So the other night as I emerged from the club after a gig (and a few glasses of wine), I was in that happy haze of having sung with abandon and having made music with some great players. A friend of mine joined me on my way out, and we marveled at how nights like this seem possible only in this city; exciting live music in an underground bar populated by fascinating, creative people in variety and concentration you’d have to work very hard to find elsewhere. This is the New York I’m blessed to be a part of whenever there’s a gig – the New York most artists move here for and pursue.
But by the light of next day, my frequently produced award-winning playwright friend who walked with me in the hours after last call will sell some high end real estate, having taken time off writing to try and make the money a PhD in theater won’t provide. I’ll suit up the next night and sell 1st growth Bordeaux (to those who can afford it) at one of Manhattan’s premier restaurants, and the musicians who accompanied me that night will make most of their month’s bread playing private home gigs for the 1% in the city, or working out of town – not in small clubs like this. The list by which artists survive goes on; moonlighting gigs, social assistance – perhaps spouses who have chosen more lucrative professions. It’s always fascinating to find out how writers, musicians, artists and performers make their lives possible in the Apple, usually by means unrelated to their creative vocations.
The truth of being an artist in NYC today is just this – I don’t know a single artist, especially in music and theater, who can make a sustainable living working and playing only within the confines of the city. Before I first moved here maybe 8 years ago, I remember a Bostonian actor saying that the reason you move to New York is to leave it. I scoffed (something 22 year olds are very good at): I was going to live in the city and walk to work (a stroll from my spacious apartment to a Broadway theater would work nicely) and that would be that. Why would I ever want or need to leave? I think I was filled with ideas from a New York of times gone by – the Golden Age of theater, when live entertainment was the entertainment, demand for talent was high and supply was low, and living in your flat with ‘just your cat, a bed and a chair’ would not have cost 50% of your income. Or perhaps another era in jazz, when clubs dotted 52nd street and a musician could work not only just in the city but even make a week’s work on one street alone. These are my Camelots. I’m not the only upstart to move here with illusions, but gradually the facts had to dawn on me: all these New Yorks are long gone, and that model of living with them.
Times change. Entertainment changes (after all, they didn’t have Netflix streaming ‘House of Cards’ back then) and the beat goes on. But then there’s also the reality that this city has become prohibitively, exponentially more expensive than it was even a few decades ago, and income hasn’t kept pace. Prices of housing in particular have inflated past all precedent. I hear young enough people who sound like octogenarians recalling days of penny candy when they talk about their Alphabet City rent in the 90’s.
David Byrne has recently remarked on this and interpreted these circumstances as a warning to the city – a warning that the disparity of wealth that marks our society today is creating more pronounced strain on the city that’s famously been the creative heartbeat of the country. Patti Smith has also echoed that these economics spell doom to creative talent. From the perspective of the emerging artist in New York, I confirm their theses. Incredibly talented friends who’ve had the audacity to start families find that they can’t make a living gigging in the city while taking care of their new child – off they go to another state to more stable jobs, adequate housing where they can create and live at the same time in the same place. Lots of talented folks just lose their way; in the hustle to make a living art stops getting made. It’s not the usual age, fatigue or desire to leave that’s forcing talent I know out of this city; in many cases it’s cost of survival alone.
I’ve changed since moving here – in so many ways. New York’s lessons, hard and brutal, have schooled me to become a better artist, a more honest human and performer. I’ve discovered the music I’m meant to sing, and my voice with which to sing it. I’ve met the best collaborators and teachers I can possible have. I wouldn’t change a thing. But something’s happened in these years, and it goes back to that cocktail party conversation: “You move to New York so you can leave it.” I now think he was onto something. Sure, I love this city but now I know: New York is less a home for artists, and more of a port. This is the only place I could have found my voice, and now it’s time to take the show on the road. It isn’t just economics – it’s actually artistic necessity. To share, to see, to spread the sound. New York likes arrivals, it likes returns – just like a lover, sometimes it’s more advantageous to be missed, or even forgotten, so you might be rediscovered and be known anew.
The way I see it, it’s in the tea leaves, it’s in the stars – and if not those things, it’s sure as hell in the numbers. If you’re an artist, you have to go – even if you call New York City home, you can’t stay. I, luckily, am actually a little grateful for the prospect of tour and travel. And perhaps, the dockings back in port might even feel a bit like a homecoming.