In theory, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—updated on an annual basis, and refreshed this week with a list of new nominees—recognizes the most influential artists in the history of Western popular music. But that nomination process is somewhat arbitrary, beholden to an “international voting body of more than 900” as well as results from an online fan vote.
For a more data-driven look at the most influential musicians in the world, the ones who have inspired decades of younger artists after them, we should turn rather to AllMusic, an online database started in 1991 that is perhaps the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia of popular music.
It includes detailed biographies and details on the recordings of tens of thousands of artists, alongside lists of the artists that they inspire or are inspired by. For example: The database identifies the late Tom Petty as having been influenced by 23 artists including Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry; Petty in turn influenced 70 younger artists, including the War on Drugs and Counting Crows. AllMusic has assembled these connections “called out from research and interviews” or via “strong inference based on the opinion of the editors”—and while the types of connections carry a certain bias from the inclinations of the researchers, the site is still the most thorough examination of artist relationships to exist.
Quartz collected data from the site on 53,630 artists, of which about 25,600 were listed as having influenced or been influenced by at least one other artist. Our methodology involved collecting influence data for every artist that is highlighted on one of AllMusic’s 21 different genre pages, then, from there, collecting influence data on all the artists on those 2,000 artists’ influence pages. We continued the process until additional iterations led to few additional artists; while some artists were likely missed in our process, the data are broadly representative.
The top 100 most influential musicians are as follows:
Names at the top may not surprise—consider it an obligatory homage for any modern-day rock artist to list The Beatles as an influence in press interviews, for example—but the rankings get more interesting when you look a bit further down the list. The Velvet Underground is several times more influential than more easily recognizable “top” artists like Nirvana and Bruce Springsteen; Madonna, one of the biggest pop stars of the last few decades, is not high up at all.
Popularity on the radio waves, it turns out, does not determine an artist’s tangible impact on the actual history of music.
Here are the most influential artists, broken down by genre.
And here is the list of most influential artists by city—in order of cities with the most artists, and categorized by either where a band was formed or an individual musician was born.
As new music is produced and published at a faster rate than ever before these days, we may also soon see the generations of influence begin to blend: New artists may not necessarily draw influence from those older or more established than they are, but rather their peers. (Genres like hip-hop have already embraced this cross-plane influence, with many musicians citing teenage acts and 80s rappers alike as inspirations.) Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music these days often show listeners “related artists” or suggest musicians within similar-sounding records in that same genre—and thanks to the existence of such instantaneous digital platforms, musicians of the future will likely have closer influence ties than ever.