more than a few sounds and styles, and the music options are much like the city itself— immense, intense, and full of eclectic attitude.  

Famous faces: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Joan Baez, Run DMC, and The Ramones—this city is the birthplace or launch site of some of America's best musicians.

Must-see music venues: The Bowery Ballroom in the Lower East Side is an OG favorite, the historic Apollo Theater needs no introduction, and places like Mercury Lounge support up-and-coming acts.

Meeting of the minds: Get lost in the stacks—or meet fellow music lovers—at A1 Record Shop in the East Village. The Sound Mind Collective in Brooklyn hosts monthly meetings for musicians, and Pete's Candy Store has open mic nights every Sunday.

Music storage: We've got New York City storage in all the boroughs, including Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

The best music cities aren't just for bachelorette parties and big, wild concerts. Just like America's most unique art towns, its best music cities have soul, spirit, and perseverance—and they have dedicated creatives that make them great.

About the author

Carolyn Albee

Carolyn is a writer, editor, and fan of the Chicago Manual of Style. She's based in Southern California (the greatest place on earth), but she lives by the belief that every city, and every person, has a story to tell. When she's not telling those stories, you'll find her visiting craft breweries and exploring new hikes with her best friend—her dog, of course.

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