An interesting paper at VOXEU gives us the readable version of a full economics paper written by Ferreira and Waldfogel looking at over 40 years of pop music singles charts in 22 countries (largely from the OECD) for evidence of internationalisation. They look at the national origin of artists and then compare the penetration of artists from a country into overseas markets with the GDP and export performance of the home country. Essentially this is a multi-national examination of the import /export patterns which apply in the case of a particular traded good. In this case the traded good is pop music.
Despite concerns that the US is taking over the world in the sphere of cultural production the authors find that while the US does better than the size of its economy would indicate, it does not outdo all other nations in the export of pop music on a standardised basis. In fact the truth is far worse than the Disneyfication and McDonaldisation of popular music. The nation which outperforms all others in sending its pop music to the world on a standardised basis is (the horror!) Sweden.
Speaking as someone who disliked Abba in the 1970s and has moved through the various stages of grief when listening to their muzak in the ensuing decades, I find this to be one of the most compelling indictments of mass musical taste I have ever seen. Wikipedia lists 46 Swedish pop groups and the only others I recognise are Roxette, Ace of Bass, and Rednex who did their best to turn techno-hillbilly into a major genre. Of course, the never ending taxonomic subdivision of musical genres means that we also need to consider hard rock groups such as Hellacopters and Europe and Alternative Rock groups such as the Cardigans, the Hives and the Kooks, all of which I can claim to have at least heard of. While these acts have achieved some success I suspect the ultimate blame for Svedish prominence lies with Abba, must lie with Abba. Mamma mia!
As an aside, has anyone considered the possibility that Steig Larsson was inspired to write his dystopian view of contemporary Sweden not only by the dark, realist 60’s and 70’s detective fiction of Sjowall and Wahloo, but also as a reaction to the relentless brain sapping pop cheesiness of Abba.
The other nations whose export performance outstrips their GDP weight in the period 2003-07 are Finland (heavy metal troll music ??), New Zealand, UK and Canada. I have no wish to discover what might be driving Canada’s relative success, as it may be due to a one time Swiss Eurovision contestant. Any fair assessment of New Zealand’s success would plainly recognise that they were largely Australians anyway, if they were any good. Did we not feed Splut Inz, provide drugs to Dragon and otherwise make kiwi bands feel right at home? Surely all those Maori and Islander nightclub bouncers were only there to make them feel welcome.
Over the long period from 1960 Australia has done better than would be expected from our economic size in our export of pop music to the world. I don’t know how acts are categorised, but if artists such as AC/DC, Kylie and Peter Allen are classified as Australian when they are largely resident in the UK or the USA, this would make the figures more interesting. Then again, artists from other countries may also be based in the major music Metropols in the same way on a residential reading of Artist location.
Conversely the musics we don’t hear (from this sample of countries) are those from Japan, Portugal and Argentina. Artists from these countries have made almost no impression on international pop music.
Another significant finding of the Ferreira and Waldfogel paper is that the internationalisation of music markets over the last 50 years has not led to a decline in the preference for local music. The graph they provide of local music on the charts forms a U shape with the consumption of domestic music bottoming out in the mid 1980’s before rising again from 1990 onwards. I suspect that in part this is a function of the spread of affordable recording technology into newly developing consumer economies. The USA effectively had a first mover advantage in pop music in that it had the advantages of a well developed largely monolingual mass market, sophisticated electronics and recording industries, and a range of musical traditions which could be reconfigured into mass market popular musical forms by well informed marketers / bands.
The first mover advantages of the USA can clearly be seen when we consider the ‘invention’ of the teenager in the post war years, which affluent America developed the template for in the 1950s. (“What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?”) The lengthening of the period of compulsory educational incarceration, increased personal mobility, the arrival of television, the inherited superiority of Hollywood and the relative economic desolation of Europe all combined to give the USA a pop musical superiority which it only gradually surrendered, firstly to the other English speaking countries, and then to the broader world. And the rest of the world then took those American innovations, refracted them through their own musical traditions and then fed Abba, among other atrocities, back into the pop music mainstream, for which we are all eternally ……