Is the California Exodus Creating More Music Cities?

As musicians leave California in droves as part of a larger exodus from the state, live music communities are growing in cities like Denver, Tampa, and Phoenix.

Is the California Exodus Creating More Music Cities?
Harry Levin
Harry Levin
March 20, 20249 min read
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Whether it’s Phantom Planet’s “California,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication,” or the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” the Golden State has, for decades, been the USA’s in-house paradise, especially for music lovers. 

California is where you find longstanding music festivals like Coachella and Outside Lands, the headquarters of major record labels like Universal Music Group and EMPIRE, and prestige award shows, including the Grammys. 

However, California is losing some of its luster. People have been leaving the state in droves for many years. Cities like Los Angeles are still musical hotbeds, but the migration away from California is creating ample opportunities for people to work in music or enjoy diverse live music offerings all around the country. 

“America is branching out with their scenes,” says Zach Weinert, a member of the ascending electronic music project MZG. The other member is Zach’s twin brother, Charles. They considered moving to LA from their native Florida when they started pursuing MZG full-time in 2017, but they settled in Denver instead, and their music careers have grown significantly since then.

“Instead of it being all welled up into the major cities, it spread out ticket buyers throughout the nation. Because of the exodus outside of LA, there is more of a population that wants to be entertained elsewhere.”
— Charlie Weinert, MZG

This mass migration is commonly known as the California Exodus, and it has seen millions of people move out of the state. 

According to the United States Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2022, the out-migration rate in California surpassed the in-migration rate by nearly 2 million residents. From April 1, 2020, to July 1, 2022, California ranked last among US states by domestic migration, with 871k more residents leaving than moving in.

There are many reasons why so many people are leaving California; the LA Times cited factors like crime, pollution, and long commutes. But, the central reason for the migration is the cost of living.  

“You’re paying a premium to be around so many creative people,” says Devin Lezama, founder of the electronic music lifestyle brand, EDM Maniac

Lezama used to live in LA. His taxes increased dramatically when EDM Maniac started netting him a higher salary, and he noticed that his tax money wasn’t going to fix roads or anything else that improved his daily life. 

He moved from LA to Orlando, Florida, and because he works fully remotely now (like a lot of other creative people), he avoided the high prices without affecting his career.

“When things get too expensive, it drives all the creative people away,”
— Devin Lezama, EDM Maniac

At $53,171 per year, California has the third-highest cost of living in the country — behind only Massachusetts and Hawaii. This prices out many musicians, as their reported average salary is already $5k less. Many make far less, and given that this is an extremely volatile job responsible for only 24 out of every 100k jobs in the state, is not a reliable source of income.   

For newer artists, that means a move to California will require them to work outside of music. There is no point in being surrounded by creative people if you have to spend all your free time working a job you hate to keep a roof over your head. 

“LA was going to be a little pricey. We were going to have to make some sacrifices there. A lot more than we would have to in Denver.”
— Charlie Weinert, MZG

With people making sacrifices to live in California, attending live music events is harder to afford. These rising costs are reflected in the number of live events available in major California metropolitan areas. Since 2010, cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen either a decrease or stagnation in live music offerings. Furthermore, the number of concerts in these two cities has yet to return anywhere close to their pre-pandemic levels, as it has elsewhere.

According to data gathered from Chartmetric via the concert discovery service Songkick, Los Angeles was home to just over 15k concerts in 2013. In 2023, just a decade later, that number had fallen by 20%, with under 12k shows being held in the city. This is also the case in San Francisco, where the number of live events fell by nearly a third over the same period. 

As the number of concerts is falling in the state, they are steadily increasing in the cities where former Californians are moving to, like Florida, which is one of the more popular destinations. In 2022, 50k Californians moved to Florida, where the cost of living is nearly $13k cheaper.

Two of the most popular cities for new Californians in Florida are Orlando and Tampa. These cities not only saw sizable growth in the number of live events per year during the 2010s, but have also both returned much closer to their pre-pandemic levels than the California cities. 

Beyond the growing number of events, Lezama says the events are far more relaxed and fun because of the lower cost of living. 

“The vibes here were really pure and not as flashy as LA. It reminded me of old-school rave culture. When you don’t have the pressures of a $20 drink, people aren’t upset that they’re spending so much money,” Lezama says.

Furthermore, due to the rise in remote work, many Californians who are moving to Orlando are maintaining their California salaries. Per Forbes, California has the second-highest average salary at $73k per year, over $30k higher than the average cost of living in Florida. 

These Californians can afford to treat themselves to elevated music experiences, and major forces in the industry are capitalizing on this trend. Insomniac, the largest electronic music promoter in the US and a subsidiary of concert giant Live Nation, has hosted its most prominent event, Electric Daisy Carnival, in Orlando since 2014. That’s longer than any other location besides its flagship in Las Vegas, which started in 2011. 

Insomniac also produced two new festivals in Orlando in the last five years: Forbidden Kingdom and Skyline. And for year-round events, Insomniac recently purchased the Orlando nightclub The Vanguard, which hosted its first event in December 2020.

Tampa is another Florida city seeing major growth in its live music market, with the number of concerts per year growing by 45% from 2010 to 2019. 

“I used to go to shows that had 100 people. Now those same companies can find somewhere to throw their events that fit 500 to 600 people because of how many new people have moved here,” Ashley Kelaita says of Tampa. 

