*Note: This article originally written and published for the Walks of New York website.
If the streets of New York could sing, they would play a rock opera. Or maybe a Broadway musical – something grand enough and detailed enough to encompass the many layers and facets of the city’s rich musical history. As a hub for live music, New York City provides a vast variety of options for visitors looking to hear the sounds of the city. With big name acts regularly selling out the city’s two main arenas, historic theaters welcoming a plethora of modern acts, and up-and-coming musicians vying for a time slot in the city’s smaller clubs, there’s a venue for every music fan. But with almost too many options, how do you decide what show to see? We’ve put together this guide to Live Music in NYC to help you sniff out the best venues when you come for a visit. It doesn’t matter if you want to catch the next big thing in the Lower East Side or take in a Kanye West show at Madison Square Garden, this guide will tell you where to go to enjoy whatever type of music tickles your fancy.
All That Jazz
New York jazz clubs historically played a significant role in the development of modern jazz by providing venues for some of the biggest names in the genre. Today the city still hosts an incredible lineup of small clubs packed with talent. The Village Vanguard in the West Village may be the best option for the jazz fanatics looking to see a classic-feeling gig in NYC, as this historic club has played host to some of the genre’s legends, including Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and more. This small theater just celebrated its 80th anniversary and offers nightly performances for only $25 plus a one drink minimum. Seating is on a first-come, first serve basis, so be sure to arrive early.
Insider tip: With smaller clubs, you may be required to buy a certain number of (alcoholic) drinks during the show, especially if the club offers a free show. Standard minimums are usually two drinks. You can often work around it, but remember that the arts in New York are funded by people who love them, like yourself, so if you don’t want to drink ask how you might contribute money otherwise. Often if the club serves food you can swap that to meet your requirement.
The Blue Note, one of the New York’s most popular music venues, brings some of today’s top jazz performers to the small stage, creating that up close and personal vibe only found at the best live music gigs. With performances held every night, and a Sunday brunch special, this may be your best option for ‘dinner and a live show.’ You can find the same intimate vibe at a number of small venues throughout the city, including Birdland, a jazz club that boasts “The Jazz Corner of the World;” The Iridium, a Midtown West club that still dominates the city’s jazz scene; and Smoke, a club on the Upper West Side that has held onto that, well, ‘smoky’ jazz vibe of the old days (Smoke is a personal favorite of ours. Prices are a little steep with the food and drink minimum, but the ambiance is incomparable).
If it’s big names and big jazz you’re looking for in your NYC music gigs, be sure to check out some of New York’s larger venues, including Jazz at Lincoln Center, an indoor amphitheater overlooking Columbus Circle and the southwest corner of Central Park. With three rooms to choose from, the Rose Theater, which holds 1,233, the Appel Room, with 483 seats, and the Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with 140 seats, you can have your pick of the experience.
Christian Gospel music can be traced back as early as the 17th century, stemming from the oral traditions of African Americans. As the music evolved, it became a full spiritual experience. We recently created a phenomenal list of specific churches where you can see gospel performances, but you can also catch a show at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and The Apollo.
Did you know: Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater is one of the most historically significant in the entire city. It has hosted performances by artists including Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, and more. Aside from the stars it hosts, the Apollo also runs a legendary Amateur Night where stars have been born and more than a few outsized egos put firmly in their places.
Among the live music bars in NYC, perhaps the best to go to if you want ample room to dance along to the band are the Latin music clubs. The most famous of these is in Manhattan’s SoHo district – SOBs has hosted latin legends including Marc Antony, Tito Puente, and Celia Cruz & Eddie Palmieri, and today offers concerts by popular world music artists. The club has a full restaurant, bar, and dance floor, so whether you want to cut a rug or just kick back and watch the action, you’ll be able to enjoy yourself.
If you’re looking to really immerse yourself in the dancing, Club Cache, located on 39th street just off of Times Square, offers weekly latin and bachata nights, with free bachata classes at 8 p.m. It’s famous for its salsa dancing Thursday, with live bands playing for the hundreds of people who stop by. Other popular spots for latin dancing and live music include Copacabana New York and Iguana New York.
Avoid the biggest mispronunciation made by NYC tourists: SoHo stands for “South of Houston”, referring to the East to West-running thoroughfare that has long acted as a boundary between many of Lower Manhattan’s most famous neighborhoods. It is pronounced “How-ston” NOT “Hyoo-ston.” This is because, unlike the city in Texas of the same spelling, its name is a corruption of the Continental Congress delegate William Houstoun, not a homage to the American war hero Samuel Houston.
We could write an entire article about classical music venues in New York, but for now we’ll just hit a few of the big ones. As a classical musician, you know you’ve made it in your career when you play at Carnegie Hall. The building, an eclectic mix of Italian Renaissance and pan-European influences, is almost as attractive as the music within, a fact that once inspired the violinist Isaac Stern to quip: “Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception—Carnegie Hall enhances the music.” Before designing it in the late 1800’s the architect William Burnet Tuthill (who was also an amateur musician) traveled Europe to not only collect design influences for the facade, but also to learn the secrets of creating great acoustic spaces. In the end he came up with a deceptively simple design that purposefully avoided baroque elements like frescoes and elaborate moulding that are commonplace in many theaters, but can hurt sound quality. In doing so he created a space that has been called “the crown jewel” of American concert halls.
