New York, London, and L.A. Dominate the Geography of Pop Music Superstars – CityLab
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.
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).
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.