International music politics

Two more posts on Tunisia, before I get back to business as usual, including my book. (My other posts on the Third World Forum on Music, held in Tunis, and which I spoke at, are here and here.)

I’d mentioned international issues in music, and discussed — a familiar subject here — music advocacy, which the organized international music community likes to talk about. Another one, more important, I think, is cultural diversity. Countries around the world want to preserve their local musical cultures, whether that’s their ancient musical tradition, or else their contemporary styles.

And one way to preserve these things, as I understand it (this is mostly new to me, and I may be getting some of it wrong), might be to reserve, by law, some percentage of air time on local radio for music produced locally. I know that Canada has a law like this, and at one time reserved, I believe, 30% of its music broadcasts for Canadian music.

So who’s the big opponent of this, worldwide? I was surprised — though, I admit, not astonished — to learn this. It’s my own country, the United States. In the name of free trade, the US has opposed these local laws, and its weapon against them has been trade agreements. NAFTA, for instance.

When NAFTA was passed, bringing the US, Canada, and Mexico into a free trade zone, there was lots of controversy, and even demonstrations against the agreement in the US. But I never heard anyone object to its music provisions. In order to get freer access to US markets, Canada, at least, had to ease up on its “Canadian content” laws, the laws that guaranteed a certain percentage of air time for Canadian music. Or so I was told in Tunis. I was also told that Australia, negotiating its own free trade agreement with the US, had to make a similar concession.

The US, in other words, is using free trade agreements to protect big global record companies. One irony is that only some of these are American. Sony, for instance, is Japanese (though its CEO is British), and Universal is currently owned by a French conglomerate. (Though stay tuned: Universal has changed hands before, and may do so again.) Still, the US protects them. There was talk, on a panel about cultural diversity, of a UN vote that did no more than encourage UN member countries to protect their local music. Only two nations voted against it — the US and Israel.

These are complex issues. By protecting local music, countries might also isolate themselves from the rest of the world, including authentic musical developments that their own citizens might want to embrace. Which includes the blend of local traditions with international music, which on one hand can be schlocky, but on the other can lead to really exciting new styles, including Algerian Rai music (a meld of Algerian music and dance beats) and the many varieties of African pop. Not to mention the way Chinese traditional instruments have been used by Chinese classical composers, or the many stars on all kinds of traditionall instruments who’ve done creative collaborations with people in pop and jazz.

But I can’t say I like the position my own country takes on all of this. It doesn’t exactly make me proud to be American.

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  1. David Cavlovic says

    For a long time the Canadian Content laws, also known as CanCon, were a bit of a joke for anything other than the pop industry. It used to be, though it has since changed, that 50% of content was to be Canadian. But that 50% was based on number of works or songs programmed, not actual length of said piece. Back in the ’80’s, when Canadian classical recordings were pitifully few, I came up with the Götterdämmerung/Snow bird formula, where any performance of Götterdämmerung (close to 6 hours) + a recording of Anne Murray (the Canadian pop singer) performing her hit Snow bird (at 1 minute and 44 seconds) = 50% Canadian content.

  2. says

    I don’t really understand the objection. Quotas protecting local artists are barriers to trade in the same way that the sugar import quotas protecting American sugar producers are barriers to trade. The point of free-trade agreements (FTAs) is to reduce restraints on trade. One could argue that a quota or other regulation designed to protect a certain class of musician is a justified restraint on trade, based on national heritage or whatever, but nonetheless such barriers to trade reduce the ability of foreign music companies to make money selling their wares on the restricted market.

    Without having been in USTR’s chambers as these FTAs were negotiated, I’d wager that a lot of the impetus to reduce or eliminate national music quotas was based on a general desire to eliminate barriers to trade, and particularly in a sector where the U.S. is seen as highly competitive.

    Remember how in the last post we were discussing how advocacy for music can be problematic? Well, what sorts of arguments would one pose in favor of quotas or other barriers to trade? Do you think they could withstand close scrutiny?

