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.