The best places to live as a songwriter

Looking for the best places to live, tour, or visit as a songwriter? 

Hi friends. I know many of you are on the road a great portion of your life. I wanted to build a list that will help you find new touring markets, locate potential co-writing opportunities, and maybe even find a new place to live if it helps your craft. 

Interested in touring Europe? Check out Brett Newski’s online course “How to Tour Europe without an Agent or Label.”

Here’s what makes a GREAT city for songwriters:

This list is formulated on three primary factors…

  1. Cost-of-living
  2. Opportunity (Gigs to be had, co-writes, etc.)
  3. Community support (Fan quality and quantity, radio stations, etc.)

… and three secondary factors…

  1. Government arts support
  2. Over-saturation of musicians 
  3. Architecture and livability of the city

Over the past seven years I’ve spent ample time in each city below, visiting the venues and chatting to countless local musicians to get a feel for its pulse. I have also played several gigs in each market. 

Photo of Brett Newski at Old Theatre taken by Ty Helbach.

Keep in mind, this is a loose science. Everyone will have a different opinion and I encourage you to add thoughts in the comments so we can grow this list and make it more comprehensive. We all have our expertise in particular regions, so the more knowledge we can gather, the better.

Why not NYC, London, and LA?

I left out a few of the greatest cities in the world (London, New York, LA) due to cost of living. Big cities with exorbitant cost-of-living often require you to work other jobs that eat up so much precious creative time. There is also infinite distraction. 

While there are tremendous networking opportunities in London, NY and LA, there’s simply less time to dedicate to the craft of songwriting. These cities are still very important to keep a presence in; I try to visit these places once or twice per year to take meetings and co-writing sessions. Then I retreat to my home of Milwaukee, WI to write and prep for future tours. 

A great argument can be made that living in a smaller city (under 100,000) is the way to go (i.e. Taos NM, Billings MT, etc.). I love this romantic idea of living in “seclusion” because it does force you to get work done. There’s minimal distraction and perhaps a healthier environment for precision focus to write and record. However, I feel it is vital to be around a population big enough where new doors can open for you. So I am mainly choosing to focus on cities with over 100,000 people.

Here we go…

10. Vienna, Austria 

The gateway to eastern Europe, Vienna is a sprawling city with a gritty edge and a deep historical appreciation for the arts. Graffiti coats the city, and music venues and museums are sprinkled everywhere.

Vienna Songwriting Association and Bluebird Festival are at the epicenter of the songwriter scene. Quality booking agencies like Ink Music and Arcadia have good songwriters on their rosters. Fm4 is a radio station with a large audience that takes risks and puts smaller indie songwriters in rotation.

Neighboring market Graz is also an unbelievable town for songwriters that contributes to Vienna’s strength. Check out Platoo for consistently good intimate shows. A downside is Vienna’s location for touring. It’s quite a ways from major touring markets Zurich, Hamburg, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

9. Amsterdam, Netherlands 

A magical world of wee roads and mythical gingerbread houses, Amsterdam is a wildly inspiring place for songwriters. The Dutch also speak perfect English, which truly puts them on the international songwriting map with their appreciation of lyrics.

Amsterdam Songwriters Guild has a showcase/open mic to harbor new talent every week. Mokum Sessions shoots high definition live videos of performances around Amsterdam. Independent agencies and labels are prevalent.

Sonically, the population embraces singer/songwriter music more than any European country.

8. Quad Cities, IA

The crossroads of Midwestern America, these four little towns have truly put Midwest indie music on the map. The catalyst is undoubtedly Sean Moeller’s (Daytrotter founder) ability as a promoter for bringing multiple touring bands per week.  Venues like Raccoon Motel, Rozz Tox, and festivals like 80/35 and Hinterland (near neighboring Des Moines) have gained recognition for their strong lineups.

Iowa does provide arts grants to independent musicians, which is quite rare in the US (must be an Iowa resident). 

