Musicians Weigh Big-City Dreams Against Hometown Pride
Maryanna Sokol is a 29-year-old singer and songwriter originally from Houston, but she left her hometown for New York almost two years ago.
"New York is just filled with talent everywhere you go," she says.
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. But after a while, this long-distance relationship just wasn't cutting it.
"I couldn't just sit in Texas and look at the computer screen and listen to recordings from their shows," Sokol says. "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, for me, for some reason, was just not happening in Houston."
Sokol says she was drawn to New York by the promise of a "good indie pop singer-songwriter chick community." But she's aware of the city's challenges: New York is tough, expensive and full of competition.
"I felt like I was going to be like a little piece of algae in a huge ocean," Sokol says.
Some musicians decide not to migrate. The members of Bass Drum of Death live in their hometown of Oxford, Miss. –- a city of around 19,000 people. Guitarist and singer John Barrett says he prefers living there for some of the same reasons Sokol left Houston.
"[The] thing I like about living in Mississippi is I'm able to do exactly what I want," Barrett says. "I have minimal interference from what other people think, or like, what may be cool that week or whatever. I'm able to chill out and write the songs that I like."
Bass Drum of Death is signed to the well-known indie label Fat Possum, which happens to be based out of Oxford. 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 relocating at one point.
"When I was in high school, I used to like dream about moving up to New York," Barrett says. "But after I went a couple times, and l really had to deal with all the stuff that you would have to deal with if you lived there, I was like, 'Man — this is a terrible place to be.' "
Sokol has faced some of the troubles that come with trying to make a name for herself in a city such as New York.
"I've played to a room of two people," she says. "But even that night, the girl who played before me stayed for my set 'cause she felt sorry for me."
Sokol kept in touch with that musician. The two helped introduce one another to others in the scene, and Sokol realized another benefit of New York: networking.
"You can be at a party," Sokol says, "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?' "
Even John Barrett acknowledges that, 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.
"Moving somewhere might, quote-unquote, be 'better' for me right now in my career," Barrett admits. "But I want to be a part of something that's 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. I want to stay and be a part of building that."
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.
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