Miami Musicians Talk the City's Musical Brain Drain

Sean Wouters, left, and Nicolas Espinosa, right, are the latest in a long line of musicians whose talents and ambitions have outgrown Miami.
Sean Wouters, left, and Nicolas Espinosa, right, are the latest in a long line of musicians whose talents and ambitions have outgrown Miami. Courtesy of Stephanie Estrada
Miami is losing another band. Deaf Poets are leaving the city.

"Miami’s definitely our city. I love it," Sean Wouters, lead singer and guitarist for Miami's premier garage rock band, Deaf Poets, says over the phone, speaking from his sister's home in Tennessee. "I just think it was kind of hard for us to do anything else in our career here, specifically in Miami, just because of the limitations." The sentiment he expresses is hardly unheard of. In fact, it's repeated with such consistency across most of the Miami music scene that it is almost uncanny. And that consensus is largely responsible for the very real pattern of great Miami bands, bands like Deaf Poets, leaving town for greener pastures and broader horizons, like New York City.

But what are those limitations exactly? What makes New York so much more attractive to up-and-coming musicians than Miami? Why does so much of our city's talent begin to bloom here and then leave, heading north to blossom and flourish and grow? And how does Miami go about creating a cultural foundation for burgeoning local musicians to build upon here?

"A lot of what limits you is just the size and the market," explains Nicolas Espinosa, the drummer and other half of Deaf Poets, who recently moved to New York himself. "New bands come and go a lot in Miami, and after a while you just kind of wind up playing the same venues with the same people with the same crowd, which is always fun, but at the end of the day, you kind of feel like, 'How do I progress from here?'" Espinosa and Wouters have been making music and performing in Miami together for nearly ten years. They've carved out a local niche that's entirely their own and have a following that would likely argue they are the face of Miami rock 'n' roll right now. Watching them play live is what rock is supposed to look like — their energy is infectious, building throughout the set in a way that feels wild and enthralling and almost dangerous in the best ways possible. Each gig invariably ends with Espinosa utterly spent, sweating, and smiling. Wouters usually starts to sound hoarse by the time he says goodnight to the audience. It is plain to see for even the most casual observer that these two are at their happiest wailing under the lights and leaving everything they've got on the stage. But after a certain point, being one of the biggest bands in town can become a double-edged sword.

"One thing that Nico and I did feel was that since there’s such a small rock scene in Miami, really we don’t have all that much competition," notes Wouters. He describes the way Eric Clapton felt when he first saw Jimi Hendrix play. The young American, who was visiting England for the first time, was invited onstage at a Cream show and played a rendition of Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" that was so fast and so masterful that Clapton walked offstage, shocked and furious about how good Hendrix was. It's that kind of feeling, that experience, that forces musicians and artists of every stripe to push their limits and get better, according to Wouters.

For Deaf Poets, the writing has been on the wall since well before they began to achieve the notoriety they have nowadays. And for Espinosa and Wouters, New York City has always been part of their endgame. "Honestly, it’s been something that Sean and I always talked about, and it was always New York City for some reason. We knew that in Miami at a certain point we were going to hit a wall, and... we’d have done everything we could," recalls Espinosa. "I remember when we first started the band and Sean and I were going to college, he was just like, ‘Dude if you ever want to move to New York, you let me know.’ He was super excited about it. It always became the city for some reason. It was the city before we even played in the city."

New York has more to offer than just competition though — it provides musicians a gateway to places outside the city. As Wouters puts it, "One other big factor is that distance-wise, we’re so far from more stable rock scenes. The best rock scene for us in terms of distance from Miami would probably be something like Atlanta, which is a ten-hour drive…One of the great things about how rock bands develop now is that the majority of their success and their exposure comes from touring. New York, one of the things it has that Miami doesn’t is that, regionally, it’s close to everything…" For the first time in their career, Espinosa echoed, Deaf Poets will be able to pack their car and be in a different state in less than six hours. In the time it takes them to get from Miami to the Georgia border, they can be in Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, New Haven, Washington, D.C., or even Montreal.

click to enlarge
James Quinlan, playing with Human Kindition, one of the many bands and projects that he's worked with since moving to New York City.
Courtesy of Kevin Vallejos

James Quinlan, another Miami local, wound up going to New York City almost immediately after graduating from the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, the most renowned music school in the city and probably one of the most respected in the country, in 2011. He booked a six-month contract to play a gig on a cruise ship in Barcelona and put the money he earned toward moving to New York after his floating residency. He has been a working bass player and journeyman musician ever since. He recently returned from a cross-country trip with a band that was recommended to him by a friend.

