October 17, 2015

Mapping the Hometowns of America's Most Popular Musical Artists

Jack Beckwith

Popular music in America has evolved enormously in the past five decades. When Billboard released its first Hot 100 chart on August 9, 1958, rock-and-roll still ruled the airwaves. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and the Everly Brothers had multiple songs on the inaugural list. Fast-forward 57 years and this week’s Billboard Hot 100 features songs from Canadian-born R&B singers The Weekend, Drake, and Justin Bieber in the top three. The latest list is now composed of artists representing a wide variety of musical genres including hip-hop, pop, R&B, and country music.

American music has changed not only in sound but also in geographical origin. Sure, aspiring musicians continue to flock to cities like New York and Los Angeles, America’s cultural centers for the entertainment industry. Artists hailing from those two cities alone created about 17% of the songs that have appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 to date. But over the years, other cities have emerged as the temporary epicenters of new musical styles; think Detroit in the Motown era or Seattle and its grunge rock scene in the early ‘90s.

In this post, I wanted to analyze the geographical sources of mainstream American music. Which cities or regions have most often spawned artists who reached the Hot 100? Have these cities stayed consistently prolific in their musical output or has their relevance on the charts diminished over time? And, more recently, has globalization and increased availability of musical equipment made it easier for artists to get on the Hot 100 regardless of where they’re from?

I started by scraping the Billboard website to compile a dataset consisting of every weekly Billboard Hot 100 list released through June 13, 2015, almost 60 years worth of activity. I then used the Echo Nest API and RateYourMusic.com to amass information on each artist’s hometown. Of the 6,636 unique artists that have appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 through the summer of 2015, I was able to find information about the hometowns of 6,282 of them (94.6%). For the purposes of this analysis, I defined hometown as the city in which a solo artist was raised or the city in which a band was formed. After cleaning the data and standardizing the artists’ names and song titles, I imported the data to Tableau. The resulting data visualizations tell an interesting story about the trajectory and diversification of popular American music.

Which Cities’ Artists have Dominated the Billboard Hot 100 Chart?

In total, 1,482 cities from 80 different countries are represented by artists that have reached the Billboard Hot 100. Artists from the top 20 cities collectively account for 47.4% of the songs that have appeared on the Billboard chart since its inception in 1958. Just under 20% of all the songs are credited to foreign musicians.

New York has produced more artists that reached the Hot 100 than any other city. Since 1958, 622 artists hailing from one of New York’s five boroughs have collectively created 2,513 Billboard Hot 100 songs, for an average of 44.1 hits per year. Los Angeles comes in second with 421 of its artists appearing on the Hot 100 chart since its launch. London places third, the only city aside from New York and Los Angeles with claim to over 200 artists from the Billboard Hot 100 and the only foreign city to crack the top 15. At four and five are two Midwestern cities in Detroit and Chicago. Both cities flourished as music hubs during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when they were home to artists at the forefront of Motown and soul.

New York and Los Angeles have remained consistent in their contribution to the Billboard Hot 100 over the years. Excluding the ‘50s, New York has been home to at least one of the top 10 artists each decade in terms of number of Hot 100 hits—Brook Benton in the ‘60s, Neil Diamond in the ‘70s, Billy Joel in the ‘80s, Mariah Carey in the ‘90s, Jay-Z in the ‘00s, and Nicki Minaj in the ‘10s (Minaj moved from Trinidad and Tobago to Queens, NY when she was five). Los Angeles, meanwhile, has a different feat to its name. It was home to the cast of Glee during the show’s run from 2009-2015, during which they surpassed Elvis Presley for the most Billboard Hot 100 singles ever. They collected 206 Hot 100 hits before the show’s conclusion in August 2015. (Whether the Glee Cast should count as a “Los Angeles” music group is perhaps up for debate—I’ve included them for the purpose of this analysis).

In only one decade since the 1950s has another city’s artists surpassed either New York’s or Los Angeles’s in terms of hit songs made. That city? London in the 1980s, when bands like The Police, Fleetwood Mac, and Queen achieved mainstream notoriety in the U.S. And let’s not forget about Sir Elton John, the London-born singer who appeared 19 times on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ‘80s and has nine number one records to his name.

