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The 10 most underrated music cities in America


by Amanda Machado

In 2014, the Washington Post asked if music could save your neighborhood. These ten cities prove it can. These cities took their musical history and revived it, or found a way to redefine themselves with today’s sound. Or, they built a music culture from nothing by forming community radio stations, hosting concerts on rooftops, or making music venues out of courthouse lawns. And by investing in music, they not only created a music scene but an entire city culture that’s making residents linger, excited to see what happens next.

Music can lift a city like almost nothing else can. Here are ten cities that show you how.

Olympia, Washington


Olympia played a large role in the riot grrrl scene of the ’90s and these days, though the population here hovers around only 46,000, the music scene brings around 15 shows a week and (according to Billboard reports) more than $88.3 million in revenue each year.

Artists with city ties

Modest Mouse recorded their debut album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, in Olympia. Kurt Cobain also hung out in Olympia before becoming a star. Other people who hung around for while: Beck and Ian Svenonius (of the Make-Up), John Foster (John Foster’s Pop Philosophers), Lois Maffeo and Steve Fisk (Pell Mell).

Venues

Music on the Mounds gives 100% of ticket sales directly to musicians. The exact address of the venue — 10 acres of land where audience members can pitch their tents and build a fire on property — is kept secret until after purchasing tickets. Northern is the only all-ages venue in town, and also acts as an art gallery and a community space offering workshops on nights when bands aren’t playing. Rhythm & Rye has Monday and Thursday Jazz, Wednesday Open Mics, and bigger out-of-town shows on weekends for a cover usually under $10. In the summertime, the city hosts Music in the Park concerts in downtown.

Festival

Olympia’s Experimental Music Festival celebrates “fringe audio performances”. The Olympia Old-Time Music Festival celebrates traditional fiddle music.

Photo: Music on the Mounds

Madison, Wisconsin


The university definitely helps in bringing concert crowds, but truthfully, this city’s musical energy is present all over town. The city ranks close to big music cities like NY, Nashville, and LA in terms of concentration of music labels, distributors, recording studios and music publishers. A 2010 report by Songkick ranked Madison second only to Austin by rock shows-to-residents ratio. It also ranked high for least expensive concert ticket prices.

But Madison’s commitment to music shines most through its generosity towards artists: one blog claimed “This is the kind of place where buying a round of beers for a touring band is common, even if there are 20 members, and where fans are eager to offer musicians a place to crash.” There’s also a growing community of people hosting shows at their homes.

Artists with city ties

Garbage is from here (Its drummer, legendary producer Butch Vig, was a co-founder at Smart Studios in the 1990’s where he produced Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins). There’s also the Tar Babies, Nick Hexum of 311, Richard Davis, Ben Sidran, and Roscoe Mitchell. Justin Vernon, the songwriter and frontman for Bon Iver, is from just three hours away.

Venues

 The Barrymore Theatre, Majestic Theatre and High Noon Saloon can draw big-city acts for half the price. Also try the Overture Center, or the Alliant Energy Center

Festival

Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival hosts a a two-day outdoor music festival for fans of roots, bluegrass, and folk.

Photo: High Noon Saloon

Denton, Texas


A writer for Making Music magazine wrote that in Denton “Every other person you meet is a musician, and those that aren’t, have a love and respect for music that borders on obsession.” With a population just over 110,000, Denton has over 100 active bands, and because of its small size, musicians here have less ego and more soul. In 2008, Paste Magazine named the city’s music scene the best in the country and according to Citylab, the town’s growing music scene has led to a citywide boom.

But unlike other towns, Denton has intentionally built its music scene collaboratively, through projects like DentonRadio.com. When the internet radio station launched, Denton businesses and organizations rallied alongside musicians to financially support the endeavor. Now the station is a unique online platform for local musicians to expose their work, collaborate, and network.

Artists with city ties

Pat Boone, Don Henley, and Norah Jones passed through in the start of their careers. It also served as the temporary home of bands like  MidlakeBowling for Soup, Eli Young Band, Neon Indian, and Sarah Jaffe. The local polka band, Brave Combo, has won two Grammy Awards (but more importantly, they’ve appeared on The Simpsons).

Venues

There’s 25 venues within walking distance of the town square, and a couple hundred more nearby. But the city’s known for hosting concerts even in donut shops and fast food stops. Dan’s Silverleaf was voted best music venue in 2014. The Abby Underground features free live music and a large selection of  beers.

