Which City Is the Musical Tastemaker for the US? Hint: Not NY or LA

By Sarah Zhang | April 17, 2012 11:00 am

music flow
Click to enlarge.

If you want to know what the cool kids will be listening to next month, here are two hints: 1) Head to Atlanta. 2) It’s probably hip hop. That’s according to a recently posted arXiv paper mapping the geographic flow of music on the social-networking music site Last.fm.

Last.fm users sync their iTunes listening histories to the site, recording some 11 billion tracks played in 2011. The site has been a gold mine for data viz lovers like LastGraph, and social-network researchers are getting in on the action, too. In this study, they looked for trendsetting cities that started (and stopped—those snobs) listening to new artists before everyone else. Among American Last.fm users, Atlanta is the trendsetting city.

But when they sorted by music genre, the researchers found subtler patterns. Atlanta dominates the overall music flow mostly because it’s a hip hop center, and hip hop has been ubiquitous to American ears. When it comes to other genres such as indie music, the trendsetting city of North America is further north—much further north—in Montreal.

Overall, in an age of music blogs and mp3s and sites like Last.fm, physical distance is less and less important. But geography seems to matter insofar as it recapitulates language and cultural boundaries. English-, French-, and Spanish-speaking cities all cluster with themselves. US cities actually splinter into two distinct groups: one group including big cites like New York and LA as well as hipster-dense ones like Austin, Portland, and Seattle. The other group of cities is sprinkled all over the map but you probably wouldn’t call them hotbeds of hipness: Cleveland, West Palm Beach, Little Rock, etc. All the data in this paper are publicly available through Last.fm’s API, so you can download it yourself to investigate how music flows into and out of your city.

Of course, Last.fm represents only one slice of music-listening habits, considering the existence of other services like Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio. Here in New York we’re still a little skeptical about our low influence. Bet if they had looked at Brooklyn by itself…

[via arXiv blog]

  • Woody Tanaka

    “Here in New York we’re still a little skeptical about our low influence.”

    Yeah, because god forbid that reality doesn’t share New Yorkers’ high opinion of the Big Crapple.

  • http://TheMusic.FM Mike

    So many great music blogs and fans are based in New York and LA and other large cities, and so many people listen to music from a variety of web-based sources that aren’t logged by Last.fm. The final paragraph gets it right — this can’t be a full picture of what’s going on.

  • Marylou

    Awww, someone (Woody) is a little aggressive with their State name calling…
    Other than that, I thought this article was interesting. I did know that Canada was really big on the indie territory, but wow with the ATL being a major influence in the highway traffic of music…
    And yes, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY – I AM tired of looking at all of your hipster outfits. It is no longer unique once you’re trending…

  • asterios

    Well, the skepticism comes from the fact that about 40% of indie rock bands are based in brooklyn these days. It makes sense, though, that even brooklyn taken alone would not exhibit the leader-follower pattern, if (1) you are drawing from a larger pool of people (BK alone is several times larger than Atlanta) and (2) the music based there tends to “transmit globally” with an instantaneous leap to pitchfork-endorsed ubiquity.

    The study is very cool (because who doesn’t want to partake in a regional musical culture) but regional specialization != overall musical productivity or influence.

  • sr

    For proof: a completely undersold (less than 100 people) Raekwon concert in Atlanta two weeks ago.
    This Atlantan thinks this is a completely idiotic paper.

  • jimmyboy

    it depends on what u call music, nashville could also be call a musical tastemaker city (or for some no-tastemaker).

  • Jenn

    I don’t think that statement was really about New Yorkers having a high opinion of themselves, but it’s city where there are multiple bands playing every night in big and small venues all over the city in all 5 boroughs. Same for LA. So, one would think that would mean big influence because there’s a lot more exposure.

  • brian gerard

    It is a bit discouraging to see a science site using the headline used for this post. The research is specific to lastfm users and that should be reflected in the post head. Although, to be fair, the study authors appear to assume that because there is a large amount of data available from lastfm that it is reflective of musical listening habits of the general population. That is, they take it to be a representative sample. I think that is a stretch. I am surprised you did not note this.

    What is interesting about their paper is some smart and innovative ways to parse the data available. Also, they are clear about at least this limitation to their research:

    “…we should stress that our results reflect a work in progress. For example, a relationship can be statistically significant but at the same time have a very small magnitude. We would be more confident of our results if we could demonstrate that the model that we create is meaningfully predictive. That is, given our model of leader-follower relationships among cities, and given a record of past listening behavior, we should be able to predict the changes in listening behavior that will occur in the near-term future better than a reasonable baseline predictor. We have not yet demonstrated that our models have this predictive power, although we plan to attempt this validation in future work.”

  • Joe Q.

    There’s something ironic about Montreal and Toronto being trend-setting cities for the US music industry…

  • Mike Stamets

    This was a fun article. How can we use it to live a better life?

  • floodmouse

    Mike said: “This was a fun article. How can we use it to live a better life?”

    Unless you’re in the music industry (or shopping for a music venue to attend), mostly what this does is restructures how we think about information flow. Instead of one or two big centers, from now on there will likely be a lot of specialized nodes that may or may not be rooted in a geographic area. Unless you were actually hoping that New Brunswick* (or New York or Berlin) is really the thought control center of the universe, this is good news because it means less central control of public opinion. (I think so, anyway–it’s early, and I haven’t had any coffee.) :)

    (*Inside joke for liberal arts majors, sorry science guys.)

  • TheMusic.FM

    So many great music blogs and fans are based in New York and LA and other large cities, and so many people listen to music from a variety of web-based sources that aren’t logged by Last.fm. The final paragraph gets it right — this can’t be a full picture of what’s going on. And jimmyboy is right that “it depends on what u call music.” If you look at the entirety of the Last.fm logs, you’re not separating out what becomes a hit on what medium, and in which of the growing list of hard-to-define sub-genres.

  • John Lerch

    I can’t tell if they compensated for duration of infatuation. I.E. maybe Atlanta and Montreal just seem like trend setters because they don’t listen to anything for long. So even though hypothetically they’re not the first in, maybe they’re the first out. Is that the same as being a trend setter, not exactly IMO.

  • Cathy

    If you go to ATL but you find that hip hop is not to your taste, Athens is about an hour away and is still producing some of the most interesting indie music out there. It was also named the best city for young musicians in terms of livability, beating out Austin and Seattle for that distinction.


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