7. Clonakilty, Ireland 

A tiny town situated on the secluded southern coast of Ireland, Clonakilty is a songwriter’s paradise. The longstanding Debarra’s Folk Club and Clonakilty International Guitar Festival anchor the scene and make Clon the only tiny city on this list. Songwriting is just embedded in the culture. Song circles are common and odds are, even your local bartender writes great tunes. Clonakilty is also the place with the freshest Murphy’s Stout (close to the source).

Location poses an issue for international touring acts, but the Dublin airport is only two hours by bus. 

6. Johannesburg, South Africa

Situated at the bottom of the universe, Johannesburg is home to the friendliest people in the entire world. Joburg’s secluded location also keeps the douchebags out (it’s 10,000 miles from Los Angeles ;).

Cost-of-living is extremely fair and the food and coffee scenes are booming. Festivals like Parklife, Park Acoustics, Outland, & Splashey Fen are all within striking distance of Joburg. There is consistent demand from fans for live music events, both indoors and outdoors. I have several songwriter friends who make a living just by performing on the eastern half of South Africa. 

5. Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is edgier than most western cities in Europe. Thus it’s more rock n’ roll oriented than neighboring Netherlands (which leans more toward singer/songwriter music). The epicenter of live venue culture is likely AB Brussels (often noted as one of Europe’s most important venues).

Classic architecture and a multi-cultural food scene assist in the inspiration of the place. Caroline is a bad ass record shop that supports the indie scene. Pias and V2 are well-respected indie labels that put Belgium on the map. Radio Brussel has expansive reach and can be trusted to NOT play lowest-common-denominator top 40.

4. Toronto, Canada

I recently hung out with one of Toronto’s heads of Government arts funding. Let’s just say she had an annual arts budget comparable to the salary of an NBA superstar. All of that money went to Ontario-based indie artists to release their own albums. 

Toronto also has perhaps the highest talent per capita I’ve seen (one man’s opinion). The tolerance for rubbish music in Toronto is low. You’ve got to have the chops to survive and get slots at the decent clubs. 

Ontario has a blossoming house concert circuit and vibrant festival scene. Cost of living is high and competition is fierce, but surrounding oneself with this amount of ferocious talent can only up your game. Dine Alone Records is an underground legend in the label world, fostering acts like Heartless Bastards, Delta Spirit, Matthew Logan Vasquez, Field Report, and The Lumineers. 

Note: If you’re not Canadian, its close to impossible to get your hands on this Government arts money. 

3. Milwaukee, WI

Full disclosure: This is my home base.

There is a healthy amount of work for touring bands in Wisconsin. There are simply less bands than on the coasts, so over-saturation doesn’t seem to be a problem. Show-goers have a reasonable cost-of-living and therefore disposable income to go to shows and buy merch. Good bands can make an impact here and leave their stamp on the music culture.

Summer hosts a vibrant festival circuit. There is a blossoming house show circuit in Wisconsin as well. Nationally recognized radio stations Radio Milwaukee and WMSE champion local music and have been known to put bands on the national radar. Milwaukee Record, The Journal Sentinel, and Shepherd Express cover local music thoroughly. Milwaukee in particular has beautiful historic Architecture in every neighborhood.

2. Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg is currently the hub of the German music industry (and Germany is the #3 music market in the world). Hamburg is home to the Reeperbahn Festival (Europe’s SXSW).

Hamburg’s central location makes it a prime Euro touring hub with a phenomenal airport. While it isn’t cheap, cost-of-living seems very fair. Government arts support is prevalent. The pace of life is relatively slow, making it healthy for creatives. A booming entrepreneur scene is helping the city progress quickly. 

1. Nashville, USA

The “college campus for songwriters,” Nashville is the default #1. For writers, there is grand opportunity here for co-writing, sync placements, and publishing deals. If you’re looking to write songs for other artists, this is the place. Many of my friends are on a retainer from a publisher, getting paid an annual salary to write songs.

Nashville is also a great touring hub: the midwest, the east coast, and the south are at your fingertips. If you’re fronting a band, please keep in mind, this saturated market of musicians makes getting paid for gigs in town very difficult. However, if you’re a studio musician or playing as a pick-up-player for other acts, this is a prime spot to be.

What did I miss? Leave thoughts and comments.