    I don’t think this needs to escalate into a discussion of free trade. Negotiations about protecting local music (or not) aren’t conducted in an abstract world, in which we either have total free trade, or we don’t. Instead, nations butt heads about the interests each one wants to protect.

    In this situation — complex, messy, in some ways perilous — it turns out (if my information is right) that the US has a policy of pushing for other countries to ease their protection of local music. And that it pursues this policy aggressively. And that no other country in the world has this policy. (Except Israel, I guess, but I’d think Israel voted in the UN mainly to support the US.)

    So then I as a citizen can decide whether I want my country to have this policy.

    But as for free trade, let’s note that the big pop record labels have never practiced it, and never wanted to practice it. And we don’t have to go abroad to see that. They haven’t practiced free trade in the US. They bribe radio stations (and, most specifically, the people who work at them) to play their music. This is an old, notorious scandal. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the promo guys at record labels talk about how they do it — how, for instance, they bring hookers to parties they give for radio station staff.

    They bribe record stores to give them favored display space — or they used to, in the days when record stores mattered. And in the days when the pop charts were compiled from sales reports by record stores, they used to bribe the record stores to say that their artists were selling. A typical bribe would be, in the case of a hit record, if a record store would falsely report that the record was No. 1 in sales, they’d get a couple of hundred copies of it free.

    Now, of course, the pop charts are compiled from sales figures transmitted electronically from cash registers. When that system came in, I had a funny and revealing conversation with a top-level pop record company publicity guy. I’d noticed that one of the artists on this label, whose third album had just been released, wasn’t doing very well on the charts. The publicity guy told me, “Oh, that’s where he always ranked, in reality. But we pushed him up on the charts by bribing the record stores.”

  3. Ken Josenhans says

    Culture, including music, is not a bag of hammers and shouldn’t be governed by the same rules. To argue that it should be would be the same as arguing that classical music should compete in the marketplace with today’s pop stars, without subsidies, and fade away.

    This is all old topic to the folk/world music community. See the following old piece from Britain’s fRoots magazine, discussing their “cultural boycott” of corporate American music:

  4. says

    I don’t see how arguing that classical music should compete more in the marketplace is the same as wanting it to fade away. Classical music will be more vibrant if it can figure out a way to compete in the marketplace.

    Not to mention the problematic endeavor of determining what’s “corporate American music” and what’s not, at the margins.

    Much of what I read about The State of the Classical Music Field seems to be grounded in a belief that it should be beyond economic forces somehow. I don’t think this is going to work in the future.

  5. says

    Although I agree completely with Ken Josenhans above, Lindemann makes an interesting point. A few years ago, on the anniversary of the FTA between Canada and the US which I had strongly opposed, I heard an interview on CBC Radio with the guy who’d been the chief US trade negotiator. The subject of cultural protections came up and he said that the reason it had been such a thorny issue during the negotiations was that the US team simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea of treating culture differently from any other commodity. It seemed to be a genuine philosophical disconnect – although surely one only available to a massive economy that already enjoys cultural hegemony.

    Having said that, the irony of the US position on the ‘free trade’ in culture is that the American agricultural sector (among others) enjoys massive government subsidies, which are defended on patriotic grounds. As a Canadian, I was astonished to see Americans in the streets opposing NAFTA, using the same arguments we’d used to challenge the original Canada-US FTA, which were completely dismissed by both governments. Whatever your politics, it’s hard not to be cynical about free market zealotry when it’s deployed so selectively.

  6. Beni Borja says

    Let me just add a certain South-American perspective to this fruitful conversation.

    I agree entirely with Lindemann. Free trade to be effective , requires fair trade. Meaning a competitive marketplace that is not distorted by the use monopolist practices by the wealthiest participants in such market.

    That to me is the question both for regional and for ¨classical¨ music genres. How to have an equal opportunity in a highly imperfect marketplace?

    Direct subsidies in the long-term do more harm than good, because over time they create a disconnect between audience and artists.(As Greg have showed extensively in his writings)

    The problem is that the anti-trust regulatory frameworks everywhere , are ill-equipped to deal with cultural artifacts.

