The 5 Greatest American Music Cities

Many elements go into evaluating a “music city.” There must be a thriving music scene with diverse styles of music. There must be ample places to perform and watch the music. And finally, there must be music business elements such as record labels, management firms, and booking agents. You have to be where the action is. If you want to connect with other musicians and advance your career, you have to move to a place where like-minded people are doing the same thing you are. These are five of the best American cities for music.

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5. New Orleans

The Big Easy is the birthplace of jazz. Ragtime music had become popular throughout the country in the early 1900s. The brass bands performing in New Orleans brought a new flavor, and it became known as jazz. Around this time, an influx of Cuban and Italian immigrants brought their musical ingredients to the mix. Artists such as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong started playing what became known as “hot jazz.” In the early ’40s, “Fats” Domino started playing in the clubs and was performing his boogie-woogie and blues style, which was an early blueprint for what would become known as rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard recorded his biggest hits at J&M Studios on the edge of the French Quarter. Other music took hold of the city as well. Hip-hop and heavy metal have had a large presence through the years. There is a thriving live music scene, and the city draws many tourists yearly.  

4. Los Angeles

Forever linked with the movie industry, Los Angeles also has a rich music history. Soundtrack recordings led to the development of recording studios in the area, but a vibrant West Coast jazz scene sprang up. Wanting to differentiate from the “hot jazz” of New Orleans, musicians like Miles Davis and Chet Baker started being called “cool jazz.” When rock ‘n’ roll appeared, studios like Gold Star and Capitol cranked out hits. Studio musicians that would eventually be referred to as The Wrecking Crew backed up artists such as The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Carpenters, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Simon & Garfunkel, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. After punk rock exploded out of New York and England, Los Angeles had its share of DIY bands. The Go-Gos, X, and Black Flag all left their mark. Later in the ’80s, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, and Motley Crüe would be based out of Tinseltown. Ice T, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg represented the West Coast hip-hop scene along with what was coming out of the Bay Area. Electronic music has become extremely popular in the last few decades. Most major record labels have offices in Los Angeles.

3. New York

From Carnegie Hall to CBGB, Radio City Music Hall to Studio 54, New York City has been the setting for many great musical movements. Opera ruled the day in the late 1800s. Broadway musicals have always been big business, and in the ’20s, the explosion of jazz changed the scene. George Gershwin bridged the gap from classical to jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker brought new energy to the city. Jazz grew into swing, and rhythm and blues morphed into rock ‘n’ roll. In 1954, Alan Freed broadcast on WINS. In the late ’60s, discotheques and their associated music became popular. An underground scene developed in the mid-’70s at clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, with bands like The Ramones and Blondie performing for the kids looking for something outside the establishment. Street parties in the ’80s led to DJs blending songs and utilizing the turntable as an instrument. This led to the birth of hip-hop. The music business has always been based in New York. In 1931, The Brill Building was built. It housed publishing companies and songwriters. It has always been a hub of creativity and is still active today.

2. Austin, Texas

Often referred to as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” the Austin music scene exploded in the early 1970s due to artists frustrated with the formulaic structure of Nashville’s music industry. Artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings came from Nashville, and Doug Sahm from San Francisco. Austin’s live music heritage goes back to the late 1800s when German settlers brought the button accordion, which mixed with the region’s Northern Mexico sounds. The nine-block area of East Sixth Street is recognized as the Sixth Street Historic District. The area went through ups and downs but started an upward swing in the late ’70s when the Pecan Street Festival started drawing large groups of visitors. In 1974, Austin City Limits started taping its live-performance television show. Nelson was the first guest. Austin is now a thriving music scene featuring live performances of all styles of music.

1. Nashville

There is no other place like Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry started in 1925. It wasn’t the only live radio show to feature country music, but WSM radio had one of the largest broadcast reaches. After moving to several locations, in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry was broadcast every Saturday night from the Ryman Auditorium. The lack of a backstage area for the performers led them to duck out the back door into the honky-tonks across the alley. The artists would often perform onstage at these establishments. The stretch of Broadway between 2nd and 5th avenues is still a vibrant entertainment strip. Seven days a week, from morning to late night, you can hear all styles of music being performed. 

For years, Opry performers would travel to other cities to make recordings. Eventually, a studio was opened in downtown Nashville by WSM engineers. In 1954, brothers Owen and Harold Bradley started a studio in a neighborhood west of town. Songwriters, publishing companies, and record labels sprang up. It became what is now known as Music Row. Nashville is the Music City.

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