The Five Most Influential College Towns

June 3, 2011  |  1:23pm

Even if you skip the keg parties, it doesn’t take long to develop a hangover from the communal spirit that saturates the co-ed lifestyle. Early-morning classes, randomly assigned roommates and open-mic nights have sparked creativity in some of music’s most talented players. Last week, Amazon’s annual list of the 20 most well-read cities in the country was dominated by college towns. But what are some of the most successful college towns when it comes to sending music out into the world? Here are our favorite five.

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5. Olympia, Wash.
The birthplace of both K Records (Karl Blau, The Microphones) and Kill Rock Stars (Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill), Olympia’s foggy streets serve as a welcome solution for musicians wanting to escape the stress of neighboring Seattle. Finding its footing the early ’80s, the city and its homegrown labels have been instrumental in shaping the anti-folk, post-hardcore and riot grrrl movements. Olympia’s K Records was co-founded by the multi-talented Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, The Go Team) with the motto, “exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre since 1982.” The label released early albums by now-staple acts Modest Mouse and Beck. Similarly, fellow independent label Kill Rock Stars continues to focus on underground and overlooked artists and is frequently credited with launching the aggressively feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the ’90s. But Olympia’s most valuable assets rests in the shadow of the its famous evergreens that shade nearly 20 universities, most of which boast communities that are rich in the arts.

Notable Alumni: Nirvana, Kimya Dawson, Mirah, The Blow and Steve Fisk

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4. The Triangle (Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Durham), N.C.
Nestled deep within the North Carolina landscape, The Triangle (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) earned its nickname from its abundance of University speckled communities that hold ties to (among others) The University of North Carolina and Duke. In addition to hosting indie-powerhouse Merge Records, the root of The Triangle’s scene lies in its collaborative nature. A majority of the area’s most popular acts are part of a larger collective whose members shuffle around one another’s projects interchangeably—favorites The Rosebuds have at one time or another included members from several other acts including Bowerbirds, GAYNGS, Megafaun, Portastatic, Roman Candle, Schooner and Superchunk (and Justin Vernon spent a short time in the group before forming Bon Iver). In addition to its indie inhabitants, the hills of The Triangle are rich with the traditions of folk and bluegrass, providing a home to twang-infused groups such as The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Notable Alumni: Ryan Adams, Ben Folds Five, Superchunk, James Taylor and The Love Language

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3. Portland, Ore.
According to Fred Armisen on the IFC series “Portlandia,” Portland is where hipsters go to retire. With its rows of bicycle friendly streets, health-conscious vibe, tight-knit neighborhoods and an abundance of colleges like Portland State, Lewis & Clark and Reed, the city seemingly sets the bar when it comes to providing a rich quality of life. And for those who have spent time in the Pacific Northwestern staple, it should come as no surprise that the Portland serves as a breeding ground for creativity amongst its lengthy roster of successful artists. In the early ’80s, Portland joined forces with Seattle to become home-base for the energy-charged punk scene (Courtney Love is from Portland) and currently, the city is churning-out a grab-bag of talented indie acts (Yacht, Starfucker, Hockey) that, like their predecessors, are graced with multiple venues to showcase their tunes. In addition to an array of DIY labels, The Olympia-based Kill Rock Stars now has a Portland office, and several of the surrounding Universities lend freshly inspired students to the scene.

Notable Alumni: M. Ward, The Decemberists, The Dandy Warhols, Elliott Smith and The Shins

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2. Austin, Texas
Known as the live music capital of the world, Austin’s music scene thrives long-after the streets clear from SXSW and Austin City Limits. Fortunately, the city’s entertainment options span far beyond the typical “one gigantic theatre” and “another tiny dive bar” dilemma. In keeping with its legacy, Austin’s surplus of venues virtually guarantees that its artists are constantly supplied with a creative outlet while at the same time providing fans with the opportunity to expose their pallets to an ever-expanding selection of artists. Many trace Austin’s musical heritage back to 1933 when Threadgills, a venue that hosted greats such as Janis Joplin, opened its doors, but the students that attend the multiple Universities that plaster the city’s streets will always provide the framework for an eager audience.

Notable Alumni: Spoon, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Explosions in the Sky, Okkervil River and Ghostland Observatory

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1. Athens, Ga.
With a list of alumni that reads like a name-check of the industry’s heaviest hitters, Athens has spent the last several years calmly looming in the shadows of other spotlight-grabbing cities like New York and LA, nurturing the development of its artists without the pressures associated with organized showcases and major labels. And with acts whose roots are planted deeply in the jam scene (Widespread Panic), as well as others who are constantly reinventing things on the indie-front (Of Montreal), Athens has long-been the most celebrated college music scene in the country. Home of the University of Georgia, the Southern city is rich with performance space including the dive-esque 40 Watt, which has hosted everyone from Pylon to Nirvana to The Pixies, and the recently rebuilt Georgia Theatre, which is slated to have its grand reopening in August after suffering devastating damage from a fire in 2009. And with its own mini-festival, Athfest, Athen’s supportive community is perhaps its biggest asset.

Notable Alumni: The B-52’s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Of Montreal and Danger Mouse

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