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British pop bubble bursts – but Robbie Williams still flies the flag

The world isn’t listening to as much UK music as it did, recent research has found, as new technology allows global audiences to listen to more homegrown artists

When John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, his boast did not seem far-fetched. It was 1966: rock’n’roll was the new religion, and it was sweeping the globe. Commentators railed against the threat that popular music posed to the moral fabric of society, while some suggested it would devour every culture in its path.

But research by two leading economists now suggests fears that British and American music would end up conquering the world were largely overblown. Indeed Britain, though still a pop music success story, no longer penetrates the global charts as it did in Lennon’s heyday and again in the mid-80s when Duran Duran, Wham! and Culture Club were making records.

And, far from pop music shrinking the globe, there is evidence that many countries’ indigenous bands and singers are now thriving thanks to new technology.

The two economists, Joel Waldfogel, a professor at Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota, and his co-author, Fernando Ferreira, found that some smaller countries were starting to consume more indigenously-produced music. They looked at data culled from over a million chart entries in 22 countries between 2001 and 2007. Their research examined 98% of the global music market and the work of more than 23,000 artists. They found that 31 artists appeared simultaneously in at least 18 of the countries’ charts for at least a year. Twenty-three of the “superstars” were American – including Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Eminem, Madonna, Pink and Usher. Of the remaining eight superstars just two, Dido and Robbie Williams, were from Britain. Others included Shakira from Colombia and Shaggy from Jamaica.

But the success of the best-known “brands” tells only part of the story. The authors compared each country’s share of the global music market with their share of the world’s GDP. Significantly, they found six countries have disproportionately large shares of the global music trade compared with their share of GDP. These were Sweden, Canada, Finland, Britain, New Zealand and the US.

Sweden’s share of the world’s music sales market was 59% above its share of the world’s GDP, suggesting that the country’s musicians, who, in the period examined, included Ace of Base, Roxette, the Wannadies, and the Cardigans, punch far above their weight. In comparison, Britain’s music sales were 52% above its relative world GDP share, while US sales were 33% above.

Despite being a country that clung to its cultural importance as its stock in the world declined in recent years, it appears Britain is no longer the music powerhouse it once was.

The authors found that Britain’s share of the global music market rose from about 10% to a peak of more than 30% in the 60s, a period known as the “British invasion”. It then fell to 20% in 1970 before rising to a peak of roughly a third of the world market in the mid-1980s, the “second British invasion”. The UK’s share has fallen steadily since.

Music from the US continues to make up the largest share of the world market, but this fell from nearly 80% in 1960 to 40% in the mid-80s and is now just under 60%.

More surprisingly, however, the authors found that interest in domestically-produced music has risen steadily throughout the world over the past 15 years, possibly due to the appearance of locally-tailored MTV channels, the growth of the internet, and domestic airplay quotas like those governing French radio.

The authors found that in 2007 some 70% of all music consumed in the 22 countries studied was produced by domestic artists, compared with less than 50% in the 1980s.

Waldfogel said the internet, instead of leading to a mass global culture, had actually helped “democratise” music by allowing musicians in smaller countries to make and distribute their product more easily. “In the last decade there has been an explosion in new product artists coming to market,” he said. “These are artists who would never have made it to market before. This has resulted in a growth in the share of the market for artists from independent labels.”

The research does not cover the last six years when digital sales started to take off. Waldfogel, who is currently researching the effects of such sales, speculated that technology could have profound consequences for sales of music across national boundaries. “If continental Europe was concerned about the impact of US and British music before, they should be very afraid now,” he said. However, he suggested the future could also see smaller nations become significant music exporters. “The question now is to what extent Americans will become more open-minded about music from the rest of the world,” he said, pointing to the popularity in the US of the French band Phoenix. “We could become a very big market for smaller countries if we can broaden our tastes,” he added. The global phenomenon that is the South Korean singer Psy suggests that this trend may already be under way.

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