"That was with this band called Zusha — I just recently started working with them, kind of as a sub," Quinlan explains. "They are a Hasidic Orthodox Jewish soul band. They’re really cool. They all live in New York, but they’re huge in Israel and Ukraine and Russia. They’re still developing in the U.S. market, so we were just kind of going all over the country in a van and we were going to Jewish communities across the country. We played in L.A. and San Francisco, in Highland Lakes, but we also played in places like Texas and St. Louis for more mixed crowds. It was interesting, to say the least."

In addition to working with a Hasidic soul band, Quinlan also frequently plays bass for a Venezuelan band and a couple of West African bands. This is the sort of musical landscape that Espinosa and other transplanting musicians allude to when they describe their hopes of branching out, collaborating with new acts, and diversifying their playing. Where else are you going to play with a Hasidic soul group and a band of West African musicians in the same week? Probably not Miami. On the other hand, Quinlan doesn't think Miami is hopeless. And he should know — his mother was the director of the Rhythm Foundation, doing things like bringing international artists to the city and organizing incredible shows and events around town, until 2017.

"I’ve been living in New York six years," he says, "so things have changed a bit since I’ve been there." He points out that places like Lagniappe and Ball & Chain, which have bands performing practically every night, were basically nonexistent when he left Miami. Festivals like III Points and Ground Up, which expose Miami musicians to international audiences, weren't really around when he lived here either. The scene has grown a lot, he says. "When I was in school, Wynwood was just starting up, and it was like one day a month you could go there and play and have a good crowd, and now there’s so many things at Gramps and places like that that are going on.

"So I think things are going in the right direction," Quinlan continues. "At the same time, things are not going in the right direction. A lot of the classic music venues that I loved, like Tobacco Road, are closing left and right. It’s just the name of the game with music; it’s at the mercy of the larger economy." He points out that while developers are more than happy to tear down age-old cultural institutions to build new condominiums, Miami doesn't have a really well-developed musical infrastructure, certainly not one close to being on par with New York's.

"I will also say that there are different types of venues that we have in New York that don’t exist in Miami," he explains. "Something like medium-sized rooms, you really don’t have that on the same level in Miami." Offering examples of venues like the Highline Ballroom and Terminal 5, Quinlan asserts that there simply isn't the same range of different-sized spaces for musicians to perform in. Whereas New York has a range of music spaces, Miami is mostly made up of smaller venues, like Kill Your Idol or Churchill's, or larger ones, like the Fillmore or the American Airlines Arena. That leaves a huge gap in between, which can be problematic for local acts. "A truly healthy scene," Quinlan states, "will have a lot of music venues that can fit a lot of different-sized crowds, so that way you don’t have a band that’s on the rise competing with the band that's just getting started competing with the big headliner that night at the arena… And you’re just not really seeing that build up in Miami."
click to enlarge
Michelle Grand sees Miami's limitations but believes that you can be a successful, satisfied musician here with the right expectations.
Courtesy of Olivia Alvarez
Still, with all Miami's shortcomings, there are more than a few amazing musicians who choose to stay here. Michelle Grand is one such artist. Grand is the frontwoman for the Miami bands Ex Norwegian and Red Nectar and has lived here her whole life. She's the kind of vocal talent that leaves you speechless and slack-jawed if you hear her speak before you hear her sing, belting out soulfully from a set of pipes that might make you think of Etta James or Janis Joplin; a powerful, stirring voice that you perhaps wouldn't have expected to burst forth from its owner.

