a katz / Shutterstock.com

Three cities have dominated over time: New York, London, and L.A.

This Sunday marks the 32nd anniversary of the VMAs, an event by now as legendary for its controversial stunts as its iconic performances. But no matter what crazy antics may appear on the stage each year, pop music has always been at the heart of the award show. VMA performances have helped catapult artists like Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus to the highest echelons of pop stardom. And yet long before “vogueing” or “twerking,” the original pop stars—Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles of course—were as, or even more, dominant on the pop music scene.

These artists all came from different times and different backgrounds, but an interesting question remains: To what degree is pop stardom propelled by a select set of cities? Have pop music’s centers changed since the old school days of crooners and rock and roll? Or are there cities that continue to produce the world’s leading pop stars?

To gain insight into pop music’s leading centers or scenes, I turned to Patrick Adler, a Ph.D. student in urban planning at UCLA and a Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) alum. Adler developed a database for the world’s top-selling pop stars from 1950 to 2014 based on the 50 top-selling artists of each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s and the 18 top-selling artists for the years 2010 to 2014. The information comes from Music Industry Data, a standard source for music data used by social scientists, which tracks global album and singles sales for more than six decades across more than 30 countries.

Adler then used biographical resources like the All Music Guide and artist biographies to identify where these pop stars were born, where they lived when their hits broke, and where their music labels were located. Because some of these stars changed locations over time, Adler allocated them to the cities where their first hit song broke in a given decade. So, for example, the Beatles are identified as a Liverpool band in the 1960s, but a London band in the 1970s. Ultimately, Adler generated a locational database for 258 pop stars.

America versus England

The United States is far and away the dominant location for producing pop stars. More than 70 percent (72.2 percent) of pop stars between 1950 and 2014 were born in the U.S. Less than a quarter (15.6 percent) of pop stars were born in the United Kingdom, but two U.K. bands—the Rolling Stones and the Beatles—were the only two acts to make the list of the top 50 best-selling music acts across four different decades. Nearly 6 percent (5.56 percent) of pop stars hail from Canada. No other country, aside from Italy, accounted for more than one percent of pop stars. More than 20 percent of the world’s biggest pop stars over the past five decades were born in just two cities: New York (14 percent) and London (7 percent).

The Rolling Stones perform at London’s Hyde Park in July 2013. (Mark Allan/Invision/AP)

But America’s prominence as a hub of pop music has varied over time. The U.S. was overwhelmingly dominant in the 1950s, where more than 90 percent of all pop stars, including megastars like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, were born. By the 1970s and 1980s, the share of pop stars born in the U.S. had declined to less than half, and the U.K.’s share reached 30 to 40 percent. Videos played a role in this shift. MTV helped to propel acts like the Police, Duran Duran, and the Pet Shop Boys and reinvigorated British acts like David Bowie, Genesis, and the Rolling Stones, helping them cross over to pop music. While video culture was just emerging in the U.S., it was already rather well established in the U.K., giving British musicians a leg up at least for a while.

The U.S. surged ahead again in the past decade or so and is now the birthplace of about three-quarters of pop stars—based on the global success of pop music from artists like Jay Z and Beyoncé to Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus.

Superstars and Superstar Cities

Despite all the talk of the Internet opening up the music industry, just three cities dominate the pop star universe—and they have done so for more than half a century. Together, New York, London, and Los Angeles lay claim to almost two-thirds (63.2 percent) of pop’s biggest hit-makers from 1950 to 2014.

This too has fluctuated over time. New York led in the 1950s, when it was home to 36 percent of pop stars, such as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Rosemary Clooney, compared with L.A. (20 percent) and London (just 2 percent). London rose rapidly by the 1960s, propelled by the British Invasion—the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, and the Animals—topping the list with 30 percent of pop stars, compared with 24 percent for New York and 16 percent for L.A. London extended its lead in the 1970s, with 42 percent of pop stars—led by bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull—compared with 18 percent for L.A. and 10 percent for New York. And London kept its lead into the 1980s with 32 percent of pop stars, although New York saw its share rise to 26 percent as L.A. dropped to 14 percent.

By 1990, L.A. tied London for the lead with 24 percent of pop stars—led by the likes of Cher, Michael and Janet Jackson, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers—compared with 12 percent for New York. But by 2000, New York had again taken the lead with 24 percent—thanks to stars like Madonna, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé—overtaking L.A. (20 percent) and London (8 percent). Again, music videos and MTV helped to launch or reinvigorate many of these acts.