Festival

Each year the city hosts up to 20 large festivals and more than 100 smaller ones, but it’s 35 Denton — the town’s response to nearby Austin’s SXSW — that beats them all. The volunteer-driven festival showcases over 200 hundred bands — almost half from Denton — and attracts 10,000+ people.

Photo: Art and Seek

Kansas City, Missouri


Many consider this city the birthplace of jazz. The genre flourished here in the 1930’s, when political boss Tom Pendergast allowed alcohol in the city while the rest of the country was in prohibition. That attracted musicians from everywhere to pack dance halls and vaudeville houses, earning the city the nickname, “The Paris of the Plains.” At one time, there were more than 100 night clubs in the city. Today, though that number has dwindled, the city has still managed to honor its musical roots and continue the city’s tradition of carrying a tune, even when the country can’t.

Artists with city ties

Count Basie, Charlie Parker, the Get Up Kids, Melvin Calhoun, Walter Brown, Big Joe Turner.

Venues

For music with history, go to Uptown Theater which dates back to 1928, or the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland which first opened in 1927, and afterwards, hit up Mutual Musicians Foundation, a historical after-hours locale famous for their jam sessions going until sunrise. Visit the Majestic Steakhouse, or the Blue Room, housed inside the American Jazz Museum, for quality jazz. Or, pay no cover at Green Lady Lounge. The Record Bar showcases national and local acts and a raucuous Sunday brunch or go to B.B.’s Lawnside Barbecue for old school blues and barbecue. Davey’s Uptown is the live music/dive bar spot hosting musicians of every genre six nights a week. For music as the backdrop to cozy conversation, visit Tank Room. When the weather gets nice, watch outdoor music at Crossroads KC @ Grinders, go to an amphitheatre concert at Starlight, or visit Knuckleheads for an outdoor stage with VIP area located inside a converted caboose. The 20,000+ Sprint Center is also one of the country’s busiest arenas, hosting 400 events since 2007.

Festival

The April Middle of the Map Fest hosts live music, films and discussion forums for multiple days in April. Jazz in the Woods is the city’s largest free music festival.

Photo: Knuckleheads

Provo, Utah


In 2009, this small Utah town made music a central focus of its downtown development projects. The result? The city now prides itself in single-handedly building a music-loving culture that easily beats any other in the state. As one resident said “Go to Velour [in Provo] for a band you’ve never heard of, and there will be 200 people there. Go to Salt Lake City for a band that’s well-known, and there will be 30 people there.”

Artists with city ties

Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees gave this city its largest boost. But the town also boasts Fictionist, Lindsey Stirling, Ryan Innes, Joshua James, The New Electric Sound and The Moth and the Flame.

Venues

People admire Velour Live Music Gallery owner Corey Fox not only for bringing in great acts but also for coaching smaller, local bands into stardom. The venue doesn’t serve alcohol, which allows all ages to both perform and watch, and makes  music the venue’s sole focus. Muse Music Cafe also hosts a variety of genres and has weekly open mic nights for bands trying to make their mark. Guru’s and Sammy’s have dinner with their shows (Sammy’s in the summertime sets up a temporary stage outside). The Madison has a live DJ on Wednesdays and live bands occasionally each month.

Festival

The Summer Rooftop Concert Series invites local artists to perform on rooftops in a certain block of town, and brings in thousands each summer.

Photo: Rooftop Concert Series

Richmond, Virginia


One blog named this city one of the “underground music scenes that might explode in 2015.” For its population, the city has produced several local bands that are making it across the country in ever genre, but particularly in punk and metal. In 2013, New Noise Magazine named it one of the top ten metal scenes in America, while others call the town the  “Punk Rock Capital of the East Coast.” However, the city also boasts notable R&B and jazz scene, and because the scene is still small, “niche” venues aren’t as common and so every genre mixes.

Artists with city ties

The city is the birthplace of Municipal Waste, Lamb of God, and Gwar. But it also boasts artists outside the metal scene like D’Angelo, Randy Blythe, Trey Songz, Elliott Yamin, Jason Mraz, and Aimee Mann. Pharrell Williams is from nearby Virginia Beach.

Venues

The Camel, The National,  Hippodrome Theater

Festival

The Richmond Jazz Festival attracts 10,000+ people a year.

