Which Cities Are Setting Music Trends? Not the Ones You’d Think

A pair of researchers crunch the numbers on where people are listening to new music first, with surprising results

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German band Zyloon performs at the Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower on June 21, 2008 in Paris, France as part of the "Fete de la Musique" music festival.

Quick: what’s the music capital of North America? Is it New Orleans? Chicago, home of the blues? The country Mecca of Nashville? Los Angeles? Seattle? Brooklyn?

It’s a battle that harks back to the East Coast-West Coast feud of Tupac and Biggie (and beyond), but now a pair of researchers have crunched the numbers to find out what cities lead the world’s music listening habits — and the answer probably isn’t what you think. According to Conrad Lee and Pádraig Cunningham of the Ireland-based Clique Research Cluster, if you want to know what’ll be on playlists around the country in a few weeks, you might tune in to what they’re listening to now in Atlanta.

In “The Geographic Flow of Music,” a paper submitted to the online scientific forum Physics arXiv, Lee and Cunningham analyzed about 60 billion pieces of data from last.fm, a music streaming website.  Last.fm publishes lists of the most listened-to artists by geographical location, which allowed Lee and Cunningham to chart how those lists changed across 200 cities since 2003. The researchers used statistical techniques to track which cities served as the trend leaders for listening habits.

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The results? In North America, Atlanta was the leader in predicting overall music trends as well as hip-hop trends, while Montreal was the clear indie music frontrunner. (Sorry, Brooklyn.)  In Europe, Oslo beat out London as overall music leader, while Paris led the indie scene.

The study is the latest in the growing field of network science, which mines the ever-increasing volumes of data on human behavior supplied by online social networks like last.fm or twitter. However, the results seem to contradict the assumed notions of musical centers. As The Physics arXiv Blog on the Technology Review points out:

It’s easy to imagine that the biggest cities ought to be those furthest ahead of the curve because they have biggest populations from which new and interesting bands can emerge. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this data–big cities such as New York, LA and London do not lead. “We find only weak support for this hypothesis,” say Lee and Cunningham.

Another unusual phenomenon: cities of similar listening habits — say Birmingham and Manchester in Britain, or Portland and San Francisco in the U.S. — were not linked in the network. Lee and Cunningham proposed that when two cities’ listening habits are synchronized, little is to be gained from following trends out of a sister city, so residents look elsewhere for new music.

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Unfortunately, the study’s hit-predicting power hasn’t yet been proven: so far Lee and Cunningham have only used their statistical techniques to chart historical changes. “We have not yet demonstrated that our models have this predictive power, although we plan to attempt this validation in future work,” the researchers say. Until we get a holographic Notorious B.I.G. to help Hologram Tupac settle this one, we’re happy to let network science rule.