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Musicians Weigh Big-City Dreams Against Hometown Pride

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Musicians Weigh Big-City Dreams Against Hometown Pride

Musicians Weigh Big-City Dreams Against Hometown Pride

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the United States, musicians tend to cluster in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, according to census data. On some level this comes as no surprise. These cities have long been musical epicenters. But over the last 30 or 40 years, music scenes have sprouted up in other places like Athens, Georgia; Omaha, Nebraska; Seattle, Washington.

Sarah Ventre talked to two musicians about what makes a city a good place to practice their craft, and why that may or may not be their hometown.


SARAH VENTRE, BYLINE: Maryanna Sokol is a 29-year-old singer and songwriter originally from Houston...


MARYANNA SOKOL: (Singing) You're so tired of this life. You're so young, so lonely...

VENTRE: But she left her hometown for New York almost two years ago.

SOKOL: New York is just filled with talent. I mean everywhere you go, it's just filled with talent.

VENTRE: Even before she left Texas, Sokol began collaborating with New York musicians online. They chatted and emailed, discussing how each song should sound. With limited resources and without the support of a record label, Sokol used this process to produce her own album.


SOKOL: (Singing) You're so tired of this life, older now but so lonely. And the real world is never quite as polite as you'd been hoping. So you touch the sky alone in your memories where you hold her. But the story always goes that you blink and it's over...

VENTRE: But after a while, this long-distance relationship just wasn't cutting it.

SOKOL: I couldn't just sit in Texas and, like, look at the computer screen and listen to recordings from their shows. And I didn't just want to have a record. I wanted to be able to have performing and touring and all of that other stuff. And that just, for me, for some reason, was just not happening in Houston.

VENTRE: In part, that had to do with her sound.


SOKOL: (Singing) You sit and talk over the things that you know and try to figure it out...

The way I write and the way that my voice sounds, I feel like there is a good indie pop singer-songwriter chick community in New York.


SOKOL: (Singing) And things don't work out with the friends you used to know. Things never do, you know...

VENTRE: And that may be true. But New York is tough, expensive, and there's a lot of competition.

SOKOL: I was terrified when I was moving here because of the whole idea of like the little fish in a big pond. I felt like I was going to be like, you know, a little piece of algae like in a huge ocean.

VENTRE: She says that it's OK that there are lots of fish, because there are also lots of metaphorical ponds, swamps and coral reefs to explore. New York not only inspires her, but she says it gives her many more opportunities for exposure.

Some musicians decide not to migrate, though.


VENTRE: The members of Bass Drum of Death live in their hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, a city of around 19,000 people.


BASS DRUM OF DEATH: (Singing) Running out of time...

VENTRE: Guitarist and singer John Barrett says he prefers living there for some of the same reasons Maryanna Sokol left Houston.

JOHN BARRETT: The thing I like about living in Mississippi is I'm able to do exactly what I want and not have interference from, like, what other people think. Or like, what may be cool, like, that week or whatever. I'm just kind of - I'm able to chill out and write the songs that I like.


BASS DRUM OF DEATH: (Singing) You might like to make me think it's wrong...

VENTRE: Bass Drum of Death is signed to the well-known indie label Fat Possum, which is based out of, well, Oxford, Mississippi. In this case, a small-town connection paid off. Barrett worked at the label for a few months and the band was signed about a year later, in January of 2011. But even he considered the move to New York.

BARRETT: When I was in high school, I used to like dream about, like, moving up to New York. But after I went a couple times and like really hung out there, and like had to deal with all the stuff that, like, you would have to deal with if you lived there, I was like, man, this is a terrible place to be.

SOKOL: I've played to an empty room. I've played to a room that had one other artist and my friend who came with me. But even that night, the girl who played before me stayed for my set 'cause she felt sorry for me.

VENTRE: Maryanna Sokol kept in touch with this musician. They helped introduce one another to musicians in the scene, and Sokol realized another benefit of New York - networking.

SOKOL: You can be at a party and somebody can be like, man, I was supposed to go on tour and my other artist backed out. Oh hey, anybody free these two weeks in March? Want to go on tour? And it's like, you know, who knew that I was going to go to this party and get to sign on to a tour. But it happened.

VENTRE: Even Bass Drum of Death's John Barrett acknowledges that, purely from a career perspective, some things might be easier in bigger cities. Having a strong following in a place like New York means something entirely different than having a strong following in Oxford. And yet, he chooses to stay again, for the same reason Sokol chose to leave.

BARRETT: Moving somewhere might, quote-unquote, be better for me like right now in my career. But I want to be a part of something that's like bigger. And I think, among all of our friends, with what we're doing, I think that we've got something pretty special going on. And I want to stay and be a part of building that.

VENTRE: For these Millennials, it's important to be a part of that, no matter where that is, even in the digital age, when things like Skype, Facebook and Twitter should make geography irrelevant.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Ventre.


BASS DRUM OF DEATH: (Singing) I've gotta...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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