Music A Guide to New York City’s Live Music

by Jane Lerner | November 06, 2019

Photo courtesy of Knockdown Center

New York City’s live music scene is the envy of every other city in the world.

On any given night, hundreds of parties are stirring, thousands of people are sitting quietly rapt, dancing wildly or rocking out with abandon. Live performances are popping all across the city — from historic concert halls uptown to intimate haunts in the deepest corners of the five boroughs.

“The live music scene in New York City really reflects the identity of the city itself,” says Colin Keegan, talent buyer at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl. “You can go to any neighborhood, any night, at really any time and find some of the best live music you’ll see anywhere in the world.”

It’s always been this way. The intersecting histories of jazz, rock 'n' roll, disco, salsa, punk rock, new wave, hip-hop, electronic music and countless other genres have unfolded in New York, with live performance and nightclubs at the center of it all. And for musicians, some world-renowned venues are hailed as the end goal of an entire career.

The scene — and the venue size — are vast, but opportunities still abound to get up close and personal with your favorite musicians. Guitarist and composer Kaki King, a local New Yorker, has played all over town but relishes that closeness between audience and performer. “Everyone knows about the bigger venues...but some of the most special moments happen at the smaller independent venues like National Sawdust and (Le) Poisson Rouge, which have great sound and offer a more intimate atmosphere.”

The history of many of the city’s top venues is rich and long. Grand theaters built almost 100 years ago still stand as testaments to the city’s passion for the arts. From venerable music halls to more recently refurbished rooms, like Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn, or the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, the tradition of an extravagant night out for modern-day audiences continues.

In a city of millions, tastes are wildly varied, and both homegrown acts and international artists draw crowds. Take, for example, the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx, whose program boasts salsa, freestyle, bachata, merengue and R&B just to start, and hosts artists from Cuba, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Experimentation abounds all across town, where genre-bursting, multidisciplinary programming thrives at spots like ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn and Chelsea’s venerable The Kitchen. Seeing a show doesn’t always mean standing in a dark, crowded venue, either. The outdoor summer music scene is buzzing, and regularly scheduled warm-weather concert series offer dozens of shows, many of them free and kid-friendly.

There’s so much music to see on a given day, in fact, that choosing can be challenging. Paola Prestini agrees. “The sheer amount of talent in New York City makes it a phenomenal place to discover new music, and the number of spaces offering opportunities for artists is immense,” says Prestini, a co-founder and the artistic director of National Sawdust. “But it can be absolutely overwhelming.”

In that spirit of de-whelming, here are a handful of the best live music venues in New York City to rock out, get down or groove to whatever moves you.

In a city of millions, tastes are wildly varied, and both homegrown acts and international artists draw crowds.
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The Apollo Theater

253 W. 125th Street, Manhattan

The Apollo is more than a music venue — it’s a hallmark of New York’s cultural history. A place that has launched countless careers, every star of jazz, soul, gospel and R&B has played here. Located on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, the Apollo is a touchstone of black American history and remains an active beacon for music and comedy lovers around the world.

“The building has such a special energy, from the history to the folks that have walked across the stage — that makes the experience unlike any other venue in the country,” says Kamilah Forbes, the Apollo’s executive producer. Its most famous program, Amateur Night at the Apollo, has been going strong since 1934, and up-and-comers make sure to touch the famed tree stump at stage right for good luck.

Most nights, whether music or stand-up is on the bill, up to 1,500 people settle into their plush seats in this neo-classical theater that dates from 1914. Now landmarked and on the register of historic places, the Apollo continues to live on as the uptown spot to catch a show.

Marquee of the Apollo theater in New York city

Photo courtesy of the Apollo

(Le) Poisson Rouge

158 Bleecker Street, Manhattan

Some venues are underground in the sense that they are impossibly cool and hard to find. (Le) Poisson Rouge (LPR) is literally underground (though it’s easy to locate on busy Bleecker Street). Formerly the famed jazz club the Village Gate, where many of the greats held court, the space was revived in 2008 as a cutting-edge cabaret with a dedication to jazz, classical, international, electronic and experimental sounds.

“Whether it’s Ethiopian jazz, Icelandic ambient, psychedelic cumbia, domestic punk rock or anything in between, there is a deep and devoted audience for all genres here,” says Jared Losow, LPR’s marketing director. Depending on the show, the arrangement is either shared seating at cafe tables or open-floor standing room; regardless, shows at LPR feel intimate and accessible, curated with love for open-minded audiences.

