Moving to New York may be the least imaginative decision an aspiring young indie rocker can make. That’s not to say it’s a bad decision. After all, going to med school may be the least imaginative decision an aspiring brain surgeon can make, but it’s still probably a super useful one. And though practicing indie rock, unlike practicing medicine, doesn’t yet require a license (though a guy can dream), it does require nurturing those sorts of professional connections that your career counselors kept saying were so important back when you were an undergrad. At the very least, it requires the presence of other indie rockers. And New York’s probably got as many of ’em as anyone these days.

This wasn’t always so. New York’s near monopolization of indie rock—or, more specifically, Brooklyn’s, or, most specifically, Williamsburg’s—is a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the action was in college towns like Chapel Hill and Athens, and in second-tier cities like Minneapolis and Seattle. There, thriving local independent rock scenes burst out of geographic isolation to attract national attention. Over the past decade, by and large, they did not. Instead, New York City reasserted its traditional role as the cultural center that dictated tastes to the periphery, its dominance bolstered by an influx of musicians, critics, and fans. In mid-sized towns, facsimiles of the Brooklyn “hipster” became as common as Yankee caps, and as universally disparaged.

The interplay between New York and the rest of the country was once more fertile. In the 1970s, New York City punk cemented the idea of the modern underground American rock group: an update of the 1960s garage band, with a sense of flash at once more trashy and urbane, centered around noisy guitars, consisting of (at least putative) equals, performing in smallish clubs for likeminded fans. As punk spread beyond Manhattan, its influence crossbred with its snottier British analogues, whose distance from ground zero permitted relatively sheltered bands to misinterpret punk in idiosyncratic ways. They sped it up. They arted it up. They smartened it up. They fucked it up.

Michael Azerrad divided Our Band Could Be Your Life, his definitive history of what he called “the American indie underground,” into thirteen chapters, each one focusing on a local scene. Azerrad sets just one chapter in New York, when it’s time to look at Sonic Youth, and it’s hard to argue that NYC is in any way slighted. It might be overstating things to say that 1980s indie rock was mostly something that happened outside of New York, but there was a reason that “college rock” would become, long before “emo” or “dubstep,” the original genre-name-as-backhanded-putdown. The land-grant university was the ideal gathering place for provincial out-of-state misfits too smart to stay in their hometowns but unwilling or unready to migrate to the big city.

A 1990s sequel to Azerrad’s book, focusing on the transition from indie to alt-rock, wouldn’t linger much longer in New York. As major labels bulldozed from town to town in search of that instant cliché, “the next Seattle,” their slash-and-burn recruitment strategy took its toll on independent networks. Still, the system seemed on the verge of rehabilitating itself amid the ruins of the alt-rock boom. In Athens (once more) there was the Elephant 6 collective, and a group of bands gathered around Bright Eyes in Omaha. Hip hop formed a collegiate underground modeled on the indie rock network as well.

For various economic and demographic reasons, New York blossomed as a post-collegiate destination by decade’s end. And then there were The Strokes. They sounded like New York, but not in the strictly mimetic sense that critics once heard in The Ramones and Television, an electronic echo of their urban environment. The Strokes looked the way the British press thought New York punk sounded. The “rock is back” phenomenon coincided with the September 11th attacks to present New York as an unlikely, triumphant underdog. “Scenes” historically behave as magnets, depleting less cool surrounding areas of musicians, but only in the short term; they eventually collapse once their novelty fades. New York, atypically, can sustain itself by seeming to stand outside of history, renewing its appeal with successive scenes.

And how. Scott Plagenhoef crunched the numbers in an essay for the Village Voice this January and found that between 2002 and 2007, 21 emerging acts that you could reasonably call indie and reasonably call “from Brooklyn” cracked the top 50 of the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critic’s poll. There might have been an “it can only happen here” vibe to the femme swagger of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the black art rock of TV on the Radio, or the acidic scene commentary of LCD Soundsystem. (Though as a fellow Mercer County boy, I claim James Murphy for Central Jersey, a region that many New Yorkers don’t believe exists.) But there’s nothing necessarily “New Yorky” about Maryland transplants Animal Collective, Minnesota exiles The Hold Steady, and the former Ohioans of The National. This is where questions of definition come in: Pavement originated in Stockton, California, but a majority of its members lived in New York at some time or another. Today, we’d call them a New York band for sure.