London’s preeminence in the 1980s is indicative of a larger trend in U.S. music during the era. More than any other decade since the launch of the Hot 100, Americans decided to import their music from overseas. Over 35% of the songs that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the ‘80s were produced by international artists, with bands from England, Canada, and Australia being the key contributors. This came as one of the greatest surprises to me in the entire analysis; call me a millennial, but I assumed the data would show that the 1960s were the time when international music reigned atop the charts, given the historical homage paid to the British Invasion. Instead, I found that international music was nearly two and a half times more prevalent on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the ‘80s compared to the ‘60s.

Since then, another regional shift has started to take shape. The international influence has waned, while simultaneously the South has assumed its position as the most prolific hit-making region in the country. In the 2000s, 41.1% of the Billboard Hot 100 consisted of songs produced by Southern artists. It has become a hotbed for two disparate genres. On the one hand, the South has generated some of the highest profile country music acts of the last fifteen years—Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and Toby Keith to name just a few. On the other, the South has been home to a number of heralded rappers and hip-hop groups that have gained national attention. A large percentage of these artists have come from the Atlanta hip-hop scene including T.I., Ludacris, and Outkast.

In large part, Atlanta and Nashville have served as the focal points for the South’s emergence. Since the start of the 2000s, the two cities have ascended to numbers three and four in terms of number of Hot 100 hits produced, trailing only Los Angeles and New York. Nashville artists, in particular, have performed well of late, scoring the city’s two most prolific years on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013 and 2014.

Where Do Americans Import their Music From?

When I did a deeper dive into the international music that has graced the Billboard Hot 100, it was hard to ignore the impact that English music has had in the U.S. The Baby Boomers certainly remember how the Brits took over the airwaves during the British Invasion, when bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who enjoyed immense popularity among Americans. But the English influence is more far-reaching than just a blip in the mid-1960s. Overall, more than 50% of the international songs that have landed on the Hot 100 were produced by English artists. From 1983 to 1989—when post-punk and new wave bands were emerging from England in droves—that number was 66.5% on average for each year. Moreover, if you look just at the upper echelon of the Billboard Hot 100, the English dominance is even more striking. Historically, England has produced by far the most #1 Hits, owning over 57% of the international songs that reached the top spot.

Yet, England’s status as a musical juggernaut has receded a bit in the last few decades (exclude the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s from the chart above to see for yourself). Since 1990, English musicians hold claim to just under 36% of the Hot 100’s international songs—still the most of any foreign country, but a considerable decline from their performance in the ‘60s-‘80s. So the question then becomes, which countries’ artists have filled the void left by a lack of English hits? Certainly Canada's for one. Canadians account for nearly 20% of international hits post-1990, up from around 11% over the previous three decades. Canadian artists have actually produced the exact same number of Hot 100 hits as English artists since the millennium. Drake and Justin Bieber, both natives of our northern neighbor, are among the most popular musical artists in America right now. They’ve tallied the third and fourth most songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s respectively.

Another interesting bi-product of England’s waning influence is the rise of musical artists from a number of countries in the Caribbean. Since 2000, Jamaica, Barbados, and Puerto Rico have accumulated the fifth, sixth, and eighth most hits on the Hot 100 among all countries (including the U.S.). Considering only the charts released prior to 1990, none of the three countries were even in the top 10. Barbados has experienced perhaps the most meteoric rise to relevance, going from just two hits all-time prior to 2000, to 40 Hot 100 hits in the past fifteen years. The country primarily has Rihanna to thank for that, a native of Saint Michel who has 37 Hot 100 hits to her name.


So what does it all mean? Well for one thing, Los Angeles and New York have earned their status as the entertainment capitals of the U.S., or at least the capitals of the music industry. Artists from both cities have consistently put out chart-topping hits for the past six decades. Aside from those two, however, few cities have remained staples on the Billboard Hot 100 chart across eras. Chicago and Detroit—once breeding grounds for popular American music—have seen their relevance decline while Nashville and Atlanta have ascended. We'll have to see what the coming years hold in terms of the geographical origins of popular American music.