Should You Move To Los Angeles To Further Your Music Career?

You might be a musician in a small town who is frustrated with the local music scene. Or you might be a rapper with dreams for stardom.  Maybe you want to be a film composer but there’s not much going in your particular town.  For many people, they believe the golden ticket is to pack up and head to LA. But is this the right move to further your career or ambitions?  This is a complicated question, but I’ll try to answer it from my first hand experience. 

From the mid to the late nineties, I was running a very successful home studio. It was custom built, with a nice selection of keyboards, a few nice preamps, mics and converters.

(My home studio in Toronto, Circa 1999.  This was one of the few photos I could find. I did take more photos, but had left them on my 1.3  megapixel digital camera that I had back then. My wife and I brought the camera to LA, her purse got stolen and we lost a couple of hundred photos, mainly of our newborn baby)

Toronto home studio circa 1999

I mainly dealt with singers and rappers. They would bring me their lyrics, and I would give them a custom production. People were very happy with my results and I was booked solid for 2 months at a time; I was working 7 days a week, often 16 hour days (one one occasion, I worked for 44 hours straight, taking only a half an hour break to eat. Don’t ask me how or why I did it). I remember one of my good clients was so frustrated to have to wait to get in my studio that he paid off another client just so he could take his studio time. Business was good, but I wasn’t happy with the local music scene. It was very tough for Canadian artists to land a good major label deal. Many of my clients tried and very few had any success. I did some work for quite a few of the major labels (remixes, mixing, a few small deals here and there) but nothing that every amounted to anything significant.   I thought that if I were to ever make it on a global level as a producer or an artist (I had my own material as well that I promoted), it would make sense to head over to LA, the entertainment capital of the world, and try to make it. After much thought, I decided to go for it. I began to deal with an immigration lawyer on the logistics of getting a Visa in order to run a business in the United States. As a Canadian, it was a lot tougher than I thought to obtain residency. I would have to secure a location for my studio, sign a lease and provide all the paperwork to my lawyer. He would then begin the paperwork (I spent thousands of dollars just for that). Then, when we would get the ok from the US Consulate, we could head over to LA to start our investment. We were applying for an investment Visa (E-2) and we had to spend a minimum of $100,000 US dollars as part of the requirement for the Visa. And get this, after spending all that money, there was no guarantee that we would get it (seriously, the red tape was out of this world).  It seemed this was the only way, so my wife supported and we did it.  I flew down to LA, signed a lease for a small recording studio space in a nice part of town (very close to the Sunset Strip). I came back to Canada and continued working while making payments on an empty studio (for almost one year). We finally got the green light to go, so we sold our home and all the music gear I had. I would fly to LA first, begin to set up the recording studio and my wife would join me in a couple of months with our 4 month old daughter at the time. I was young, passionate and super excited to finally move to LA.  Everything was looking great, and then one of the worst things happened, the events of 911!  There’s chaos on a global scale, and I was going to start a new life in a new country. Talk about the worse timing ever. I was in too deep financially, I couldn’t back out at this point.  My family and friends insisted I stay in Toronto, but I was stubborn; I decided to go through with it. My airline ticket was booked, and I wasn’t going to change flights.  I was on probably one of the first flights out of Toronto a few days after the events of 911. It was surreal, I was on a Boeing 747 with 4 people on the flight. The plane was empty, there was literally more crew on board than passengers. This should give you an indication of what people are willing to do to follow their dreams. Nothing was going to stop me. Yes, I am persistent, and possibly mad in my pursuits.

In Los Angeles

(a photo of me and my daughter in Los Angeles, Circa 2002)

In los angeles

I went straight to work. I began building my own recording booth, laid down new floors, painted and began spending a fortune on gear. If I was going to make it, I thought I would get a head start by buying only the best equipment i could afford. I purchased top of the line preamps, compressors, microphones, synthesizers and a Digidesign Pro Tools Mix 3 system (the best they had at the time). One week later, Digidesign releases their Pro Tools HD3 system. WTF! I just dropped like 40 grand just on Pro Tools, and now it’s obsolete? I was furious! After much heckling with the guys at Sam Ash music, they agreed I could upgrade to the HD3 system. Ok, I did that, but I had to spend an extra $10,000 (it was more expensive and the interfaces were more expensive). At this point, I didn’t know what else could go wrong. Well, it didn’t end there. It seems that because of the events of 911, the US consulate changed their policy regarding business investors. I wasn’t going to get an answer after showing all the receipts for what I had spent on my recording studio. Normally, it would take a couple of weeks, but now it would take months. My wife joined me in LA and we rented the cheapest car we could on a monthy rate (a small Saturn) and began living out of a hotel. Since we didn’t get the final confirmation for our Visa, I couldn’t make the commitment and sign a lease for a place to live. We had to wait, and so we did. Weeks turned into months. We would email our lawyer every few days, and he was getting frustrated with us. He would tell us there was nothing he could do and we just had to wait for the US consulate to respond. The big problem we had was that during this time, I could not legally work without a visa. I had the studio, and couldn’t do anything. We were slowly draining the rest of the money we had from the sale of our home. After 7months, we got the answer; WE GOT APPROVED! I was happy, and distraught at the fact that I had to wait so long. We were spending about $4000 per month (car, hotel, food, doctor visits for our daughter) with no income coming in. 

