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2012's Hottest Music Cities, According to SXSW

A statistical look at the leading indie rock scenes represented at this year's festival in Austin.

Visualist Images/Flickr

Austin's annual SXSW Music Festival kicked off this past week. This year, 500 bands from around the world were invited to perform for an audience that is upwards of 250,000. SXSW's estimated economic impact on the Austin economy was more than $165 million in 2011. And attendance is again up.

As a premier festival for independent music, SXSW also provides a useful lens into the geography of the world’s leading indie music scenes.

To get at this, I turned to Martin Prosperity Institute alum Patrick Adler, now a grad student in urban planning at UCLA. As he did for last year’s Coachella festival, Adler gathered locational data on the 2012 SXSW Music acts from multiple sources, including band websites, MySpace, Sound Cloud, All Music, Pitchfork, and music journalism. When possible, he gave priority to locations entered by the acts themselves. For veteran acts, he used their location when they achieved their greatest popularity. For acts with multiple locations, he gave fractional points to each location.

At first blush, large cities seem to dominate, as the chart above shows. New York leads with 53 acts, 11 percent of the total, followed by London with 44, or 9 percent. Austin is third with 39 bands, or 8 percent, then Los Angeles, Montreal, San Francisco, Toronto, and Nashville. SXSW attracts bands from cities around the world – Copenhagen, Melbourne, Sydney, Bogota, Mexico City, and Johannesburg all number in the top 20.

Of course big cities have a size advantage. To control for this, Adler charted the number of SXSW bands per million people.

The picture now changes dramatically, as the chart above shows, with smaller cities rising to the top. Austin is the overwhelming leader with more than 23 bands per million. That makes sense: Austin is the festival's hometown. Oxford and Brighton, England, take second and third, with 20 and 19 bands per million, respectively. Athens, Georgia, is fourth with 16. And then there's a big drop off with Nashville (5.7); Boise (4.9); Hamilton, Ontario (4.5); Copenhagen (4.1); Montreal (3.9); and Leeds, England (3.8) rounding out the top 10.  

Bigger cities are farther down the list: London is 12th, New York 15th, L.A. 17th and Toronto 21st. 

This is the opposite of what we found when we looked at Coachella, where the preponderance of acts were from large cities and metros. The differences between the two may stem from the fact that SXSW includes more acts, while Coachella draws from a wider range of genres and includes more well-established acts.  

Smaller indie music scenes are quite well represented at SXSW which is fitting for a festival held in the city known as "the live music capital of the world."

Top image: Visualist Images/Flickr

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