Bowery Ballroom

6 Delancey Street, Manhattan

Many an indie kid’s favorite venue, this ornate, mid-sized hall on Delancey Street has a long history of memorable nights out for New Yorkers. Bowery Ballroom has been operating as a hipster haven since 1998, housed in a 1929 theater building that can pack in over 500 music fans nightly. From the mellow downstairs, to the main floor, up to the balcony where you can slide into deep-set banquettes or hang over the railing, there are bars on all levels; even a super-crowded show offers good sight-lines and nice vibes.

Genre-wise, the Bowery covers a lot of ground, with an emphasis on new and mid-career artists of the rock ‘n’ roll variety. Somehow, a night at the Bowery always feels like you’re at the most important show in town.

Rockwood Music Hall

196 Allen Street, Manhattan (Note: Stage 3’s entrance is one block over at 185 Orchard Street)

Rockwood Music Hall boasts no less than three stages over its mini-complex on the Lower East Side. Opened by folk-rock musician Ken Rockwood in 2005 (is there a better name for a club owner?), the venue has been a major player in the live music scene since its inception. Within its tiny rooms, there’s little delineation between artist and audience, and Rockwood is a favorite of more established local musicians — you never know whom you might catch. With stages simultaneously showcasing performers across a wide array of genres — one recent Sunday offered up 16 different acts throughout the evening — there might be no better place to check in on the state of real-deal, live performance.

National Sawdust

80 N. 6th Street, Brooklyn

New York’s avant-garde music scene has always been strong, and National Sawdust’s arrival in 2015 delivered a fresh and vital energy to Williamsburg’s already well-established live music scene. This is an architecturally significant space, designed from the bones of an actual sawdust factory; built with the utmost attention to acoustics and aesthetics, the performance area is flexible and movable, and the stage setup shifts from show to show.

National Sawdust is unusual in that it runs as a nonprofit with a membership model and a mission. “National Sawdust prides itself on our commitment to incubation and mentorship,” says Paola Prestini, its artistic director. “We see our institution as a platform to showcase underrepresented voices in the music world.”

Main hall at National Sawdust Brooklyn New York

National Sawdust. Photo courtesy of Vicente Munoz

Knockdown Center

52-19 Flushing Avenue, Queens

A cavernous former door warehouse so far out in East Williamsburg that it’s actually located in Maspeth, Queens, Knockdown Center offers radical programming across myriad genres and always packs a wallop. With 50,000 square feet inside and outdoors and eight discrete areas, the space is uniquely multifaceted. “The building itself offers multiple spaces and countless configurations for seeing live music, so we try to match its versatility as a space with programming that's just as diverse,” says Knockdown’s marketing director, Andrew Kaplan.

Food vendors are often set up in the courtyard, and it’s become an adaptable spot for mini-festivals, alternative art installations and special events. Electronic DJ culture and harder sounds like metal and noise bands are especially revered here, with a dark dance-hall vibe that can really get deep when the rooms reach their full, 3,000-plus capacity.

Brooklyn Bowl

61 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn

A fast-paced palace of fun, Brooklyn Bowl is, as the name suggests, a bowling alley. Yet it is also a rocking music venue and a full-service restaurant famed for its fried chicken.

Musically, the appeal is wide: “We program every genre from old-school hip-hop to outlaw country, electronic to indie rock,” says Colin Keegan, the venue’s talent buyer. “And of course what we are known for in the New York area is our jam-band scene.” (Brooklyn Bowl’s owner, Peter Shapiro, used to own the long-gone hippie haunt Wetlands.) Raucous and always happening, the crash of bowling balls is an occasional distraction from the music onstage, but a round of locally sourced, Brooklyn-made beers solves it all.

Man bowling at Brooklyn Bowl

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Bowl

Every day, musicians take inspiration from the energy of the city and rejoice in performing for its inhabitants — a true reflection of its environment, there’s absolutely no place that offers more diversity and scale of live music than New York City. “Music-lovers here are the luckiest fans in the world, because New York has something for everyone,” notes Forbes. And at one of the hundreds of spots to catch an act, surely you’ll find your new favorite artist or genre.

Jane Lerner

is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. She has spent a lifetime immersed in music, dancing and nightlife culture.