Two years ago, media mogul Steve Stoute bought a full-page ad in The New York Times to criticize the Grammy Awards for its failure to recognize artists then thought to be at the top of the music business, including Eminem, Kanye West, and Justin Bieber. When the 2014 Grammy nominations were announced this past December, Kanye’s Yeezus snub prompted similar outrage about the awards show's jurors being out of touch.
There’s another way that the Grammys don’t reflect the reality of popular music today. When the winners are announced this Sunday, they are likely to represent far less geographical diversity than the places where those who make music actually call home. Of course this year saw the rise of Lorde, who hails from Auckland, New Zealand, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, from Seattle – both of whom received multiple nods. In addition, the “big four” awards of Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist include artists from Paris (Daft Punk) and Las Vegas (Imagine Dragons). Clearly, Hollywood isn't the only place good music is being made. Even so, Grammy nominees are much more likely to live in the big three music industry clusters of Los Angeles, New York and, increasingly, Nashville, the capital of country and a rising center for pop music as well.
Just over half of this year’s Grammy nominees now make their homes in one of these three cities, even if they did not necessarily grow up or even hone their talent there. In an era of celebrity-driven pop culture, these big three centers attract striving stars from across the country and the world. That’s why Taylor Swift moved from small-town Pennsylvania to Nashville, and why Justin Bieber moved from Ontario to L.A.
The map below, by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, charts the geography of this year’s Grammy nominations. Based on data compiled by UCLA urban planning doctoral student Patrick Adler, it plots by metropolitan area the acts that are up for 24 of the event’s major performance awards, accounting for a total of 117 nominations. (Adler used data from Twitter, SoundCloud, and BandCamp to identify the metropolitan area where each artist lives – based on where they claim primary residence, rather than their hometown. Note that these locations are self-reported, and musicians often maintain multiple houses. Acts are counted as many times as they are nominated, giving a weighted number that reflects the relative success of each city’s acts).
Los Angeles is the dominant location for Grammy-nominated artists, with 24 nods – one in five of all nominations. New York follows closely behind with 21 nominations, accounting for 18 percent. Nashville is in third with 14 nods, more than 10 percent of the total. Together these big three centers account for just over half of all Grammy nominations. This makes sense. Most music is recorded in L.A., New York, and Nashville, and Grammy voters are the industry bigwigs who are mainly located in these places.
But the geography of the music industry is also far more diverse than these numbers alone would indicate, made up of many smaller, more localized music scenes outside of these three epicenters. This becomes clear when we compare the Grammy nominations map to one showing a very different barometer of critical success and acclaim in the music industry – Pitchfork’s annual list of Top 100 tracks.
The map above, by MPI's Matheson, shows how L.A.’s dominance fades significantly in the Pitchfork rankings. New York now takes the top spot with 18 songs; London comes in second with 13 songs; and L.A. falls all the way to third, with 12 songs (significantly below the 19 tracks the city had on the list last year.) Atlanta, which didn’t produce a single Grammy-nominated act this year, has an impressive 10 tracks on the 2013 Pitchfork list. In addition to reflecting the perspective of critics, the Pitchfork list, Adler notes, might be a product of the site's offices in Chicago and Brooklyn, giving it a perspective beyond the big three.
• • • • •
Pop music’s more spread out geography becomes even clearer when we track the location of artists or acts on a per capita basis, comparing top honors to population of the entire metropolitan area. Now, Nashville far outperforms Los Angeles, with equivalent to 9.2 Grammy nominations per million residents. This is unsurprising, given how much country and rock music have become an essential part of Nashville’s far smaller economy. And three smaller metros – Greensboro, Memphis, and Auckland – also top L.A., whose 24 nominations translated to 1.9 per million residents. (When we ran the per capita numbers on the Billboard Hot 100, a commercial metric that takes into account record sales and radio plays, the results were similar. Small Albany, Georgia is first – riding the success of just one artist, Phillip Phillips. But Nashville and Los Angeles come in second and third.) In comparison, the Pitchfork list gives smaller epicenters an even more significant role, with the U.K.’s Surrey coming in first, followed by Atlanta, Montreal, New York, and London, with L.A. in the sixth spot.
The geography of popular music is essentially split between two kinds of music hubs – local scenes like Seattle, where Macklemore got his start; and the “big three” of L.A., New York, and Los Angeles, which attract aspiring as well as established talent hoping to make it big in the celebrity-powered entertainment industry. These can be mutually reinforcing – with smaller scenes providing new talent, and bigger artists finding ways to return to their roots as well.
Canadian rapper Drake has in the past few years figured out a way to balance these big industry vs. small scene tensions. Though he has a base in L.A., the Toronto native remains committed to his hometown, even serving as a global ambassador for the NBA’s Raptors. We’ll have to wait and see if this year’s crop of new artists, like Macklemore and Lorde, will be able to find the same balance.
Top Image: Macklemore performs "Thrift Shop" at a December concert celebrating the 2014 Grammy nominees (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni).