Atlantic Cities
Year in Review

The Where of 2012's Top Music

The Where of 2012's Top Music
Danny Moloshok/Reuters

To summarize popular music in 2012 in a word — global. South Korean PSY introduced us to "Gangnam Style," British singers Adele and Ellie Goulding continued to dominate the air waves, and three little words sung by breakout Canadian star Carly Rae Jepsen (you know the ones) were perpetually stuck in people's heads.

In this evolving international soundscape, just how global is the popular music Americans listen to? Where are its major locational epicenters?

To get at this, UCLA urban planning doctoral candidate Patrick Adler took a look at the geography of two lists of the year's best music: Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks and Billboard’s Hot 100 Songs.

Billboard’s Hot 100 Songs reflects commercial success, tracked by sales, radio plays, and other indicators. Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks reflects artistic merit as judged by music critics. (While there are numerous critics' lists out there, Pitchfork is one of the most widely read. Like any such list, it is always subject to limits and generates lots of debate surrounding which songs really deserve to make the cut.) It's also worth pointing out that these lists are but two ways of representing a complex industry. Our analysis does not claim to be comprehensive of popular music location, but rather one cut at it. It's one of several approaches we've employed here at Cities, which have included data from the Bureau of Labor StatisticsMyspaceSXSW, and others.

Adler used geographic data from Twitter, SoundCloud, AllMusic, and Pitchfork to assign a location to the metro area where the artist behind each track currently resides. He gave preference to the locations identified by the artists themselves. The list is based on where artists currently live and work, not where they originally hail from. This can sometimes penalize non-U.S. locations. Justin Bieber, for example, is listed as Los Angeles, where he currently resides, rather than London, Ontario, where he was born, Stratford, Ontario, where he grew up, or Atlanta, Georgia, where he originally broke through in music. Adler explains that the key objective of analysis was to document the leading centers in the current production of popular music: "I know there will be people who claim that a star should be coded for their hometown, but my objective here was to help identify the world's leading music centers today — the locations where these artists are living and making their music in the here and now." This is similar to the way high-tech startups are counted based on where they are founded, not the hometown their founders hail from. 

The following maps show the different geographies associated with artists from each list. The MPI's Zara Matheson mapped the data.

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson

The first map shows the cities that top the list for the Billboard Hot 100. Here are the key takeaways.

  • L.A. dominates, being home to artists with nearly a third of the songs (30 songs from 17 artists) on the list, including massively popular acts like Maroon 5, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars, to name just a few.
  • Nashville is second with 13 tracks (from 10 artists) by acts like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Little Big Town. Not surprisingly, almost all of the country stars on the list are based there.
  • London takes third with 11 songs (from eight artists), thanks to the mega-successful Adele, Coldplay, One Direction, and others. 
  • Atlanta is fourth with seven tracks (from six artists), home to artists like Usher, Ne-Yo, and 2 Chainz.
  • Miami and New York tie for fifth with five. Miami is home to Pitbull, Flo Rida, and Trey Songz; New York Jay Z and Fun. 
  • Dallas (Kelly Clarkson) and Paris (David Guetta) have three tracks each.
  • There are four cities with two songs each: Toronto (Drake), San Francisco (Train), Geneva, New York (Gym Class Heroes), and Dumfries, Scotland (Calvin Harris). 
  • Seoul has one spot, PSY’s viral smash, as do 14 other cities: Abbotsford, Canada; Albany, Georgia; Chicago; Denver; Detroit; Fayetteville; Houston; Las Vegas; Melbourne; Oklahoma City; Owatonna, Minnesota; Pittsburgh; Provo; and San Diego.
  • Nashville has a big lead over any other metro (over 500,000) in per capita Billboard hits (over 500,000). L.A. is second, Atlanta third, Oklahoma City fourth, and London fifth, Las Vegas sixth, and Miami seventh.

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson

The second map charts the top cities on the list of Pitchfork's Top 100 tracks. The map is quite different than the one above.

  • Now New York tops the list, being home to artists with 21 of the top 100 tracks (from 20 artists), including Grizzly Bear, Twin Shadow, and A$AP Rocky. Six of the New York acts identify as Brooklyn-based.
  • Los Angeles takes second with 19 tracks (from 13 artists), including Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Odd Future, and Kendrick Lamar.  
  • London is again third (16 tracks from 15 artists), thanks especially to electronic musicians like Four Tet, Spiritualized, and Daphni.
  • Atlanta and Chicago tie for fourth with six tracks each. Atlanta is home to Killer Mike, Rich Kidz, and Future, while Chicago hosts Chief Keef and King Louie. 
  • Montreal is sixth with five acts, including Grimes, whose "Oblivion" took best song of the year.
  • New Orleans is seventh with three, all from Frank Ocean.
  • San Francisco, Baltimore, and Miami have two apiece. 
  • Not a single Nashville act makes the Pitchfork list — almost nothing that could be called "country" made that list. 
  • On a per capita basis, London comes out on top (of metros with more than 500,000 people), just slightly ahead of New York and L.A.

There are several key takeaways from Adler's analysis.

  • The centers of popular versus critically acclaimed music differ substantially. There is little crossover between the critical and commercial lists. Only three songs appear on both.
  • New York tops the critics list, while L.A. is the center of commercial success.
  • L.A. does well on both, taking second on the critics' list as well as first on the commercial list, though there is no crossover among artists or songs. 
  • London also straddles both worlds, ranking third on both lists. 
  • New York, while topping the charts on the critics' list, takes fifth on the commercial list.
  • Miami and Atlanta, which are centers for hip-hop and R&B, do reasonably well on both lists, again with different acts appearing on the two lists.
  • Nashville is a major center for commercially successful music, but does not do well in terms of critical acclaim, though it is worth pointing out that this may reflect a bias in the Pitchfork list against the country music genre.
  • Commercial dominance involves fewer artists, while critical success is more widely spread. 
  • Despite claims of music's long tail, popular music today remains spiky with the largest cities performing well on both lists. 
  • PSY's mega-hit notwithstanding, the global epicenters of music — critical as well as commercial — remain London, L.A., and New York, which together lay claim to 46 of Billboard's Hot 100 and 56 of Pitchfork's Top 100 tracks.

Summing up his analysis, Adler notes that:

These distinct geographies reflect two different paradigms in how music is distributed and consumed. The Billboard list, which is occupied exclusively signed artists with major recording contracts, is overrepresented by the places where a lot of major-label recording takes place. The Pitchfork list, which has a lot of unsigned or independent musicians, represents places where Pitchfork and other critics are found, and also places with established music scenes.  New York and Chicago are also hubs for Pitchfork itself. Pitchfork’s main offices are in Chicago but it also has a presence in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Artists from the Edmontons of the world (like Purity Ring) aren’t banned from the critical list by any means, but their success still relies on discovery and  appreciation from critics living far away from them. It makes sense that critics from these places are more exposed to artists around them, and more likely to recognize them in the year-end list.

This globalization of music and music centers is only likely to continue and accelerate, as will the fissure between the popular and critical worlds of popular music.

Top image: South Korean rapper Psy performs "Gangnam Style" with MC Hammer (2nd from L) at the 40th American Music Awards in Los Angeles, California, on Nov. 18. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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