If music is the food of love, then play on! Shakespeare’s Orsino knew what he was talking about – and if he’d ever come to America, there’s no doubt that he would have been able to eat his fill.
As every young musician knows, the USA has been home to many of the great musical movements of the past two centuries. It’s the home of the Blues – that soulful, powerful musical tour de force from which every other genre of modern music was born. It brought jazz to the world. It gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, funk, gospel, bluegrass, soul. It’s a land where music has endless possibilities, and as you move from state to state, it’s something you can feel everywhere.
Many parts of the US seem to thrum with a rhythm unmatched by those of other countries. Individual cities harbor musical talent and visionaries and become synonymous with particular sounds or genres. It might be due to a specific bar, venue or club. It could be the result of a particular street or some visionary youngsters messing around with instruments, vocals, or a set of decks. Whatever the reason, some American cities have been responsible for shaping the world of music as we know it.
Although there’s music all across the country, some US cities which have become synonymous with their music. If you’re a young musician on the lookout for inspiration or seeking to find their voice, these are all places you just can’t miss. So, pack your bags, fish out your manuscript paper, and hop on that Greyhound bus across state lines.
1. New Orleans, LA
What list of musical cities would be complete without New Orleans? Few towns seem to hum and buzz with music quite the way New Orleans does. Everything about the city sways to its unique beat. The architecture takes us back to its Creole roots and the myriad blues and jazz pubs still blast out those same sweet sounds they’ve been grooving to for the last century. And the carnival is possibly the most vibrant expression of musical culture on earth.
If you’re looking for inspiration, you might want to just hop over to New Orleans. If it isn’t in iconic pubs, bars, or music venues like The Jazz Playhouse or Preservation Hall, then it’s on every street corner, at every house party, and everywhere from the downtown to the harbor and swamps beyond.
2. Boston, MA
Boston might not be the first place you think of when you think of a musical city, but this is a town which knows how to foster talent and have a great time in the process. The music scene in Boston is refreshingly unpretentious, organic, and championed by small venues like Brighton Music Hall (formerly Harpers Ferry), The Sinclair, and The Paradise Rock Club.
Unlike most of the other iconic American music cities, Boston is fiercely independent and proud of its rock and indie roots. Places like The Lizard Lounge are fascinating places to go – you never know if you’ll come across a poetry slam, an improv jazz gig, or the next big rock group. That’s all part of what the excitement of the music scene!
For more serious musicians looking to gain experience and qualifications, the influence of Berklee College of Music can’t be overlooked either. Boston is a music city that both knows how to have fun and look after its best virtuosos.
3. New York, NY
It might seem like an obvious choice, but nobody could argue that as a cultural capital, New York is one of the most important cities on earth. It’s also a city with some serious history behind it when it comes to music, too. All of the immigrant groups who descended on Staten Island 200 years ago brought their sounds with them. From the folk music and classics of the Italians to the Slavic rhythms of the Jewish population to the rollicking rhymes and mournful songs of the Irish: it all came together in this melting pot of a city.
Fast forward two centuries and New York remains the kind of place where music permeates the air. You’ve got huge and highly respected concert venues like Madison Square Gardens, for one. You’ve got impromptu gigs in Central Park and hippy vibes alive and well in Greenwich Village. Not to mention the fresh new scenes of Brooklyn and the hip-hop haven of the Bronx! Underneath all this, there’s the legendary jazz clubs, such as the Iridium and the Fat Cat. They’ve never stopped doing their thing and continued giving the city its unique atmosphere and swinging sounds.
4. Portland, OR
If the US has a new capital of cool, it’s Portland. A self-styled hipster paradise, Portland takes a tremendous amount of pride in the music scene it has helped develop over the past two decades. If you’re looking for the best up-and-coming talent and freshest gigs, it’s a great place to start.
Nestled among craft breweries and bicycle shops, you can find venues like The Doug Fir Lounge. It has an eagle eye for the hottest new indie bands. Plus, there’s always festivals like PDX Pop Now! to check out too.
5. San Francisco, CA
If you’re on the lookout for inspiration and want to get to the heart of what makes the USA a dynamic and open place for musicians, one of your first stops should be San Francisco. Flowers in your hair are optional, but nobody could deny that neighborhoods like Haight Ashbury are still very much keeping the groovy spirit alive.
The summer of love had its birthplace here and that swinging psychedelic sound – pioneering by SF godfathers, the Grateful Dead – hangs in the air like a dense incense. There are more live music venues than you can shake a silk scarf at. If it’s more formal training you’re after, then the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is somewhere to check out also.
6. Athens, GA
A lot of people overlook Athens, which at first glance is understandable. It’s neither a big nor a particularly famous city, but it’s well worth looking into if you want to encounter a modern, home-grown music scene. Athens is always ready to bring a good time with the music!
The music scene is mainly based on 90s-influenced indie bands (REM were from Athens, after all) and experimental musos. There’s a banging dance music scene here, too. What’s more, the legendary Morton Theater in Athens once hosted Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and there’s still a strong jazz presence in the city.
7. Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis is chilly on the outside. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find a super unique music scene. The most famous son of the city is Prince, but there’s a lot more to check out than just the Great Purple One. Indeed, Minneapolis has a vibrant and highly progressive rap scene thanks to pioneering rap label Rhymesayers. Just like Prince, though, overall it’s a city which mixes in plenty of indies, classical and funk with its hip-hop heart.
No visit to Minneapolis would be complete without taking in plenty of live concerts. Best bet for seeing some fab live shows? Head to the Cabooze or the Target Centre. Both of these iconic venues have top-notch live music all year round. If you’re looking for a fancy night out, catch one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s live shows.
8. Seattle, WA
Back in the early 90s, you couldn’t talk music without mentioning Seattle. Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana were dominating the airwaves. The grunge scene was taking over the world with its fresh new outlook and youth-powered rage. However, pioneering new music was nothing new to Seattle, even then. A sure Jimi Hendrix came from this old town, too!
Since then, things haven’t changed much. Some of the hottest new live acts in the world continue to pour out of Seattle. If you’re looking to start a band or catch onto the latest grooves, it’s not a bad place to start. Be sure to pop into Capitol Hill or Belltown. Visiting in the summer? Don’t miss out on the Bumbershoot festival.
9. Nashville, TN
There’s a good reason why Nashville is often top of the list when it comes to the best US cities for young musicians. At this point, it seems like Nashville might just have musical talent in the water! Country and Western might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t deny the incredible skill of the artists this city has produced over the decades.
And if country’s not your scene, Nashville has lots of options. There’s also a fantastic rock n roll and pop scene. Jack White, Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift have all moved through Nashville at some point.
It’s impossible not to come across great gigs while in Nashville. Almost any bar will have a rocking band on stage most nights of the week. Want to experience the authentic spirit of the city? Head to the Ryman Auditorium and hear a live recording of the legendary Grand Ole Opry Music and Variety show!
10. Austin, TX
Texas is a state generally associated only with Christian, Country and Western music. However, for those who live in Austin, they’ll know that nothing could be further from the truth. Austin is hands-down one of the most exceptional live music locations in the world! For young musicians, it’s a haven of creativity, innovation and experimentation.
The student scene at the world-famous University of Austin is partially responsible for the city’s vibrant music, but Austin also has an incredible heritage. Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the South By Southwest festival: the list of big-name acts and events from Austin is never-ending. From desert-inspired psychedelia and euphoric pop and dance music to fresh indie and funky hip-hop… it’s all going on in Texas!