Mapping Country Music’s Politics

During the recent presidential election cycle, I noticed a number of commentators speculating about the significance of country music as a symbol of Donald Trump’s populist base.

I’d read articles from The Economist’s 1843 Magazine and listened to a fascinating and emotional Revisionist History podcast episode from Malcolm Gladwell, but there didn’t seem to be much quantitative research in the area of country music’s relationships to politics, demographics, and geography. So in the spirit of learning more about my favorite type of music and leveling up my data analysis skills, I set out to learn what I could.

I decided to begin by taking a ‘snapshot’ of the country music landscape as it stood right now — I collected every song from Spotify’s 30+ featured country playlists on September 7 (excluding “This Is:” playlists devoted to showcasing a single artist’s work). I then compiled YouTube search data by state for the past year using Google Trends. Creating a local Postgres database with this information along with census and political spectrum data, I aimed to produce a brief examination of the United States through the lens of today’s country music.

While country stars have, for the most part, refrained from public political activity (Kid Rock aside), this analysis can give a sense of how closely country music may conform to notions about the politics and geography of the genre’s artists and listeners.

First, let’s take a look at where country music is most popular to listen to. Using YouTube data from Google Trends, we can examine the relatively popularity of country artists by state, filtered by Spotify playlist.

These maps display where artists on Spotify’s country playlists are most popular on YouTube. Clicking on the left or right arrows in the corner of the map will allow you to filter by some of Spotify’s featured country playlists to see where artists from those playlists are most popular.

It’s important to note here that the summed YouTube data used here indicates how widespread or broad an artist’s popularity is, not an artist’s absolutely popularity in terms of number of searches.

Are you surprised that the Dakotas, Montana, and Iowa seem to score so much higher than states more often associated with country music, like Tennessee and Texas? I was too, but I have a few guesses why:

  • The YouTube data represents how many of a state’s total YouTube searches were for an artist, not absolute number of searches for that artist.
  • Therefore, states with a higher proportion of country listeners will score higher, not a higher absolute population of them. It’s per capita.
  • In terms of demographics, the Great Plains are far more rural and less diverse than Tennessee or Texas, leading to a hypothetically higher proportion of country fans, and thus higher YouTube scores. I’ve got a chart that looks at part of this further down!

Now that we’ve seen where the music’s fanbase is, let’s take a look at where country artists themselves come from.

Map of artist hometowns created in Tableau — I collected the data from artists’ Facebook pages, websites, and Wikipedia articles. Notice the enormous number of artists from Nashville. While bands or groups are especially likely to call Nashville home, more solo artists grew up there than anywhere else as well.

In the next pair of maps we’ll look at where country artists are from by state, both per capita and as an absolute number per state.

Click the tabs on the top of the map to switch between Per Capita and Absolute.

Perhaps more surprising is that the Upper Midwest and Mountain states, where country is so popular on YouTube, produce so few artists. Even in per capita terms, these low-population states don’t seem to produce many artists in the genre they apparently listen to so much.

Regionally, it’s clear that the South produces a disproportionate amount of America’s country acts. It’s interesting to note that while large Southern states like Georgia and Texas (and even Tennessee to an extent) clearly produce high numbers of artists both in absolute terms and per capita, they do not have particularly high YouTube search scores. These Sunbelt states have experienced high levels of both domestic and international immigration in recent years, perhaps lowering the proportion of country listeners in the increasingly diverse states — something I may explore in future research.

While California outranks several Southern states, other highly populated states like New York and Illinois still fail to produce many artists.

Texas does produce the highest absolute number of artists, which makes sense given that it’s the most populous Southern state. Despite being ranked twenty-first in the per capita rankings, California is fourth among the states when ranked by absolute numbers, likely due to its status as the most populated state overall.

Now let’s examine the communities country artists come from. Are they really all from farms and ‘dot on a map’ towns?

Using 2010 census data, we can also see that country artists are much more likely to be from a small or midsize town than the rest of the US population, and as might be expected, are somewhat less likely to be from a city larger than 50,000. Interestingly, while 19% of the US overall is from a rural area (a jurisdiction with pop. <2,500), only 12% of country artists are. So, while all those songs about growing up on farms in the middle of nowhere are probably exaggerated, country artists do come from small towns at a higher rate than most people.

Now, to the point— is there any correlation between country music and political conservatism? To find out, I collected each state’s Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), a metric developed by the Cook Political Report that grades a state’s political leanings by comparing a state’s Democratic or Republican Party’s share of the presidential vote in the past two presidential elections to the nation’s average share of the same. I then compared each state’s PVI with that state’s number of artists per capita, as well as the state’s total YouTube search scores.

This chart is sorted by PVI (in yellow) from most heavily Democrat (Hawaii) to most heavily Republican (Wyoming). Artists per Capita (red) and Total YouTube Search Score (blue) are shown as well — notice, for example, Tennessee’s spike in Artists Per Capita.

The correlation coefficient (r) between the normalized PVI data and the normalized number of artists per capita is 0.3265, which indicates a low to medium correlation. Meanwhile, between normalized PVI and a state’s normalized total YouTube search score, r = 0.6809, a much higher correlation.

This leads us to the observation that country listeners are quite a bit more likely to live in conservative states than liberal ones, and that states further to the right generally have a higher proportion of country listeners, to a point. Meanwhile, on average, the artists themselves come from relatively more balanced, though still conservative-leaning, states. Since the PVI/YouTube r of 0.6809 is about double the PVI/Artists Per Capita r is 0.3265, we can conclude that political conservatism is much more correlated with country music’s listenership than its artists.

That’s it for now! Next, I think it’d be interesting to compare things like each state’s rural population per capita and other demographic information to see how that correlates with the population of artists and fans. I hope you learned something new about country music today.

For more insights you never knew you needed, follow me on Twitter and check out my website! Also, to learn more about my data sources and methodology, click here.

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