When Dave Sitek of New York indie rock group TV on the Radio first moved to Los Angeles in 2008, “it was kinda dead out here,” he recalls. “Everyone thought I was crazy.” But back in Brooklyn, where his band had gotten its start, rents were skyrocketing; the old warehouse spaces where TV on the Radio and its contemporaries, bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes, could live and work on the cheap were rapidly being converted into condos and restaurants.
“Art comes from having time and the ability to fail and regroup,” says Sitek. “And it just wasn’t like that anymore. When I moved to Williamsburg, my rent was $400. When I left, it was $7,000. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
A decade later, a growing number of musicians have joined Sitek in what has become an exodus of talent from New York to Los Angeles. Current and former members of such iconic New York bands as the aforementioned Strokes, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors now call L.A. home.
“They all live here,” author Lizzy Goodman told L.A.-based comedian Marc Maron on his WTF podcast last fall, referring to the many bands and musicians she interviewed for her oral history of the New York rock scene in the 2000s, Meet Me in the Bathroom. For many musicians—even those who have enjoyed some commercial success like Sitek—cost of living is one of the biggest motivators in the migration west. Despite L.A.’s soaring rents, the city remains more affordable than its East Coast counterpart. But there are deeper industry trends at work as well.
“The center of gravity has moved to L.A.,” says Olivier Chastan, a French producer and entrepreneur who came to L.A. two years ago after living in New York for 23 years. When he first arrived in New York during the ’90s, he recalls, “every major label had their headquarters in New York City.” Today the three remaining major labels—Sony, Universal, and Warner—have all shifted the bulk of their operations to Los Angeles. But even more important than labels is what Chastan calls “the engine that drives our industry—the young producers, the young managers, the young artists. They’re all in L.A. now.”
One of those young artists is singer-guitarist Amber Coffman. After wrapping up a tour with her former band Dirty Projectors in early 2013, she decided to stay in L.A. for a few weeks to “see what it felt like.” Five years later, she’s still here, which she attributes to a combination of factors—weather, cheaper housing, community, but mainly L.A.’s sprawling urban landscape. “I need privacy to write,” says Coffman, who released her debut solo album, City of No Reply, last year. “I need to know that nobody can hear me singing and messing around. I want to feel like I’m alone—which is extremely hard to find in New York.” In L.A. she rented an Eastside house within a month and soon decided, “There’s no way I’m going back.”
When she needs a break from seclusion, Coffman enjoys having a community of other musicians nearby, made up in large part of fellow expat New Yorkers. She can visit her friend Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, to “bounce around ideas,” then go catch a show at Zebulon, once one of her favorite Brooklyn venues—which lost its original Williamsburg space in 2012 only to reopen in L.A.’s Frogtown neighborhood last year.
Sitek, a self-described recluse, appreciates the relative anonymity he gets from living in what he half-jokingly calls “the sticks”—a suburban stretch of the city he declines to name. “I don’t think anyone who lives within a mile of me has even heard of Sonic Youth,” he says.
Though many New York musicians have embraced their new Angeleno identities—Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi described the city as “paradise” to Rolling Stone, and electronic musician Moby has been an L.A. booster since moving here in 2010—others are more reluctant. Both Nick Zinner and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs officially describe themselves as “splitting their time” between New York and L.A., and St. Vincent singer-guitarist Annie Clark, in a recent New Yorker profile, insisted that her house in Laurel Canyon serves strictly as a “studio and working space,” not a residence. Such distinctions might be for tax reasons as much as anything, but Goodman, author of Meet Me in the Bathroom, thinks a deep strain of New Yorker pride may underpin it as well. “A lot of them…keep places in New York,” she told Maron on his podcast. “Like a little apartment near the Bowery or a little whatever. Just to be like, ‘No, no—that’s me. I still have a place to rest my head.’”