Los Angeles Is the Best City For Music. Period
Illustration by Andrew Roberts
During the first week of December in Los Angeles, you could have seen, among dozens of other shows, rapper Murs on the Sunset Strip, O.C. surf-rock outfit The Growlers in Echo Park, Israeli dubstep hellion Borgore in Hollywood, Latin jazz legend Sergio Mendes at Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown, local psych rockers The Entrance Band in Silver Lake or nu-jazz experimentalist Shafiq Husayn in Highland Park.
L.A. is a mecca for pop-music fans, and it's a mecca for musicians. A 2012 study by The Atlantic senior editor Richard Florida determined our city has more musical acts than any other - both on an absolute and on a per-capita basis.
But it's not just the quantity - it's the quality as well. Whereas cities including Nashville, New York, Atlanta, Detroit and Seattle have all claimed the title "America's musical epicenter" over the years, it's hard to dispute that Los Angeles is currently the best place for music in all the land.
"In the '80s, L.A. was kind of stumbling around and didn't have as strong a scene as New York," says Liz Garo, who has booked shows for the Echo and Echoplex since the venues opened in 2001. "In the last five or 10 years, L.A. has totally seen this growth."
See also: The 10 Best L.A. Albums of 2013
We possess, of course, the requisite corporate music-industry behemoths: the Grammys, the major record labels and PR companies, Beats by Dre and Diddy's Revolt TV, for starters. Equally important are our smaller cultural institutions, including the Smell, Pehrspace, Vex Arts, Dublab and the Do Lab, breeding grounds for emerging artists. Then there are the influential parties - Low End Theory, Das Bunker, the Do Over, Funkmosphere - which serve as breeding grounds for creative types. You'll find exciting talent everywhere, from the Sunset Strip to backyard punk shows in East and South L.A.
Acclaimed Britain-based concert series Boiler Room debuted in Los Angeles in 2012. "It is kind of like a melting pot of what's going on musically," is how Boiler Room L.A. head Sofie Fatouretchi described the city in a 2012 interview with the electronic dance music-focused Magnetic Magazine.
Local labels like Lollipop, Nacional, Metal Blade, Friends of Friends, Stones Throw, Brainfeeder, Smog, Dim Mak, Top Dawg Entertainment, Funk Volume, Innovative Leisure, Not Not Fun, Post Present Medium, Mad Decent, Anticon and Hellfyre Club are home to a legion of cutting-edge L.A. artists, ranging from obscure to arena-filling.
Sometimes these scenes take over the world. One could make a strong case for L.A. as the world's current dance-music capital. Mega-promoters Hard and Insomniac have in recent years been acquired by local conglomerate Live Nation; meanwhile, AEG (another multinational based here, which swallowed up Coachella promoter Goldenvoice) also is putting a bigger focus on EDM.
Coachella, of course, remains arguably America's most important music festival, and its dance offerings have come to be a huge part of the event.
Influential English DJ and radio personality Pete Tong has called Los Angeles "the center of the universe" for electronic dance music, and he recently moved here. "There are so many people based here, it's mad," he says now. "There's always been something about the creatives in Los Angeles. I think that's become the attraction for many DJs and many electronic artists."
Our music scenes bleed over into our film and television industries. KCRW DJs, for example, have worked as music supervisors for series including True Blood and movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Tron: Legacy. (The station's Morning Become Eclectic, of course, has launched a thousand careers.) Producer Anthony Gonzalez, of acclaimed electronic act M83, moved to L.A. from France at the end of the aughts, with the (then perhaps dubious-sounding) aspiration of scoring Hollywood blockbusters. But with last year's Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, Gonzalez succeeded beyond his imagination. It helps, of course, that many of the outfits that place music in movies, television, and commercials are based here, too.
But for every musician succeeding within the mainstream system, there are underground performers innovating on their own terms. DJ Flying Lotus' label, Brainfeeder, melds electronic DJ music, hip-hop and jazz in an extremely compelling way. Players like bassist Thundercat, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and the late pianist Austin Peralta have won enormous respect in multiple genre circles.
Local players in many cities complain about the "crabs in a bucket" mentality - when one of them is on the verge of success, others pull them back down. L.A. doesn't seem to suffer from this problem.
"It's a really unique scene because of the camaraderie among the musicians," Flying Lotus said in an interview with the Weekly in 2012. "Everyone is sort of united and supportive of each other."
See also: Best L.A. Musicians By Genre
That unity is on full display in L.A.'s hip-hop scene, which has recently reached heights not seen since the G-funk era. Compton's Kendrick Lamar has more simultaneous critical and commercial appeal than almost any other rapper, and his Black Hippy crew is perhaps the strongest in hip-hop. That is, perhaps, except for Odd Future, the sprawling young collective whose albums continue to defy expectations. Combined with our still-relevant veterans (DJ Quik, Snoop Dogg) and transplants (Mac Miller, Roc Marciano), it's hard to make the case that anyone's doing it better right now.
What draws said transplants? Well, for starters, L.A.'s culture is very artist-friendly. Whereas a guy in short shorts and a ratty Black Flag T-shirt might raise eyebrows on the streets of Fargo, N.D., most L.A. denizens wouldn't look twice. "I spent my whole time in Texas thinking I was a weirdo," says Epic - signed R&B singer Nylo, who moved to L.A. from the Dallas area in 2009. "I realized that I could do anything I wanted here. I could run around in a tutu and be fine." (She's one of a bumper crop of young, quickly accelerating R&B chanteuses, including Jhene Aiko, Banks and Gavin Turek.)
"There are no bounds out here; there really aren't," Thundercat says. "You can see it with guys like Kendrick [Lamar], that ability to transcend the status quo of what's going on. You can be who you want to be."
Pitchfork recently wrote an article about the many San Francisco musicians who have departed for L.A., including Ty Segall and John Dwyer, who called L.A. "a place where creative people can come together, swap ideas; it's a place of artistic cultivation. Plus I think there is a certain seedy, creepy mystery that has always lived here. It's a good place for the freak, and the phantom." And why not set up shop? It's a networker's paradise, and the weather and spaciousness regularly entice out-of-towners.
Moby, a recent L.A. transplant, has said he appreciates the accessible natural beauty. Swedish House Mafia's Steve Angello, a part-time L.A. resident, told the Weekly that he just enjoys driving around the city in the relative solitude of his car.
"There are a lot of bands who have moved from Brooklyn to L.A. because it's easier," Liz Garo adds. "They want to be here because there's more stuff going on, it's a lot easier to live here than it is in New York, and the weather is truly a big part of it."
Aspiring musicians find their niches in neighborhoods such as Echo Park, Highland Park, Koreatown, Chinatown, Venice or any other of the city's many thriving spots. "In these creative neighborhoods, people can take chances," Garo says. "Even the 'Lost Dog' signs look great."
One can't play down the high cost of living - "Getting a parking ticket sometimes puts your whole career into perspective. You see the meter maid leaving and it's, like, 'My phone is getting cut off this month,'?" Thundercat says - but L.A. seems to have just about everything else going for it, for musicians at every stage of their career.
"It's like a chain that gets dipped in gold," Thundercat concludes, in the soft-focus, optimistic parlance of Southern California dreamers. "You can have a chain and all that, but if you want to get it dipped in gold, you come to L.A."
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