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What SXSW Can Tell Us About the Geography of Indie Music

South by Southwest, the annual music, tech, and film conference, starts today in Austin, Texas.

Last year, UCLA's Patrick Adler and I took a look at where the listed acts for the festival hail from. (Check out the 2012 analysis here.) This year, Adler assigned a location to each listed act performing at an official conference showcase. His analysis excludes the large number of acts doing unofficial performances during SXSW; and, it is also possible that not every act doing an official performance is listed on the posted schedule. The map below, by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, charts the highlights of Adler's analysis.*

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson

This year's festival includes 1,718 official acts from 57 countries. The United States not surprisingly dominates with 1,316 acts, more than three-quarters of the total. The U.K. is second with 121 acts, seven percent. Canada is close behind in third with 116 acts, 6.75 percent. Australia is fourth with 37 acts, Mexico fifth with 22, and Japan sixth with 15. Brazil and Germany are represented by 14 acts each; Spain and Ireland 11 apiece; and Norway nine. France, South Korea, Chile, and Columbia have eight each. Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Israel, and Uruguay each have seven acts at the festival. Argentina and the Netherlands have six apiece and Turkey has five. These acts hail from 351 cities across the world.

Austin tops the list with 220 acts, or 12.8 percent of officially-listed acts. (Not surprising as it's SXSW's hometown.) America's two biggest cities take the next two spots: New York with 178 acts or 10.4 percent and Los Angeles with 143 acts, 8.3 percent. Nashville is fourth with 65 acts, 3.8 percent. London is fifth with 62 acts, 3.6 percent. The remainder of the top 10 include San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas. Texas cities account for three of the top 10 metros, and nearly one in five SXSW acts hail from Texas. Rounding out the top 20 are Toronto (30), New Orleans (28), Montreal (27), Vancouver (25), Seattle (19), Philadelphia (14), Tokyo and Mexico City (13), Oklahoma City (12), and Sydney and Detroit with 11 each. 

Adler also calculated the number of SXSW official acts per 100,000 people to account for size. Austin again tops the list on this metric with 13.4 acts. The rest of the list changes substantially, however. Nashville is the only other metro to make both lists. It and New Orleans are the only large metros (with more than one million people) to crack the top 10.

Several smaller metros, particularly college towns, rise to the top. Athens, Georgia, with its fabled music scene around the University of Georgia that gave rise to R.E.M. and the B-52s, leaps to second place. Lawrence, Kansas (The University of Kansas) is sixth, Bloomington, Indiana (Indiana University) is seventh, Oxford, home to the University of Oxford and Radiohead is eighth, and Savannah (Savannah College of Art and Design and many others) is ninth. Two Canadian cities make the list, tiny Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island is fourth and nearby Halifax is tenth.

Among cities with more than two million people, San Francisco, L.A., and Vancouver have the most acts per capita appearing at SXSW (roughly 1.1 acts per 100,000). Both New York and London both have less than one act per 100,000 at the festival.

SXSW reflects the dual geographies of independent music. On the one hand, large well-established music scenes and centers like New York, L.A., London, and Nashville have the most acts. On the other, smaller college towns do very well in musical acts on a per capita basis. These college towns have two things going for them: They are magnets for musical talent and have lots of young people who enjoy and support live music. These two factors underpin their flourishing music scenes which have given rise to critically acclaimed indie bands.

*Correction: An earlier version of the map misplaced Savannah, GA.

Keywords: Austin, Maps, Music, SXSW, Festivals

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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