Year round, Carnegie Hall hosts everything from symphonic performances and new age perspectives to jazz and world music played by today’s greatest musicians. It’s one of the most varied and diverse places to see live music in NYC. If you’re planning to visit, be sure to check out their website to look into discount ticket prices–they have options for general admission, students, young music enthusiasts, and more, which can help reduce your ticket price to as low as $10.
If you’re interested in catching a show, read our visitors’ guide to Carnegie Hall.
Another option that is often just as good, if lacking some of the historic cachet, is The New York Philharmonic, which has a residency at the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Plaza, and offers a number of affordable performances every week, including free Thursdays with a few members of the orchestra – one of the best experiences of free live music in New York.
Pro tip: You can catch a rehearsal for $20 the morning before a performance, if you’re looking for a cheaper option or an inside look at the preparation before a show.
Pop, Rock, Etc.
Bowery Presents, a NYC concert management company, has, for years, run the top the small- to mid-sized venues in NYC —Terminal 5, Music Hall of Williamsburg, The Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, and Rough Trade. Catering mainly to a younger crowd, these venues are all essentially NYC live music bars that host some of pop and rock music’s biggest names,as well as amazing underground acts and up and comers.
Terminal 5 and Music Hall of Williamsburg bring in the most famous acts. If you’re looking for big name rock, hip hop, or pop acts performing in an intimate (i.e., not an arena) space these are your go to’s. The audio system at Terminal 5 is second to none but get there early if you want to actually see the performers on the stage. Unless you splurge on VIP seating, it’s standing room only and its three level, horseshoe shape makes it hard to see the stage from the back. But for ticket prices ranging from $25 to $75, the shows are almost always worth the hassle. Music Hall of Williamsburg also has an amazing audio system but is slightly more intimate and generally has a more low-key feel. If we had to choose, it would be our pick of the two.
Mercury Lounge is a more affordable option if you are looking to catch a show. It’s located in the perennially hip Lower East Side, and is one of the few clubs to survive the neighborhood’s rent hikes of recent years. Artists are often a little lesser-known, but that often works to your advantage because you can catch an amazing show by a band that is set to blow up in the next few years. And it’s all under the backdrop of the grungy music scene the LES used to dominate.
Lastly, Rough Trade is a spot to check out, even if you don’t get to see a performance. It’s a Brooklyn joint par-excellence that functions as a record store by day and a live performance hall by night, giving you the full NYC-music-scene experience in one spot. The acts tend to fall into the more eclectic spectrum, but that’s half the fun – this is music nerd heaven.
Iconic New York
New York’s cache of historic live music venues stretches far beyond its theater district and is led by its iconic Radio City Music Hall. No trip to New York is complete without at least a stop at this theater, even if you are just snapping pictures next to the neon signs floating above 6th Ave. Those who actually get to catch a show inside are in for a real treat. The venue, originally opened in 1932 and converted over the years from a live theater, to film house, and back to a stage, has always been a contender for the best-sounding venue in the city. This is because during renovations, the designers hired some of the best acousticians to create a perfect-sounding theater to compliment the Art Deco style, making your experience just as much about the place as it is about the music.
If you want to see historic theaters beyond Radio City, we suggest checking out the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side or Town Hall, a midtown theater that is also an acoustic gem.
You also can’t forget the titans of New York’s music scene — Madison Square Garden and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. Both arenas play host to all sorts of events, but if you’re here to see your favorite superstar, most likely you’ll do so at one of these locations. If you go there are two important things to remember: first, food and drinks will be expensive, consider it part of the experience. Second, and more importantly, don’t be afraid splurge on the good seats—acoustics get a little touchy in the nosebleed seats, and when you can’t hear half of the frequencies coming from Jack White’s guitar, it can be disappointing (we’re speaking from experience on this one).
How To Ticket
With any live music venues in New York, the easiest way to score tickets is by visiting the venue’s website or Ticketmaster.com. Tickets typically go on sale a few months before the show, but depending on the artist, you can usually land tickets online through StubHub or the venue’s website right before your trip (unless you are looking for Adele tickets. She sold out pretty fast).
Avoid buying tickets from scalpers at all costs. While there are isolated instances in which this is harmless, it’s not uncommon to get forged tickets, in which case you aren’t getting into your show and you have just given away a probably-sizable chunk of money. Resale sites like StubHub.com are a little more reliable, since they will actually guarantee the validity of your tickets, but keep in mind that they make more money from the ticket you buy from them than the artist does. Today’s musicians make most of their money at live shows through ticket and merchandise sales while scalpers and resellers are taking away from that profit. This may not be a serious issue for the Taylor Swifts of the world, but for the smaller performers it can be a big hit. But if ticket price will make the difference between seeing and not seeing the show, your best friends are local coupon programs like Groupon or Living Social. Classical venues run lottery deals, and most venues will run deals and discount nights at certain times of the year. A little exploring online can usually go a long way.