Plagenhoef goes on to chart the decline of Brooklyn predominance, noting that in the years since, only three new acts have joined the 21 he originally counted. But that’s a bit misleading, because many of those bands are still going. And in a way, this number-crunching is beside the point—factual support is nice, but conventional wisdom is what controls how we understand contemporary indie. What we have here is a clash of creation myths, between two competing narratives of where art comes from. The danger is that the scrappy indie rock notion that art is something any loser can create in any unfashionable backwater has been replaced by the more traditional idea, long prevalent in the art world, that artists must migrate to major metropolitan centers, encounter likeminded peers and mentors, and become acculturated into the creative life.

The old myth certainly had its own downside. The self-flattery of scenesters, amplified through a boosterish press, encouraged us to overestimate the fecundity of American micro-bohemias. But at its best, indie rock did not so much offer regional variations on a sound or a style as it provided a rudimentary musical language for creative weirdos to communicate with one another. Far from localism working some kind of “rock ’n’ roll magic,” the indie rock model, you could say, efficiently capitalized on underutilized resources.

It is hard to pinpoint how great an effect this mass migration to New York has had on contemporary indie rock, because many other factors have reshaped the indie landscape. The differing production and performance requirements of hip hop and bedroom electronica undercut the traditional notion of a music “scene,” and it’s just plain easier to record stuff. Also, the rise of electronic media diluted the influence of local press outlets, allowing cultural coverage to re-consolidate in metropolitan hubs. The Chicago-based Pitchfork attended to New York bands far more than the New York-based Spin had in the 1990s. Which hints at a broader paradox—in a time when communication and creation are possible from anywhere, powerful media voices are more geographically concentrated than ever.

And it does not take much emigration to whittle away the creative core of a smaller city. Every burgeoning artist subtracted from a city the size of my adopted home town, Minneapolis, lessens the likelihood of an important accidental transaction between one creative weirdo and another. Some ambitious quant could maybe devise a half workable formula to chart the effects of this brain drain. And the bands that are “left behind” circle the wagons, accelerating the tribal back-patting to which scenes are susceptible. Those cities that were celebrated in decades past continue to foster music scenes of course—once you’ve earned a rep as a “music town,” you continue to grasp at your title tenaciously—but no one from the outside calls their bluff.

Curiously, now, “local music” has become a marketing technique for cities to lure hip professionals, like brewpubs and bike paths. With outlets like Portlandia, or The Current, the Twin Cities adult alternative public radio station, local indie rock is viewed through a lens of gentrified nostalgia, and comes to have the same relationship to civic identity as jazz does to New Orleans. The sound that predominates such a scene must have middlebrow appeal: nothing too weird, strong production values, maybe rootsy but probably not twangy. Local musicians are encouraged to offer less accomplished versions of national styles.

New York’s indie hegemony hasn’t been absolute, even in English-speaking North America. (The rest of the world falls, to invoke the time-pressed academic’s six favorite words, “beyond the scope of this paper.”) Toronto proved a weighty counterbalance over the past decade, an alternative model to the discrete indie unit: The Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene invite everyone to sing and play along. And the dominant voice of the upper Midwest currently belongs to weedy, shrill Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, I’m unhappy to report. (Though not as unhappy as poor Justin sounds.) Bon Iver may offer the most pernicious myth of all—that of the lonesome bard holed up in his cabin. Because ultimately, indie rock was a social network, fostering a realization that there were other likeminded people in your own town, and in other towns too.

In regionalism as in all else, diversity is a good thing. No place but New York could have produced The Velvet Underground or The Ramones. Then again, New York could never have produced The Replacements or Sleater-Kinney, let alone Great Plains or The Embarrassment. Which brings us back to that hopeful indie careerist arriving in Brooklyn that we started out with, unconcerned with how his pragmatic self-interest affects the nation’s cultural landscape. Did New York kill indie rock? Probably not. But that’s no reason to let the kids who move here every year off the hook just yet.