    Every law and regulation devised to protect free market competition is based on the assumption they are dealing with commodities. Products that may differ between themselves, but serve the consumer for the same purpose. So even if brands of toothpaste are different , the consumer in the end uses them for cleaning their teeth.

    With cultural artifacts we are dealing with the exact opposite of a commodity. Because the value of it comes from it´s uniqueness , and the uses that the consumer gives to them are totally individual. There´s no art that serves the exact same purpose to two persons.

    This, in fact ,is the great lesson that Hollywood has given to the American industry. To make their products , through marketing, more than just commodities. When the guy that lives in a favela here in Rio, buys a fake-Nike tennis shoe, he is not simply buying something for him to walk with, he is buying a cultural artifact full of subjective content created with commercial art (propaganda).

    So, as much as I dislike in principle the idea of state-mandated performance of local music, I have to concede that, in the current state of things , it seems the only available way of guaranteeing a certain semblance of equality in the cultural marketplace.

    I believe that quotas for local music, should not be adopted as a principle , but simply as temporary remedy for a momentary circumstance.

    Here in Brazil for instance, we have had for more than a thirty years a law, requiring that all media performs at least 1/3 of Brazilian music. An ineffective law in practice , since our music occupies something from 65% to 80% of the space available on media outlets.

    The question of music genres is way more complicated , because it brings with itself the impossible question of defining what genre is a certain piece of music, a question that, in my view, is better left unanswered.

  7. Steve Soderberg says

    I offer the following without taking a public stand one way or the other on any protection legislation or trade agreements.

    There is a lot of statistical evidence out there on the position of the entertainment industries within the US and worldwide economies; and this information has been known for many years. One summary is by David Huron in his 1999 Ernest Bloch Lecture (

    “There is a widespread misconception that the foremost export sector in the U.S. economy is ‘high technology.’ In fact, the preeminent export sector in the U.S. economy is entertainment. Of the various component areas — films, sports, television, toys, and games — it is music that ranks foremost.

    “How big is the music industry? The music industry is bigger than the pharmaceutical industry. People spend more money on music than on prescription drugs. We purchase recordings, go to concerts, buy sheet music, take our children to music lessons, listen to commercial radio, watch film accompanied by music, and encounter Muzak in the local shopping mall. The most active ‘concert venues’ in the world are freeways: a major preoccupation for millions of drivers is listening to music.”

    I doubt very much that the statistics Huron’s statement was based on have changed significantly over the past ten years, although his list (concerts, recordings, sheet music, Muzak, etc.) would have to be updated to reflect new technological uses and shifts in focus that make some of these words now sound quaint to some ears. But statistically, I believe the point still stands.

  8. says

    This whole thing, honestly, sounds like a moot point to me. Countries could mandate that 99% of the music heard on the radio, or even TV, must be local and it wouldn’t change a thing. I could think of a myriad of reasons why this would be ineffective but probably the biggest is that this simply isn’t how people get their music anymore. Technological advancements, I’m sure you’ve noticed, have done a good job at crippling the music industry and I wouldn’t be surprised if word of mouth is more important than TV ads these days. What’s the point in regulating anything in this way when kids are just going to hop on the internet and find whatever music they want to hear. If free trade means that countries can’t subsidize local music programs, that’s one thing, but if it simply removes their ability to mandate such-and-such an amount of local music play in the media, who cares?

    Now we should hear from some of the countries around the world, about what exactly is going on with them and their media, and how protecting their local music might actually work.

    In my presentation at the conference, I said that the current breakdown of the international music industry gave opportunities for local music to promote itself.

    But that leads to tricky questions. I can imagine a traditional Tunisian ensemble making itself famous on the Internet, and drawing a huge international audience. But maybe that wouldn’t help them in Tunisia, where YouTube (one of the main sites you’d use in promoting your music) is banned. An Australian took great issue with me, in fact, about how helpful worldwide web promotion would be for aboriginal music, whose local survival might not be helped at all (she thought) by worldwide fame. I can imagine some of us arguing with that, but I have to remember that she’s there, and I’m not.