Kelaita is a journalist and artist manager who lived in Tampa for 20 years and recently relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida. These cities are roughly half an hour away from each other, and their music scenes share artists, promoters, and venues. And, new venues are popping up in St. Petersburg: Synergy Hot Glass, a glass-blowing studio and event space, opened in 2021 and has recently started hosting artists like the house music stalwart Alan Nieves. A year before saw the birth of Coastal Creative, a two-room warehouse that hosts everything from comedy acts to movie nights to shows with prominent DJs like Ternion Sound.

“I’ve seen more growth in the styles of music that have been coming here,” Kelaita says. “Five years ago, if you wanted to see a house [music] show, there would be close to nothing. Now this past weekend, if I were to look in St. Pete, I’d have at least two or three options.”

But Florida isn’t the only option for Californians who want musical opportunities at a lower price. Other cities where former Golden State residents are heading include Nashville, Phoenix, and Denver. In terms of cost of living, these cities range from 35% to 51% lower than Los Angeles and 54% to 72% lower than San Francisco, according to Forbes. 

Like Tampa and Orlando, these cities have seen growth in their concert industries, with the number of live events per year nearly doubling in Nashville between 2010 and 2019.

While most cities that former Californians now call home are seeing growth, many, including Tampa, Orlando, and Nashville, have yet to host the same number of events a month as they did before the pandemic. 

That’s what makes Phoenix a particularly interesting case. In Phoenix, the highest number of shows in a single month in 2010 was 179 in March. Then in 2019, the number rose to 265 in April, and in October 2023, following the worst of the pandemic, there were 282 events listed. 

“Certain weekends we’ll have 10 shows that we’re throwing [in Phoenix],” says Jason Euler, Experience Creator at Relentless Beats, the largest electronic music event promoter in Arizona. “Not to mention all the other local companies that are pushing events. There’s really a place for every subgenre of dance music. Someone is curating it here.”

When Euler first moved to Phoenix in 2016, there was a similar diversity in genres, but promoters weren’t hosting events for them every weekend. He greatly credits this increase in events to the population growth in Arizona. 

He’s making friends with a lot of people in the electronic music scene in Phoenix who have moved there from California. In fact, so many people are coming to Phoenix that Relentless Beats is facing a venue shortage.

“We have a hard time finding where to put a good number of our events,” Euler says. “There’s only so many venues in the state right now that can support the number of people we’re bringing out.”

Why do so many people in Phoenix want to go to live events? Could it be that there are more music fans in the city compared to others?

To best determine this, we created a value that reflects the volume of music listeners in a handful of select cities. This metric was calculated by adding the last recorded count of Spotify monthly listeners in a city across all artists for each month of 2023. This was then averaged across the year to get the average number of Spotify monthly listeners at any given time in 2023 in each city. These values were then divided by the population of their respective cities (using the July 2022 Census PEP estimates) to get a per capita ratio, wherein a higher number indicates that a larger share of a city uses Spotify and a lower number reflects a smaller proportion of users.1

This creates a viable representation of Spotify usage, and therefore active music listeners, in cities, demonstrating a striking trend in musical interest. For example, music listenership is three times higher in Phoenix than in San Diego.

Californians are taking their interest in music with them when they move.

“These are all people that appreciate artistry in multiple facets,” Zach Weinert says. “A lot of people have moved on to other cities and brought the same love of music,” added his twin Charles.

Denver is one city where the love of music is incredibly strong. Of the 10 cities examined, it had the highest ratio of Spotify monthly listeners to its population, about twice more than San Francisco or Los Angeles and nearly six times more than Nashville.

Furthermore, compared to the size of their population, Denver hosts an outsized number of concerts. In 2023, there were 62 concerts for every 100k people living in the city. That’s twice as many per capita as LA, which only had 31 concerts for every 100k LA residents. Of course, venues in cities like LA can hold more people and concert-goers often go outside city limits to see shows, but it’s undeniable that Denver hosts more concerts than would be expected for a city of its size. It was only beaten by Las Vegas (a mecca for live events) and San Francisco. Despite the experiences shared by people living in Phoenix, the city surprisingly ranked last among those examined for this metric, with only 12 concerts for every 100k people in 2023.

This level of musical interest in Denver gives burgeoning artists like MZG the chance to grow in a way that used to be reserved for cities like Los Angeles. Instead of moving to Los Angeles with a dream, they went to Denver, where they are making their dreams a reality.

“We’ve gone to the moon,” says Zach Weinert. “We’ve had the chance to play Red Rocks, Mission Ballroom; we’ve sold out shows here. We owe a lot to Denver for our success.” His brother agreed, sharing that “it’s not centered towards making it in the big city anymore.”

The big city is certainly still an option to make it. Los Angeles has the second-highest number of events in the country, only behind New York. New venues like The Bellwether, The Spotlight, and The Vermont Hollywood are opening in the city as well.

But Los Angeles and elsewhere in California are not artists’ only options anymore. They can make songs in their bedroom with a laptop from anywhere in the US and if they’re not already living in a new solid hub for music, then there is one a short drive away. Wherever that hub may be, there will be a growing community of music lovers waiting to listen.

Data Notes
1 Spotify monthly listener counts are only available on the city level in an artist’s top 50 cities, so counts are incomplete. Furthermore, counts of monthly listeners are not unique — if a user listened to 10 artists on a particular day, they would be counted 10 times. These numbers are approximations, not hard counts, and are more to get a sense of how big the music scene is in a given city.

Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of March 19, 2024.