Photo: Richmond Jazz Festival 

Minneapolis, Minnesota


In the past, Minneapolis helped build stars like Janet Jackson, Prince, and Bob Dylan (he lived above a pasta bar, and played shows on the West Bank of the University). It also gave us the world’s first digital recording studio (Sound 80). Nowadays, it’s just as relevant: Minneapolis ranked second in Livability’s list of “Top 10 Cities With the Best Music Scenes Outside of Nashville, NYC, and LA.” It’s got a great hip-hop and indie scene, but it also throws in classical to the mix: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is the only professional, full-time chamber orchestra in the country.

Artists with city ties

Many associate the “Minneapolis sound” with the influence of native Prince. But the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and Semisonic (one of its member’s, Minneapolis resident Dan Wilson, now writes for artists like Adele, Keith Urban, and Josh Groban) are also famous locals. R&B mega-producing team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis produced artists like Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Cherrelle and Patti LaBelle. There’s also American Head Charge, Atmosphere, The Jayhawks, and Grammy-award winning gospel group Sounds of Blackness.

Venues

First Avenue nightclub famously appeared in Prince’s film Purple Rain. But there’s plenty more to choose from: Triple Rock Social Club has live music almost every night. Or you can try Fine Line Music Cafe, The Varsity Theater, or the State Theatre. Ordway Center for Performing Arts is renowned for its unique wall and floors that give the space great acoustics. Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant is great for pairing a night of jazz and blues with a foodie dinner. And if that’s not enough, in 2012, readers of About.com also ranked the city’s Cedar Cultural Center as the year’s Best Music Venue in the world.   

Festivals

Rock the Garden and Soundset

Photo: 

Omaha, Nebraska


Known for its historic jazz roots in the early 20th century, today this city has gained more attention for its growing indie rock scene.  The “Omaha Sound” — what MTV described as “the college radio lover’s alt rock peppered with small doses of country twang” — started kicking into gear with rising stars like Bright Eyes and has been catching momentum ever since.  MTV ranked Omaha second in its list of the world’s best up-and-coming music cities. NPR reported that the city’s music has caused the resurgence of  young professionals and creatives moving to the city. Through music, Omaha is gradually becoming a pocket of activists, artists, and creatives in the generally conservative Midwest. And yet, its still sticking to its roots. As one musician told NPR : “In the end, Omaha’s Omaha and that’s the thing I love about it…we welcome everybody in here, but we’re not necessarily changing for anybody and that’s a real incredible thing.”

Artists with city ties

Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong used to play at the Dreamland Ballroom. Though he spent a large portion of his life in Portland and Texas, Elliot Smith was born in Omaha. The town also claims Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive.

Venues

Barley Street Tavern and The Waiting Room have live music every night. Slowdown was named Esquire Magazine’s music club of the year in 2007 for featuring nationally known indie rock bands. Crossbones bar has open-mics, kareoke, and live music. The Omaha Lounge has jazz and blues every night of the week.

Festival

Maha is the city’s August Indie Rock festival.

Louisville, Kentucky


LEO Weekly

Louisville used to be the way station for the country’s blues, jazz, rock & roll, country, and bluegrass. In the seventies and eighties, punk entered the scene and nowadays, it has everything mashed together, including emerging hip-hop and indie artists.

Artists with city ties

Telma Hopkins, Lionel Hampton, Joan Osborne, My Morning Jacket, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Venues

Two-story Phoenix Hill Tavern is the city’s oldest nightclub housing five different bars with five different kinds of music. The Highlands Taproom doesn’t charge cover and showcases live bands playing original music every night of the week. Headliners Music Hall is independently-owned and features bands from practically every genre. For local bands, go to The New Vintage or Haymarket Whiskey Bar. In addition to concerts, Zanzabar has a vintage arcade.

Festival

 Kentucky Bluegrass and Bourbon Experience

Cleveland, Ohio


The phrase “Rock N Roll” was allegedly coined in this city, so it had to be included on the list. The home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, Cleveland tells a great story of the musical history of the Midwest, while also having current scene that keeps its traditions alive.

Artists with city ties

Kid Cudi, Joshua Radin, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Tracy Chapman.

Venues

Beachland Ballroom started out back in the day as a Slavic community center and has now grown to hosting rock bands. The museum hosts monthly live shows called Sonic Sessions some nights. For indie music, visit The Grog Shop or the Music Box Supper Club. There’s also the Cleveland Agora, the House of Blues, and Brother’s Lounge

Festival

Tri-C Jazz Fest is the largest music festival in Ohio.

Photo: Grog Shop 

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