Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival

Atmosphere on the last day of Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 27, 2014 in Indio, California.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

As country music’s audience skews younger than at any time in its history, what city has the genre’s most fervent 20-something fans?

The obvious choices might include Nashville, recognized as country’s business center; Dallas, a stronghold in the center of cowboy proud Texas; or Los Angeles, where KKGO — and KZLA before it — has frequently billed itself as “America’s most-listened-to country station.”

Per capita, however, the title actually belongs to Evansville, Indiana, according to a study conducted by Vocativ.com, an online news site that caters to what it terms “the digital generation.” The Vocativ Music Index examined location-based data from MusicMetric.com — including BitTorrent illegal downloads and social-media activity — and adjusted for market size and several other factors, such as the cities’ Internet speed, to build a profile of 100 cities’ musical tastes.

Evansville topped every other market in the study in its passion for country, followed by Lexington, Kentucky; Billings, Montana; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Fargo-Valley City, North Dakota.

Those results were a mild surprise to Townsquare/Evansville operations manager Jon Prell, who serves as brand manager for country WKDQ.

“I don’t know if I would’ve [predicted] us No. 1,” he says, “but I would’ve chosen us top five, top 10 at the very least.”

Of those more likely candidates, Music City placed No. 6 among country markets in the study, while Dallas-Fort Worth landed a distant No. 72 and Los Angeles came in at No. 98. The only cities that placed lower than L.A. on the scale were New York (at No. 99) and Miami (No. 100).

Those cities still move a lot of product, but that’s more representative of their population base than their real-world relationship to country.

“We collected the data so that it made each town level,” says Vocativ managing editor Markham Nolan. “It did throw some unusual results, and for Evansville for country, it may not be the one you would naturally go to.”

The data sources may have something to do with it — illegal downloads and social media activity may not be the recording industry’s favorite ways to gauge audiences’ behaviors.

“I never would’ve looked at those factors in determining fandom,” says Access Brand Strategies chief strategist Paul Jankowski, author of "How to Speak American: Building Brands in the New Heartland."

But Vocativ was particularly interested in the musical attitudes of younger -demographics, and both of those online pursuits — while not exclusive to a 12-34 audience — tend to skew younger. And both illegal downloading and following an artist on Twitter require a music fan to make some level of commitment, though clearly not a financial one.

Downloading “is illegal, sure, but for our demographic, this is a way that a large number of people access their music now, whether that’s good or bad,” says Nolan.“It’s quite accepted by young people at this point.”

“When it came to people selecting artists to follow on Twitter, there’s an action there that signifies, ‘Yes, I’m interested in this person,’ ” he adds.

The Nielsen Arbitron ratings for Evansville give a clue to country’s dominance in the market. While adult contemporary WIKY ranked No. 1 in the fall book with a 16.3 share, WKDQ’s 12.2 share — combined with the ratings of the city’s two other country outlets, WLFW (4.1) and WBKR (1.6) — vault country to a hefty 17.9 share, making it the top format.

The market’s passion for the genre may be part of the reason that Taylor Swift launched her first headline tour there in 2009 and why Kenny Chesney gave the final concert at 12,000-seat Roberts Stadium before it was closed in 2011. Also of note: Fred Rose — who co-founded Nashville’s first music-publishing company, Acuff-Rose, where he mentored Hank Williams — was born in Evansville.

“Go to any of the retailers here, if you’re gonna buy CDs and you go to the country section, you will find a lot of empty slots for some of the new product, some of the biggest names in country music,” says Prell anecdotally. “They’re constantly having to reorder it, where some of the other genres — they’re not just sitting there, but they’re not selling anywhere near [what country is] selling in Evansville. Country is king here. That’s the bottom line.”

Two other observations from the Vocativ index are particularly interesting. First, the top 10 cities for country are located predominantly in the Midwest and Northern mountain states, rather than the Southeast or Southwest, which might have been expected. Four of the genre’s top 10 cities form a passionate tri-state rectangle in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee where each of those markets — No. 1 Evansville, No. 2 Lexington, No. 6 Nashville and No. 9 Knoxville (Tennessee) — is within 290 miles of the others.

“This is the heartland,” says Prell, who was raised in Southern California. “The lifestyle here in this part of the Midwest epitomizes the core of what country music is.”

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Also notable is country’s performance in the current media landscape despite its low scoring in New York and Los Angeles, the two largest media centers in the nation. Country artists are making significant inroads in corporate branding, Blake Shelton and Keith Urban are regular panelists on "The Voice" and "American Idol," and country has become a regular staple in the music slot on late-night talk shows, where it once was a rarity. Those developments suggest that the national media is often able to look past the preferences of its local community when making talent decisions and/or that the country music business has done a good job of selling its story to the media centers.

“I think country fans have demanded that,” says Jankowski. “[The networks] can’t ignore it anymore.”

And Nashville would be smart, it appears, not to ignore Evansville.

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