The Impact Of US Popular Music On The Global Marketplace
Popular music that emerges from the United States enjoys an enormous sphere of influence. Many top selling American artists who produce music across a wide range of genres also generate revenue across the globe. American based record labels have the ability to sell music internationally; the ‘big five’ record labels which include EMI Records, Sony, Vivendi Universal, AOL Time Warner and BMG, maintain their headquarters in the US but operate in all of the major music markets worldwide. Together, the ‘big five’ account for over 90% of global music sales. (BBC, 2013.)
US Popular Music as we know it today began to take form during the 1920s as Blues and early Jazz bands made their way onto American airwaves. By the end of the 1950s, largely thanks to the efforts of Elvis in making African American styles more accessible to white audiences, ‘pop music’ had become a cultural phenomenon. The development of popular music styles in the US has held a close relationship with music from western Europe, especially the United Kingdom - partly due to the two nations sharing a common language. Styles from both sides of the ocean have influenced the other. During the 1960s, the ‘British invasion’ spearheaded by the popularity of the Beatles made a significant impact on American Rock ‘n’ Roll. Conversely, a vast amount of originally American genres have migrated to other countries and have developed their own culture. For example, Acid House travelled from Chicago to Manchester during the late 1980s and helped define the UK rave scene.
American audiences also have access to a wide range of imported music. Artists from outside the US have often performed extremely well in terms of sales revenue. Both the Spice Girls and The Beatles (both from the UK) have reached the number one spot on the US Billboard chart and Irish New Age singer, Enya, has sold 26.5 million albums in the US alone.
There are a number of reasons why popular music from the US has managed to become so prevalent on the global stage. The influence of the ‘big five’ is certainly one of them today but it’s the population of a country that decides which music gets purchased, even after the marketing efforts of record labels. Innovations in recording techniques and mastering have often emerged from the US (as well as western Europe) and this can partially be attributed to affluent studios having easier access to better technology. Audiences will be drawn in greater numbers to songs that have been recorded well. This will be less of an issue today as the resources needed to record music have been reduced to far more affordable and portable devices. It’s also important to take into account the lyrical content of US pop music which, while containing a wide array of themes, is still designed to be accessible to a general audience and casual listeners. Music from other countries, which may be in a foreign language or contain lyrical themes that other cultures may find more alien, will suffer outside of their home territory.
US music retail value was significantly higher than all other countries until 2010 when it was superseded by Japan. Japan’s population is only a 3rd of the US’s so analysts have perceived this as a significant shift. The cause for this has been linked to digital distribution and online file sharing. Japanese music buyers also still prefer physical media as opposed to digital downloads so CD sales have remained strong. Still, according to IFPI, in 2011, only 23% of digital album sales revenue came from countries outside of the USA, UK and France. This can be attributed to a larger proportion of active internet users in those countries (although there exist many more internet users in countries such as Germany, Russia and China) and online music stores such as iTunes focussing primarily on English speaking countries. iTunes’ influence today does encompass many countries and this will in turn encourage users to download top selling releases (if they view the front page) although the service has failed to gain a foothold in most African nations despite the growing number of internet users.
US originated publishing groups have expanded their horizons to several different countries. For example, Universal Music Publishing Group has expanded to 47 offices in 41 countries - making them one of the largest music publishers in the world. However, the advent of YouTube and other digital multimedia sharing services could be levelling the global playing field, allowing for more non-US artists to become internationally successful. The most famous example of this was in 2012 when KPop artist, Psy, released Gangnam Style. It was an unexpected global hit despite having non-English lyrics. Despite new media allowing users to access an international palette, these services have employed an increasing number of algorithms designed to point listeners to music it determines they will enjoy based on previous use. While this is convenient for the listener, it could potentially restrict the range of different music available to experience online and cause lesser known artists to remain unexposed.
Features of US popular music that have influenced local styles around the globe include simpler yet more rhythm driven drum patterns, standard band instrumentation and modern recording and production techniques. The commercial introduction of synthesizers during the 1980s also had a profound affect on most genres. Drum machines released during that period would have included built in loops based on American music styles such as Rock ‘n’ Roll, Disco and Country which may have influenced many artists’ rhythmic approach to composition. Two examples of Bollywood compositions clearly affected by the advent of the then cutting edge synthesizers and drum machines, as well as popular US styles, include Vijaya Anand - “Neeve Nanna (Only You Were Mine)” (1992) and Charanjit Singh - "Raga Bairagi" (1982.)
Western scales such as the Ionian and Dorian modes are likely to be used by US artists, especially as guitars and keyboards are designed to be played in accordance to them. However, instruments with multiple exotic tunings such as the Sitar are not well suited for playing melodies familiar to American audiences.
Popular music in the US has been clearly influenced on numerous occasions by local music from other countries, making it apparent that artists from all nations often seek inspiration away from home. A modern example of a local style achieving mainstream success is Australian singer Holly Valance with her 2001 hit single Kiss Kiss that employs the rhythms and instrumentation of Turkish pop music.
Western artists have been known to attempt rejuvenation of their style by scouting for traditional music in different countries. The Beatles famously did this during the late 1960s, eventually releasing Across The Universe in 1969 which was met with a mixed critical response.
Rock, Country, Jazz and Disco - all styles that originated in America - have become an entrenched sound of many modern international styles and have clearly influenced a vast array of local popular music including Russian Rock, the South African ‘Zef’ movement and closer to home, many European dance music sub-genres. Over the course of history, the influence of US popular music has come under fire in some societies as it can be interpreted as sexually titillating, glorifying violence and promoting immoral behaviour.
African American music styles are arguable the most prevalent across the globe as they originate from Jazz and Blues, which in turn lead to the development of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and R&B. Entire non-US based genres exist that appear to have branched off from previous US styles. The fundamental elements of Jamaican Reggae are based on Rocksteady and Ska - which in turn were developed from Blues and Jazz music.
More recently, the global influence of the extremely popular TV talent show American Idol has been felt. Aside from being broadcast in over a hundred different countries, the Idols format has been adapted into forty six different international versions including Pop Idol in the United Kingdom. This show has promoted a very particular type of music and the finalists of each competition can expect a large amount of exposure.
Furthermore, popular US music has been used in a large number of soundtracks for films and video games promoted across the globe. International audiences are often exposed to music from the US without having to actively search for it.
The size, wealth and political influence of the United States has helped its music achieve a wide international following. It has also been responsible for the creation of the most globally popular musical styles throughout the 20th century. However, as online music selling methods mature and as the Eastern powers grow, it is not unforeseeable that locally popular from outside the US will see more regular success and create a wider impact on the global marketplace.
BBC. 2013. The Global Music Machine. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1042_globalmusic/page3.shtml. [Accessed 12 May 2013].
IFPI, 2012. Digital Music Report. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ifpi.org/content/library/DMR2012.pdf. [Accessed 12 May 2013].