RELOCATION: A HUMBLING EXPERIENCE
I’ve started over in a new place 3 times - 4 if you count moving back to New Zealand between the 2nd and 3rd relocations. Coming back to Auckland, NZ after 6+ years away felt like a big enough readjustment that I think of it as another new start, albeit one with an already established support network of friends and family. So maybe that makes it half a fresh start. My first move was to Las Vegas to do a Masters of Music in Jazz Bass at UNLV. Two years later I moved to London, UK, where I lived for 4 years before returning to Auckland. The most recent move was 4 and a half years ago to Nashville, Tennessee.
It’s said that moving cities is nearly as stressful as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, divorce or buying a house. The sudden immersion in a new environment is profoundly disorienting. Every day you’re doing completely new things, making thousands of tiny decisions about things that will eventually become automatic. From working out the fastest route to work, or deciding which car insurance to buy, to trying to figure out where you can get that specialty breakfast cereal you love (or something even vaguely similar). Your brain works harder than usual each day as you learn your new environment and, without the benefit of any habitual tasks, every small thing requires more effort and energy at first. In addition to finding your new favourite grocery store, mechanic or gym you’re either adjusting to a new job or job hunting. You might be looking for somewhere to live, or figuring out how to live in the new environment you’ve already chosen. It’s a tough situation to throw yourself in, but one that I believe to be invaluable for personal growth - both as a musician, and just as a human.
First: Why Starting Over Is Good For All People
Broadening your horizons is a wonderful experience and many people encounter other cultures and learn from those experiences through travel. Living within a different culture, however, is total immersion and something that changes you forever. You meet people you could never otherwise have known, experience things you can’t on vacation and, if you’re lucky, learn some profound things about yourself. There’s nothing quite like the experience of living as “the foreigner” to highlight the differences and similarities between two cultures and serve as a mirror to reflect back to you things you could never have realized about yourself and your birth culture had you never left it.
Being amongst people of widely varied backgrounds and ethos is a transformative experience that I believe helps you become a more empathetic person, clarifies what you believe vs what you’ve assumed, and means you can make an informed decision about how you truly want to live.
Second: The Unexpected Benefits of Relocation for Musicians
Sometimes a fresh start somewhere new is an obvious move for a musician. Maybe your dream is to work in Broadway shows but you live in a small town with no theatre. Maybe you want to play bluegrass but you live in a country where no-one has even heard of it. Moving to be in closer proximity to the people who also love what you love and do what you do (or want to do) is a no brainer. I moved to Nashville because I (and Cy, the other half of Tattletale Saints) wanted a full-time touring career and Nashville seemed like one of only a few places where that was actually a possibility. The motivation behind relocation is usually practical, but there’s an unexpected bonus I’ve discovered through my many re-starts.
The side of relocation that has always struck me as a musician, is how incredibly humbling it is. No matter how good you are, no matter how long you’ve been working in music, you arrive in a new city at the bottom of the pecking order. Unless you arrive with a full-time gig lined up, you have to start from scratch; meeting people, jamming, building relationships and working for little or nothing. If you’re already good at what you do it doesn’t take as long as someone starting out for the first time, but it still takes a while. It takes longer than you think it will, and surviving that frustrating dearth of gigs (emotionally and financially) is a humbling experience. A truly visceral reminder of how much you want to play and will do anything to be working again. The experience is further intensified when you can’t lean on family or a spouse for support.
As you build your musical reputation in a scene/city it’s easy to start to feel a little entitled. Like a big fish in a shrinking pond. Maybe you decide you won’t work for less than X dollars. You feel a certain kind of gig or genre of music is now below you and you’re busy enough that you have the luxury of being picky about the gigs you accept. I don’t begrudge people who set themselves a baseline for the work they’ll accept - I think valuing yourself and your worth is vital, and not doing so jeopardizes the entire industry. But I also strongly believe the widely known concept that a gig needs to have at least 2 of the following 3 elements: great music, excellent hang or baller money (3 out of 3 being the unicorn you hold onto forever). Money shoudn’t be the only thing you consider, even at the top. There is something to be said, however, for the experience of having no gigs again to make you truly value any chance to play that comes your way. Having to fight to climb back onto the ladder really tests your mettle and reminds you how badly you want to be doing it.
I remember in my early London days catching a train an hour south lugging my upright bass and GK combo amp to play a 3 hour jazz gig, making a whopping £20, which was half eaten up in train tickets. I’ve played many a free gig in Nashville, learning 12+ songs on bass, memorizing backing vocal parts and doing at least one rehearsal, to sometimes walk away with nothing or barely enough to cover the cost of the beer drunk at the gig and the gas it took to get there. I still play free gigs and I think it would be a tragedy if musicians only accepted big money gigs, forgetting that sometimes it’s nice just to play music for music’s sake. There is a distinct difference between accepting an unpaid gig because it’s something you know will bring you joy and accepting a low/no pay gig because you feel you’re not in a position to say no.
I remember the first gig I turned down in each of the places I’ve lived. The first time I was in a stable enough position financially to weigh the music, effort and money and decide that it wasn’t something I wanted to do. The first few years of life in every new city were spent saying yes to absolutely everything. Regardless of the music, despite the lack of decent money and knowing that if I started to calculate how much time I was putting in with song preparation and travel the resulting hourly rate would make me blanch. So the first time I was able to actually choose to say no felt like a momentous occasion. But I still see great value in all those first gigs - they became the stepping stones of a long meandering path that has led me to some of the best music I’ve ever played, some of the most amazing people I’m lucky enough to now call friends and wonderful life experiences I will never forget.
I think complacency and entitlement are dangerous things, and maybe other people can ward them off without throwing themselves to the bottom of heap in a new place, but I’ve needed the periodic reminder of how much I’m willing to go through just for the mere opportunity of being able to play music for a living. It’s healthy to remember that at the end of the day you don’t play gigs because you want X amount of dollars per night or your name in a certain size font above someone else’s on the poster - you play gigs and work as a musician because you love it and because nothing else makes you anywhere near as happy. And if you’re having trouble remembering that, I highly recommend packing your bags and moving somewhere new. Drop yourself to the bottom of the pile and you’ll quickly remember to be grateful that you’re playing at all.
Photo: Tim O’brien (who produced Tattletale Saints’ first album) and I at the Opry on my first trip to Nashville in 2013.