This post was co-authored with Ian Swain
In his Economix column earlier this month, Edward Glaeser discussed the economic outlook for Atlanta. He was generally optimistic, using some of the economic geographer’s standard tools in his analysis: Atlanta is its region’s largest urban agglomeration, its politics are pro-business, and a high percentage of its population is college-educated. He singles out the latter factor for special consideration, noting that the percentage of college graduates in Atlanta is higher than in Boston and much higher than the national average.
We don’t dispute Glaeser’s observations. We agree that it never pays to bet against huge agglomerations of smart people. However, we also wish to point out that these metrics might not paint a complete picture of the distinctive resources Atlanta has at its disposal. While highly educated, Atlanta is not a national powerhouse in terms of its concentration of four-year college graduates. As of 2008, Atlanta’s metro area (or MSA) ranked 32nd nationally out of roughly 360. Fulton County (home to the city of Atlanta and several surrounding suburbs) was higher, ranking 21st. (N.B.: Glaeser used the city level for some of his analysis and the MSA for the rest. For our discussion below, we are sticking to the metro level. For what it’s worth, Atlanta is below Boston at the MSA level).
These are highly impressive levels of education, without a doubt. But a lot of places are ahead of Atlanta. What we wish to expand upon here, however, is that there is another field where Atlanta tops the charts.
Atlanta’s Musical Profile
A preliminary analysis of our 2007 MySpace dataset shows the MSAs whose Hip Hop and Rap bands have captured the most fans on myspace.com. Atlanta’s urban artists and groups have the third-most fans in the country – 6.4 million – behind only Los Angeles and New York. This is roughly 7.5% of the 83.7 million fans of the two MySpace genres, which, incidentally, are the most popular genres on MySpace. Atlanta also ranks highly on a number of other smaller genres: third in R&B, third in Christian Music, second in Crunk, and third in Hardcore (this last figure may reflect many “hardcore” rap artists, but Atlanta also has a sizeable number of “metal” bands who have amassed roughly 340,000 myspace fans, and there are also reports of an emerging hardcore punk scene. We’d love to hear more about it).
Atlanta is an elite producer of one of America’s most widely consumed cultural products: radio-friendly rap and R&B. Atlanta is indeed a skilled city. But it is doubtful that the proportion of four-year college graduates is much of an indicator of the songwriting, arranging, and performance skills that some of Atlanta’s most successful entrepreneurs practice at world-class levels.
At the same time, while much of Atlanta’s musical output emphasizes rap’s traditional ghetto themes, it neglects to mention the emergence of a highly skilled and educated workforce in the city. In fact, we posit that it is likely the combination of these less (formally) educated rappers and producers with better-educated MBAs, lawyers, media professionals, and managers that has positioned Atlanta to so successfully turn its musicians’ creative production into a profitable product across the United States and around the world. Skills and “skillz” are complementary.
There are two other conspicuous features of Atlanta’s MySpace numbers: first, like Nashville, its bands are highly popular. Atlanta ranks 15th in total MySpace bands. But those bands have earned the 5th-most MySpace fans of any MSA. Among large metros, Atlanta has the second-highest “fan-to-band” ratio, nationally. The average Atlanta band has 803 MySpace fans. Only Nashville’s 984 fans per band ranks higher. New York and Los Angeles bands average roughly a third as many fans per band. Atlanta’s scene clearly excels at projecting its music to a wide audience, and its industry has a system in place to take musicians from a local act to the national stage. Like Nashville’s bands, those musicians who enter the Atlanta scene are serious about success, linking into professional networks that know how to commercialize musical talent.
The second thing that jumps out about the MySpace data is that also like Nashville, the Atlanta scene is focused. Most go there to make a specific sort of music. The Atlanta scene is dominated by the Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B genres. Consider this picture of Atlanta’s genre distribution.
These figures portray an Atlanta that not only falls within the upper levels of average educational attainment. They show that Atlanta is an elite producer of the genres sociologist Phillip Ennis groups into the “black pop” stream of American popular music. Moreover, Atlanta is the primary regional specialist in that stream, mirroring a pattern we find in many other metrics of urban musical performance: New York and Los Angeles jockey for top position across the board, and then a third city joins them.
We also know that the geographic separation of an elite but non-L.A or N.Y. “third city” is part of the American popular music urban ecology – a system that thrives on leaving space for historically marginalized styles of music to be incubated outside of the main commercial centers, only to be “harvested” later. White rural and African-American musics, both located in America’s “other within” – the South – have been the most important and popular wellsprings of these genres of music. The more recent trend is for these musics to become symbolically associated with specific regional cities that specialize in producing them. These cities contain large concentrations of musicians working in that specific stream, producers who specialize in recording that stream, managers and smaller labels who specialize in finding talent in that stream, and a broader set of cultural and social amenities that enable the lifestyle associated with that music to be realized in a concentrated and full way.
In the mid-20th century, Nashville transformed itself from the courtly “Athens of the South” into the national hub for what Ennis calls the “country pop” stream. Toward the end of the century, Atlanta began to position itself as the main commercial producer of the “black pop” stream.
A Brief History of Atlanta Rap
A proper history of rap in Atlanta would fill a book. Consider this the Cliff Notes version. In the 1980s, Atlanta started out with its own variety of up-tempo club music similar to Miami bass. While the scene lacked any break-out national hits in its early days, its essence was captured in the classic jock jam “Whoomp (There It Is)” by Tag Team. By the early 90s, the Atlanta-based LaFace label was rising as the “Motown of the South” with artists like TLC, Usher, and Toni Braxton crossing over to MTV and top 40 radio. Fellow Atlantans Arrested Development and Kris Kross joined them on the pop charts.