Each of the big three cities has shown an incredible capacity to shift between musical genres and styles. New York shifted from jazz-influenced and big band sounds of the 1950s (Sinatra, Mathis, and Clooney) to folk and singer songwriters in the 1960s and 1970s (Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Carole King) to new wave (The Talking Heads), rock (Springsteen), ‘80s dance-pop (Madonna), and finally to pop divas like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé in the 1990s and 2000s. L.A. shifted from Chet Baker and Perry Como in the 1950s to the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Doors in the ‘60s to the Jacksons in the ‘70s, then to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Eyed Peas, and later to Bruno Mars and Maroon 5. London went from the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Animals to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; then from the Police, Pet Shop Boys, and Phil Collins to Coldplay; and finally to Adele and Ellie Goulding.

One way these cities differ is by the kinds of pop stars they produce. London produces more bands—roughly 60 percent of the pop stars the city has produced have been bands. New York and L.A. produce more solo acts—more than 85 percent of New York’s pop star acts and almost 70 percent of L.A.’s have been solo.

The extraordinary geographic clustering of pop stars comes through in the map below, created by my MPI colleague Isabel Ritchie, which looks at the cities where individual acts had their hits in comparison to where they were born and where their record labels were located.

The following table also compares the percentage of pop stars (this time, both individual and group acts) born in London, New York, and L.A. to the number of acts who had hit songs in these cities.

Cities Where Pop Stars Had Their Hits vs. Where They Were Born, 1950-2014

City Had a Hit There Born There
London 22.3% 6.6%
New York 21.0% 13.7%
19.8% 2.2%

Take New York: More pop stars were born there than anywhere else (14 percent). Next consider L.A.: Only four pop stars over the past decades were born there, but 20 percent were based there when they broke. A similar pattern holds for London: Just 6 percent of pop stars were born there, but 22 percent were located there when they hit big.

Smaller cities have at times had significant influence in shaping specific genres or niches of popular music. Detroit was incredibly influential to early soul and R&B, with stars like Johnnie Ray, the Four Tops, the Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. Berry Gordy ultimately moved Motown to L.A., and it was later taken over by the major labels, though Detroit went on to produce new stars like Eminem and the White Stripes. Nashville not surprisingly has been and remains the center for country music, from Hank Williams to Lady Antebellum. In contrast to Detroit, Nashville has consolidated its position in country music and become a launching pad for popular music and pop stars outside of country, with Taylor Swift being a notable example. And, of course, Jack White of the White Stripes relocated there from Detroit.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean presents Jack White with the Music City Ambassador Award in 2011. (AP Photo/Donn Jones)

And some of the very biggest stars of popular music hail from outside the big three cities. Elvis Presley was from Memphis. U2 is from Dublin. Celine Dion is from Montreal. Abba hails from Stockholm. Still, of the top 50 best-selling music acts across all six decades, London took 15 of the top spots, New York took 10, and L.A. took 5.

When all is said and done, New York, L.A., and London represent key centers of the music industry. As the chart below shows, a whopping 90 percent of all pop stars between 1950 and 2014 were based at labels in these three cities—a percentage which never dipped lower than 88 percent for any given decade.

Pop Stars by Location of Record Label, 1950-2014

Decade New York London Los Angeles All Three
1950s 58% 2% 28% 88%
1960s 60% 20% 10% 90%
1970s 34% 40% 18% 92%
1980s 30% 42% 22% 94%
1990s 24% 30% 36% 90%
2000s 46% 18% 26% 90%
2010s 33% 11% 28% 72%
Total 42% 25% 24% 90%

Inside the Star-Maker Machinery

For all the talk about the growth of local music scenes, and how the role of the Internet and the rise of digital music enable people to make music anywhere, the geography of popular music remains extraordinarily spiky, dominated by three superstar cities. Nashville’s own Taylor Swift famously moved to New York and, after writing a song about it, soon became the city’s musical ambassador. The city is also home to mega-stars like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Miley Cyrus, also from Tennessee, relocated to L.A. If the concentration of these celebrities is any indication, it’s stars that gravitate to the three superstar cities that have shaped the pop universe for decades.

Indeed, their dominance in popular music is a reflection and consequence of their broader dominance in media, film, fashion, television, or what Joni Mitchell long ago called “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” Although the status of celebrity musicians may seem magnified today by the Internet and social media—or shows like the VMAs—the star-making machinery of these three superstar cities dates back to the days of Crosby, Sinatra, and Elvis, all of whose celebrity extended far beyond music. The next time we find ourselves fascinated by the latest and greatest pop sensation, we should also recognize the incredible staying power of cities and the celebrity infrastructure that helped make them.

Top image: a katz / Shutterstock.com

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