Maps

The Geography of America's Music Scenes

Mapping musicians and the music businesses across the U.S.

Major summer music festivals — like this past weekend's Lollapalooza in Chicago, as well as Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee; Coachella near Palm Springs, California; Summerfest in Milwaukee; and the Newport Folk Festival, to mention just a few — bring fans together to specific locales to listen to bands from all over the world. 

But where are America's leading centers for musicians and the music industry? It's an intriguing question since musicians are mobile with little to tie them down, even compared to high-tech industries and workers which tend to grow up around universities, advanced industries and centers of venture capital.  

Numerous U.S. cities have staked claims as leading music centers. Seattle had its grunge, Chicago has electric blues, and Nashville its twang. Detroit was the birthplace of both Motown and the hard-edge distorted indie rock of The White Stripes. Austin has Stevie Ray Vaughn, Willie Nelson, and a host of legendary singer-songwriters. Then there's of course New Orleans jazz, brass, and funk; San Francisco’s psychedelic sound; and the reverb-soaked rockabilly that is inextricably associated with Memphis’s Sun Records.

To better understand the geography of music in America, my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on the concentration of musicians and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis stats on music and recording industry business establishments, and combined the results into a Metro Music Index. It is important to point out that we are measuring the concentration of musicians and music-related businesses, not the vibrancy or impact or quality of artists to emerge from a regional scene. Ongoing MPI research is utilizing other unique data sources, including a huge amount of data culled from MySpace, to measure the diversity and richness of music scenes (more on that in future posts).

The map above by MPI’S Zara Matheson charts the results for U.S. metros. The slideshow below shows the top 10 highest scoring large metros (those with more than a million people) on the index (complete list below).

The rest of the top 20 includes: Orlando (home to Disney World, which gave rise to boy bands); Austin, with its legendary singer-songwriter and blues scenes (Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Spoon); San Diego, Pittsburgh (Billy Eckstine, drummer Kenny Clarke, Donnie Iris, Rusted Root, GirlTalk, Wiz Khalifa); Milwaukee (which spawned Woody Herman and Liberace in decades past and The Violent Femmes and Rico Love more recently); Miami (everything from Gloria Estefan to Rick Ross, Flo Rida, and Pit Bull, not to mention the jazz program at the Frost School of Music which launched such alums as Ben Folds and Pat Metheny); Chicago, with its rich legacy of blues and rock 'n' roll; Indianapolis (home to jazz’s legendary Montgomery brothers and R&B’s Babyface); Dallas (the home town of both Meat Loaf and T-Bone Walker); and Denver (a folk and classical music powerhouse).

Atlanta, a major center for hip-hop and R&B, ranks 22nd among large metros. Greater Washington, D.C., which gave us go-go and the post-hardcore punk of Fugazi, is 26th. Despite Boston's two conservatories, a notable symphony, and having been the launching pad for countless major label artists (J. Geils Band, Boston, Aerosmith, the Cars, New Kids on the Block), the metro ranks just 31st among its larger peers. Detroit, Memphis, and Philly rank 37th, 35th and 45th among large metros — a sign of how much the music scenes there have shifted to other centers.

A variety of small metros do surprisingly well, such as Kingston, NY, which ranks sixth overall when small metros are included in the index. It most likely owes its high standing to nearby Woodstock, home to innumerable well-known musicians including jazz’s Carla Bley, the late rock-legend Levon Helm, and studio stalwart (and ex-King Crimson) bassist Tony Levin. Honolulu, another major tourist destination, ranks seventh overall.

Several college towns stand out. Eugene, Oregon — the hometown of Tim Hardin, Robert Cray, and Mason Williams — ranks 5th among all metros. Boulder, with its lively jam band and bluegrass scene, is 25th. Madison, Wisconsin is 27th, Ann Arbor 40th.  Unfortunately, data are not available for college scenes like Athens, Georgia, legendary home to R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, and The Drive-By Truckers, or Charlottesville, Virginia, birthplace of Dave Matthews Band.

Other smaller metros that do better than expected are Kalamazoo, Michigan (the former home of the Gibson guitar factory, founded in 1902, and the site of some major classical music festivals) at 8th overall, and Albany, New York, at 14th. California's Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Salinas all rank highly. Asheville, North Carolina — a sophisticated vacation and arts center — is 23rd overall.

While radio and the recording business have become much more corporate and standardized, musicians still cluster more in some places than others. This is interesting because musicians are mobile, and do not require a lot of capital, access to raw materials, or even proximity to anchor institutions like universities. They come to some places because there are lots of venues, clubs, conservatories, and recording studios, and they can make a living and stake out a career. Bigger metros like New York and L.A. do well because of their larger markets and scope of their talent and firms. And not just in music: Related MPI research finds that the "entertainment sector as a whole and its key subsectors are significantly concentrated in these two superstar cities ... far beyond what their population size (or scale effects) can account for, while the pattern falls off dramatically in other large regions" like Chicago.

But size is not everything, as Nashville's dominance and the performance of other smaller metros show. Smaller places can develop significant clusters of musicians and the music industry. The key here, as it is in so many other fields, is the clustering of talent, as talented musicians are drawn to and cluster around other talented musicians. Doing so, they generate a human capital externality of a musical kind — competing against each other for new sounds and audiences, combining and recombining with each other into new bands — a Darwinian process out of which successful acts rise to the top and achieve broad success.

In this way, through the clustering of talent and combination and recombination, cities with vibrant music scenes mimic the process of innovation more broadly. Cities with flourishing music scenes often have underlying creative economic systems that are also supportive of technology and entrepreneurialism. Music clustering can provide a powerful lens not only into popular culture, but into the mechanisms that power our increasingly idea-based and talent-driven economy.

Rank Metro Metro Music Index
1 Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN 1.00
2 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 0.97
3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 0.96
4 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 0.93
5 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 0.80
6 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 0.79
6 Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA 0.79
8 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 0.78
9 Rochester, NY 0.76
10 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 0.72
11 Orlando-Kissimmee, FL 0.70
12 Austin-Round Rock, TX 0.67
13 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 0.66
14 Pittsburgh, PA 0.65
14 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 0.65
16 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 0.63
16 Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 0.63
18 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 0.57
19 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 0.53
20 Denver-Aurora, CO 0.52
21 Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC 0.50
22 Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN 0.49
22 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 0.49
22 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 0.49
25 San Antonio, TX 0.48

 

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here