Last.fm has always been a haven for data nerds (if you’ve got a subscription, you can create one of these charts of your own listening history). But when you see that data in the aggregate, it starts to look pretty strange, when you think about it.
We all assume that cities have different, edgier tastes than the ‘burbs. But did you really think the differences would be this large? And the cities themselves aren’t similar at all. Here’s a detail of New York:
There’s very little overlap in popular music in those two musical trendsetting cities.
The graphs actually illustrate some facets of the current music industry. To become a world-wide smash, you need big record labels and the marketing muscle they bring. But even without that, a band can become quite big indeed. A band like Animal Collective, for example, is still relatively obscure. But they can sell-out live shows by the tens-of-thousands.
A decade ago, that kind of popularity would have at least garnered several gold records. And the following appearance on the Billboard charts or some such would have been enough to propel a small band to global success. (The best example: Look at Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the other big “alternative” acts of the 1990s, which seemed to spring from nowhere but hit the mainstream when they started appearing on the bottom of record charts.)
In the age of illegal downloading, the playing field has changed radically. A band like Animal Collective has what amounts to an artificial cap on their world-wide popularity–that is, without a single metric of their popularity, such as record sales, they’ll always look tiny and indie even though they’ve got a huge following. They’ll never boast splashy album sales numbers, which amount to better marketing than they could ever buy. They’ll have to rely on niche tastemakers like Brooklyn Vegan or Pitchfork. The result, I think: Global pop music is getting more and more boring, because “breaking through” isn’t possible. The fresh blood just can’t compete.
(For all you data nerds: This type of graph is called a Stream graph, and it was invented just a couple years ago by Lee Byron–incidentally, as a project to visualize his own listening history on Last.fm. The most famous application so far has been this graphic that Byron created for The New York Times, which shows 2008 box office sales over time.)