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Chops: David Binney on Why Musicians May Not Need a Bite of the Big Apple

If you want a jazz career, moving to New York isn't the must that it once was, an industry vet argues

David Binney
David Binney

When I was 19, I moved to New York City from Ventura, Calif. Growing up in the Los Angeles area in the ’70s and early ’80s, I’d been groomed for the life of a career studio musician. I played alto saxophone but was also practicing soprano, flute, and clarinet. The teachers I had were all successful studio musicians and made a good living. I, however, was attracted to the music of Miles, Trane, Weather Report, and various ECM artists, and L.A. at the time was not a hotbed for those types of music. So when I was old enough to leave California, I did. I knew that I had to go to New York. There was no other place to be if you wanted to play and write the kind of music that I was into.

I could write a book about my 38-year experience in New York. But that’s not the subject of this article. The point I want to make here is that the feeling I had about NYC when I was 19 just doesn’t hold as true today. Moving there is no longer a prerequisite to make it as a working creative musician. Today, I’m living in Los Angeles once again. I love it and wow, has this place changed! As have many places.

The whole route to being a musician nowadays is completely different from what it was when I moved to New York. And it’s changed because of two things: the internet and the proliferation of music education in schools and universities. You can now get a good music education in way too many schools to name worldwide. And with the internet, you can study and listen to so much music instantaneously. This means that there are good musicians everywhere now: people to play with, start projects with, record with, etc. The internet has also changed the way people learn. Everyone watches and listens to all of the masters (and each other) as soon as they think of it. And there are mounds of tutorials, methods, and how-to info readily available online. So the need to go to NYC—or any major city—is nowhere near what it was.

Of course, there’s still an abundance of excellent musicians in New York and Los Angeles, so the options you have are much greater in those two cities, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be exposed to that. But these days you can meet people just as easily through the internet and in a school program. Most of the young musicians I know are bouncing all over the place now. They’re going back and forth to New York and L.A. and European cities, and they have friends everywhere. When I moved to New York, I had to go out and meet a whole new set of people—while simultaneously losing most of the contacts I had in California.

Everyone knows that you can now make albums anywhere, sell them from the comfort of your bedroom and on websites like Bandcamp, and have them stream via Spotify, iTunes, and other services, as I did with my latest album, Here & Now. Many of my friends, especially here in Los Angeles, have launched and maintained their careers from their homes: the electronic artist Louis Cole, for instance. You can make at least part of your living that way, and once you’ve built a fanbase, you have the chance to tour and make money from that too.

But there are now other ways to make money from your home. Besides making my own records and playing a lot of gigs, I produce records. I do the occasional mix/master. A composer can also make music for placement sites, which host tracks that advertisers, filmmakers, people who want music for their YouTube videos, etc., can pick and buy for their needs. I know many people who do this and make a decent living from it. And then there’s teaching. I do it a lot all over the world, but you can do it in your town and over the internet via Skype, Messenger, and the rest, as I also do.

This being a jazz magazine, I’m focusing more on players than composers or electronic musicians. If you can be creative on your own and don’t require any sort of collective improvisation, then you really could do everything without ever leaving your home at the North Pole. If you want to play music that includes improvising with the best players, I’d still contend that you should come to L.A. or New York at some point. But you don’t need to stay there, and the knowledge you gain from going there should help inform you on how to keep building your career back home. (I wouldn’t have said this for many years, but L.A. is the place to be right now. There are many reasons for this, but that’s another discussion. Maybe I’ll write about that next time.)

In this age, we musicians need to do anything we can to make a living, and ninety-nine percent of us will have to do a wide variety of things. So be aware of all the options, and remember: We can do this from anywhere.

David Binney

David Binney is an alto saxophonist, composer, and producer. He has recorded 22 albums as a leader and hundreds of albums with other artists, including Antonio Sanchez, Uri Caine, and Medeski, Martin & Wood.