With the emergence of Outkast, Goodie Mob and others in the mid-1990s, a uniquely characteristic style of rap became associated with Atlanta. True to its environment, it was judged more on its impact in the bass-heavy speakers of cars and strip clubs than the walkman- and mix show-driven rap of New York. Sampling was less important, with drum machines and synthesizers taking the lead instead – a development also notable on the business side, as it allowed artists to retain more of their royalties and avoid paying licensing fees to sampled copyright-holders. These artists successfully built a movement that moved beyond the Tupac vs. Biggie and LA. vs. NY battles of the 90s.
The lyrics of Atlanta rap and R&B appealed to specific regional experiences unavailable to New Yorkers or Angelenos. They were initially dismissed by outsiders as “country” However, in the hands of artists like Outkast and Goodie Mob, a proud “Dirty South” movement emerged. This was a term indicative not of crime and backwardness but of the lasting human stain of slavery and oppression. And it asserted that Atlanta’s rappers were in a unique position to comment on race relations across the South. ATLiens, the title of Outkast’s second album, sums up this urban cultural rhetoric. Atlanta rappers were doubly alienated, both from the “devils” that had historically dominated their city and region and from the mainstream rap industry dominated by New York and Los Angeles. And, as many a musical sub-culture has demonstrated, alienation sells.
From this identification with the Dirty South, a number of other new interpretations emerged regarding what a uniquely Southern style of hip hop could be. Many of them departed from more political messages and stressed instead high-energy, sexually charged partying, as in the “crunk” sub-genre that dominated the charts in the mid-00s.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when Atlanta-based rap and R&B began to dominate the charts, but today it’s easy to rhyme off a long list of top-selling Atlantans: Outkast, Usher, Young Jeezy, Monica, T.I., Ciara, Ludacris, Yung Joc, Keri Hilson and Soulja Boy. The producers who construct the hit sounds are located there as well: Jermaine Dupri, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Terius “The-Dream” Nash (Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”), Jonathan “Lil Jon” Smith (Usher’s “Yeah”), Polow “da Don” Jones (Usher’s “Love in This Club”), and many, many more.
The particular dynamics of this rise of a hip hop backwater to the top of the charts is a case we are currently studying. Any ideas or pointers to good resources would be much appreciated. Darren Grem’s paper on “the Southernization of Hip-Hop America” is a good start, but there is surely more to be said.
However it got there, Atlanta is now clearly a member of the small, elite group of cities that dominate key segments of the music market. What might be the consequences for the broader regional economy of Atlanta of having achieved this position? A few hypotheses:
The direct economic benefits of music industries are real. In 2004, Atlanta’s music industry payroll was $307 million, and it generated $360 million in revenues. That year, Atlantans bought 1.4 million tickets to the concerts tracked by POLLSTAR, generating nearly $61 million in gross receipts.
Still, we and our colleagues believe that a robust music scene’s indirect effects may be even more important. Some possible mechanisms:
- Talent attraction – Young college graduates tend to migrate to places with lots of networking opportunities, nightlife energy and prospective significant others. Music – more than film, theatre, literature or dance – generates a scene that facilitates all these activities.
- Openness - Places where a jeans-wearing 25-year-old could be a millionaire producer are more likely to respect the notion that status can be earned by more than just the risk-averse paths of a lawyer, doctor, or politician. Just as dot–com entrepreneurs followed the hippies to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, a place like Atlanta seems uniquely suited to generating the next generation of media entrepreneurs.
- Marketing – The music business is largely about taking some raw talent and a few good ideas and turning them into a marketable “product”: the artist. Those kinds of skills, broadly speaking, are not just crucial to the music biz but they can also be applied to many kinds of products and services – as the old saying goes, innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But perhaps it gives too much credit to Atlanta’s music execs to identify them as the key ingredient to this particular prowess – Atlanta has been honing its expertise at selling flavoured sugar-water to the world for far longer than it’s been making club hits.
We also decided to take a look at some technology data on Atlanta, given that economists from Robert Solow to Jorgensen et al have demonstrated we live in an era when technology and research are some of the greatest drivers of economic growth. While they’re not at all conclusive, the data don’t show much evidence that Atlanta is a major centre for technological innovation. The Atlanta metro area ranks 49th out of 200 large cities in the Milken Institute’s ranking of the relative concentration of high-tech GDP, and it is 99th in terms of five-year high-tech GDP growth. Fellow music hub Nashville ranks even worse, at 120th and 149th, respectively.
While our thoughts are purely speculative, we wonder whether the concentration of music might contribute in some way to Atlanta and Nashville’s dearth of high-tech. Both produce music that celebrates the rooted, the emotional, and the ecstatic – characteristics somewhat at odds with the more rationalistic practices of science and tech. Both Nashville and Atlanta strike us as places where the sort of disciplined, extended technical focus required by a new company in a growing field like technology, software, or biomedicine might be less socially recognized and supported. What kind of respect does a 26-year-old Emory engineering grad student garner on a night out when the 23-year-old rapper or guitar-slinger at the other end of the bar may have already made his first million? Young, educated professionals and entrepreneurs in Atlanta and Nashville might be more likely to put their brains and energy into cultural industries over technology start-ups.
Nonetheless, as more cities reinvent themselves in the post-industrial economy, drawing on symbolic resources is becoming increasingly important. Many cities are looking to build culture industries; some, like Detroit, could benefit from inventing new forms of music embodied in their specific histories. Atlanta does not need to accomplish either of these difficult tasks. It is already a national musical leader with enormous productive capacity that seems impervious to outsourcing. If its pro-business leaders recognize its music industry as one of the city’s most important economic assets and capitalize on that position, and if its many university graduates continue to direct their energy to transforming its musical potential into valuable products, then yes, betting on Atlanta will be smart money.