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Some Cities Really Are Cooler Than Others (But Maybe Not The Ones You Think)
April 19, 2012
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Do some cities have cooler taste in music than others? A music fan contemplating relocation options between, say, New York City and Boise, Idaho, might think one choice is better than the other. And there have been no shortage of geographically based scenes that have influenced directions in popular music, from Manchester to Seattle to Brooklyn.

But with bands and musicians hailing from every part of North America (not to mention the world), and in an internet era where people don't depend on things like record stores and concert venues to experience new music, how adventurous your taste in music is shouldn't depend on where you live, right?

Not according to a new academic study from University College in Dublin, Ireland. In a research paper called "The Geographic Flow of Music", authors Conrad Lee and Padraig Cunningham argue that some cities are "consistent early adopters of new music" (and are equally likely to "snub stale music").

Using a methodology adapted from the study of leadership in flocks of pigeons (really), Lee and Cunninghan find that the geographical flow of music has a "hierarchical structure" - i.e. the residents of some cities are more into cool, new music than others, who end up following their lead.

So who are the leaders and who are the followers? The results may surprise you:


Thanks to a VERY COMPLICATED way of monitoring listening trend data (remember those pigeons?), it would appear that the city of Atlanta is the leader when it comes consuming new music in North America. It's also the top town when it comes to consuming new hip-hop music. But when it comes to indie rock, Montreal leads the way, with Toronto not far behind (Toronto is also one of the biggest consumers of new hip-hop on the continent).

New York, by contrast is very much in the middle of the pack, a trend involving big, global cities that continues in Europe:


Not only is Oslo a leading consumer of new music, it has appears to have more links with the U.K. cities of Birmingham and Leeds than those places do with London.

What does all of this mean? Lee and Cunningham don't present any major suggestions about why some cities appear more willing to follow new music than others, nor do they overtly question the methodology that gave them these results (i.e. the pigeons). They do, however, express some surprise: "For us, the most surprising features of fig. 3 are (1) the middle ranking positions of some of the largest cities, such as NYC and LA in fig. 3a and NYC and Chicago in fig. 3b and (2) the prominent position of Canadian cities."

The authors cite previous research that suggests a city's size should correlate to its ability to spread new information, and point out that their results seem to run counter to that expectation. Their conclusion? "In the specific context of being cutting edge in music," they write, "cities are idiosyncratic. Larger cities are not predictably and generally ahead of smaller cities. In other words, a city is more than the number of its inhabitants, it might lead the trends in one genre while lagging them in another."

If nothing else, the leadership patterns of pigeon flocks have led us to celebrate the musical tastes of certain cities:


One of the pre-eminent Atlantans in the music scene is Andre 3000, sometime OutKast rapper, sometime actor, always dapper dresser. Recently he collaborated with Damon Albarn's Gorillaz project and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy on the single "Do Ya Thing":


Synth-pop singer Grimes is but the latest of Montreal's musical exports to get widespread attention:


Norway is known for all sorts of music, from space disco to death metal, but Oslo's most famous musical export may have arrived many years ago:

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