Working In Los Angeles

(here is my good friend JD Shultz in my studio in Los angeles, circa 2003. He’s a super talented musician and artist. He kindly gave me that painting in the background)

Jd shultz in the studio

Here he is with one of his many clients, Larry King

Jd shultz with larry king

We finally found a place to live. We began renting out a small guest house (really, really small) for about $1400 per month (It was actually a bargain for the area, considering we had a parking spot and a tiny backyard. Most 1 bedroom apartments in the area were going for close to $2000).  It was a 15 minute walk from my studio, so it was convenient enough that I did’t need to purchase a car just yet. Everything was close by. Melrose was the next street over, the sunset strip was a few blocks to the north and Beverly Hills began a few blocks to the west.

I began advertising like a man possessed, I had no choice. I took out small ads in the local music trade publications, posted daily ads on craigslist and printed thousands of postcards to advertise my studio. I would walk 8 hours or more per day, putting these postcards everywhere. I would come home dragging my feet of how exhausted I was, only to have our daughter keep us up at night (we were new parents and my wife breast-fed our daughter until she was two: we didn’t know what the hell we were doing). It wasn’t an easy life, but I had to do everything to succeed. I still had a smile on my face. The weather was great and I would just envision great things happening in my music career. After a few weeks, clients started to trickle in. I did the absolute best work that I could to as a producer, mixer and engineer. Clients were very happy. Financially, I was still not stable. My income was not enough to offset the current living expenses, so I worked even harder.

Just by living and working in Los Angeles, I did get to work on worthwhile projects and made valuable contacts that I would otherwise have never made living in Canada. I got the opportunity to score a few films, worked with a few famous people (Trevor Horn for Seal, The Neville Brothers, Afrika Bambaata, etc). One of my productions landed on a Latin Grammy Nominated album.  Even as an artist I got a lot of exposure. One of the live shows I performed at was for a huge Cindo De Mayo festival in downtown Los Angeles. I performed an entire weekend, sold some cd’s and spent an hour each day signing autographs (it was really baffling to me, I had no radio airplay and I’m sure the crowd had not heard of who I was, but they were very receptive, and mainly friendly Mexican ladies).  All these opportunities would have never been available to me had I still been in Toronto. The aura of Los Angeles was nice. It hardly ever rained (sometimes less than 5 days out of the year). Walking to my studio was a pleasure. My studio was situated right behind a very discreet Cafe called Quality. It had no sign, and was only open until 3:00 pm daily. Every day, it was filled with famous stars and musicians (I had breakfast there many times, and sat beside Rene Zellweger, Lionel Richie, Matt Sorum of Guns And Roses and a few others. No one was starstruck in there, and you wouldn’t dare ask for an autograph or photo (if you are ever in LA, this is one of the places that you’ll see many stars. You’ll never see anyone famous walking on the Hollywood walk of fame. It’s mainly for tourists there, and stars would never walk those streets, contrary to popular belief). I was settling in to the LA lifestyle, and at times it was nice.

(Stephen Baldwin, one of the stars of “The Genius Club” in which I did the entire movie score, sound design, folley and mix down (yes, I’m a jack of all trades at times). Another one of the stars featured in the film is Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Natural Born Killers)

Stephen baldwin movie premiere

Was It Worth It?

Knowing what I know now, I more mature version of myself would tell you no. But had I not moved to LA, I don’t think I could live with myself not knowing what could have been.

Conclusion

Although I got the opportunity to work with great people and on many amazing projects, financially I just was not doing that great (it was really hard to recover after all the months of no income due to the immigration fiasco (911 was a big part of that).  I was hoping I would eventually be tied to a platinum selling artist (as a producer, engineer, songwriter, anything at all; getting royalties on a hit song would have been nice), but that never happened.  I tried, but it never happened. In time I was finally making a small profit from my studio, but it wasn’t enough to live a somewhat comfortable life. There were many things I should have taken into consideration before I made the big move to Los Angeles. The cost of living in LA is astronomical compared to Toronto. Healthcare was expensive (free in Canada). After a couple of years, we were faced with a tough decision. My wife had been working for a large telecomunications company back in Toronto for over 15 years. She had taken an extended leave of absence, and if she did not go back, she would lose her job (along with great benefits). I had to think of my family, so we packed up and went back to Canada.

I’m the last person to tell you what to do with your life. If you think you might have better luck in Los Angeles, then go for it. What ever you do, plan for every worse case scenario and make sure you’re covered financially. Hollywood and the general Los Angeles area is a tough place. If you decide to save on rent and live in a shady part of town, you’ll be faced with drug dealers, hookers, shootings, and high crime (a good friend of mine is a cop in LA, and he told me that if they chase a suspect into an alley in a known gang area, they’ll often call the search off for fear of being shot).

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