"I’ve come to see a lot of friends leave," says Grand. In her estimation, there are a few different kinds of musician, all of whom have their own merits and different goals and passions when it comes to how they approach the music world. Some musicians, she explains, are performers, the kind of individual who "...loves performing, loves the energy of being onstage, loves the live shows. That performer isn’t going to be that satisfied in Miami because the shows here, the venues that you have, they easily become repetitive." Not only can Miami become boring for that kind of performer, it can also make them feel hamstrung when it comes to growing as a musician. "If you’re the musician that loves the live performance," she says "and that’s where you get your thrill, that’s where you feel like you’re being most active as a musician... you’re going to want to go somewhere like New York or L.A. I don’t think Miami caters to the live performer." 

She regards musicians like James Quinlan as a whole other subset of musician: "the gigger," instrumentalists with the talent and savvy to play seven nights a week, who serve as session artists laying down bits on records, filling in for band members with other engagements, and freelancing as sidemen for acts of all sorts. This musician pays the rent and keeps the lights on with each show they play. and according to Grand, the only real opportunities to do that consistently in Miami are with hotel residencies that generally have musicians sign on to play covers for a few weeks or a few months. "That’s it for you here," states Grand. "And if you’re the gigger, I think it’s more fulfilling to have your own project somewhere like New York, where you can make a good cut of money and you also get that fulfillment. I see those sorts of musicians leaving all the time. They don’t stay in Miami."

Then there's the category of musician that Grand feels she fits into, the singer-songwriter who finds the most joy in writing songs and recording, but who doesn't necessarily feel the need or the desire to perform all that often. "That’s where you’re OK with Miami," she explains, "when gigging isn’t the primary goal. All of a sudden your location can be based on the place you like best because wherever you’re at, you can do that." For her, the place she likes best is Miami, so the choice to stay and make music the way she does is simple. "I still feel completely satiated as a musician here because I get my fulfillment from just singing, from just recording, and then maybe having the occasional performance to sort of feel like, ‘I got the music out a little bit’... As long as I'm not stagnant and I don't stop singing, I'm fine."

But regardless of whether they're still living in Miami, about to leave Miami, or long gone, none of these artists feel any lack of love for Miami, and Deaf Poets are no exception. "Miami has only been inspiring," exclaims Wouters. "Seeing the birth of what has happened in the last ten years is incredible." He goes on to say that he believes wholeheartedly that the city will continue to grow over the next ten years and that the city's music scene will grow with it. Espinosa makes it plain he'll keep Miami with him, no matter where he's making music – something he hardly needs to convince you of once you know he has the Miami Heat logo tattooed on his calf. "Miami’s always going to be home for me," he says. "I can’t be thankful enough for the opportunities that I had there. I left my home in Argentina for Miami, so Miami is my home. You’re always going to have your first – your first love, your first everything – and that is Miami for me. I wouldn’t be in New York if it weren’t for Miami. My partner I met in Miami, my music I started in Miami… And to be real, I am Miami as hell up here. I’m not going to be a Brooklyn band; I’m going to be a Miami band."

So what needs to be done to keep Miami bands in Miami? Unfortunately, nothing can change the fact it's a ten-hour drive from the nearest major hub city, and that's a tough hindrance to overcome. It's harder still if touring musicians can't justify the mileage because there aren't enough venues suited for their music to make it worth their while. That means Miami needs to have more than a handful of venues if it wants to foster a growing music scene that doesn't just draw more artists from around the country, but manages to keep its own artists in town.

That may seem like a simple point. But when developers are more interested in getting multimillion-dollar contracts to build high-rises than creating cultural institutions, and the city's people, its government, and its chambers of commerce do little about it, that simple point becomes a much more complicated problem. At the end of the day, it really is up to the audience to demand the cultural landscape they want. Whether that means writing a letter to the editor or speaking at a chamber of commerce meeting or running for city council is up to you, but if you want a better scene, you need to make it happen.

And the clock is ticking, because as Michelle Grand points out, Miami doesn't necessarily have a whole lot of time. When asked where she sees the Miami music scene in a decade, she replied, "In 10 years, I see Miami underwater. I don’t think any of us are going to be here." Here's hoping Miami has a few more good years before it goes under.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Laura Quinlan is retired. Quinlan left the Rhythm Foundation in 2017.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Travis Cohen is a writer for Miami New Times and covers subjects ranging from arts and architecture to marijuana and monkeys with herpes. He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor's degree in English in 2012 and began working with New Times shortly thereafter. He was born and raised in Miami.