VoxEU Column International trade

Pop internationalism: Has half a century of world music trade displaced local culture?

Is pop music leading to cultural globalisation with the US at the helm? This column examines data from over a million chart entries in 22 countries covering 98% of the world music market. It finds no evidence that the rise of music trade has eroded interest in local music production or consumption. In fact some smaller countries actually benefit disproportionately.

Over the past half century the music world has become smaller. Advances in communication technologies have made the cultural products of one country more readily available to consumers in another. While lower trade costs are generally good news for consumers, trade in cultural goods encounters less enthusiasm, largely due to fear of US cultural hegemony. In 1993, French president François Mitterrand warned, “If the spirit of Europe is no longer menaced by the great totalitarian machines that we have known how to resist, it may be more insidiously threatened by new masters – economisme, mercantilism, the power of money, and to some extent, technology. . . . What is at issue is the cultural identity of nations, the right of each people to its own culture, the freedom to create and choose one's images. . . . A society that relinquishes to others its means of representation, is an enslaved society.”

Much of the fear of trade in cultural services concerns Hollywood, which accounts for nearly two thirds of EU movie revenue. The recorded music industry is roughly half as large as the film industry, and fears of American dominance in music are not entirely unfounded. From 2001 through 2007, 31 artists have appeared simultaneously on at least 18 countries’ charts in at least one year. Twenty three of these superstar artists are American.

Local talent

The cultural trade debate matters for contemporary public policy. Despite a general trend toward free trade negotiated under successive international agreements, cultural goods have had longstanding exceptions. Most European countries subsidise their domestic audiovisual sectors, and some regulate music as well. Many countries, including France, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, impose domestic radio airplay quotas to promote domestic musical artists. But fear of large-country dominance may be misplaced; trade may promote rather than displace cultural services from small countries. While it has become easier for the world’s consumers to get access to US music, at the same time, it may also have become easier for the world’s music producers to get access to the US – and other – markets (see examples in Cowen 2002). It is entirely possible that in a connected world, small-country artists could find new export audiences.

New insights from 98% of the world music market

Despite large theoretical and empirical literatures on patterns of bilateral trade in goods, there is relatively little empirical work documenting patterns of trade in cultural services1 . In recent research (Ferreira and Waldfogel 2010), we collect novel data from singles charts covering, for example, the weekly top 40 songs, from as many as 22 countries over past half century accounting for over 98% of the world music market2. The dataset includes 1,202,554 chart entries covering 68,283 songs and 23,377 artists. Based on the relationship between chart positions and sales documented elsewhere, we can create estimates of the sales of each artist. By employing the national origin of each of the artists, we can determine the penetration of each national repertoire into each importing country.

These data allow us to calculate each country’s share of the world music market and to see whether a particular national repertoire’s share of world music trade is large relative to that country’s shares of world GDP. Figure 1 illustrates this relationship for the period 2003-2007. The solid line represents proportionality of nationalities’ music market shares to GDP shares. The scatter of points is upward-sloping, confirming that the repertoires of larger countries tend to have larger trade shares. While the points are not literally on the line, proportionality is not a bad first approximation. Six countries have disproportionately large shares of world trade: Sweden (3.2 times GDP), Canada (2.2), Finland (2), UK (1.9), New Zealand (1.4), and the US (1.2). With the exception of the UK and the US, these are not particularly large countries. The US is by far the largest, and while it does have a disproportionate share of trade, its share is only 24 percent above its GDP share. Despite widespread concern about large-country dominance of markets for cultural goods, country repertoires’ shares are roughly proportionate to their sizes, and US repertoire does not have an especially disproportionate share of world music trade.

Figure 1. Music trade shares and GDP shares, 2003-2007

Notes: Each dot shows each country’s average GDP share from 2003-2007 and the corresponding music trade share in the same period. Red line is the 45 degree line. Figure is plotted in log scale.

Music trade patterns

Patterns of bilateral trade in music are familiar from the study of goods trade. First, there is evidence of gravity; music trade between country pairs is higher if they are closer. Trade is also higher if partners share a language.

The music trade patterns also exhibit substantial home bias. Consumption of domestic music is disproportionately high everywhere. The past half century has brought enormous change in the technologies for making music from one place available to consumers elsewhere, raising the question of whether trade has become more frictionless. As Figure 2 shows, relative to GDP, the national repertoires that have occupied disproportionate shares of world trade over the sample period are those of the UK, Sweden, Canada, and Australia. The figure also shows the “rise and fall of the British music empire”. The UK index rose to a peak of 7 in the mid-1980s and has fallen since. While the US index of trade has risen over the sample period, it has been below its proportional share the entire time. Apart from the early 1960s, the US index has always been below the UK index and often below the indices for Sweden, Australia, and Canada. Note that our 50-year time series of repertoire shares differ from the contemporary (2003-2007) measures in Figure 1. We calculate repertoire sales as the repertoire share of a country’s music sales. We observe music sales directly only since 2000. For the long time series, we substitute a country’s GDP for music sales. According to this study, trade is now closer to proportional than at any time in the past half century.

Figure 2. Music export shares divided by GDP shares by country, 1960-2007

Notes: Gray lines show data for all countries that have small normalized market shares. Export shares are averaged over three years, and then divided by average GDP shares over the same three years. Horizontal line of 1 represents proportionality in music export shares.

MTV, radio, and the internet

Perhaps even more surprising, interest in domestic repertoire has risen steadily over the past 10-15 years throughout the world. Figure 3 provides simple evidence of this. Domestic share of world music consumption has risen steadily since 1990. We explore three possible factors relevant to the change in home shares over time, the appearance of locally-tailored MTV channels, the growth of the internet, and domestic airplay quotas.

Figure 3. Overall domestic shares, 1960-2007

Notes: Overall domestic shares calculated as the total consumption of domestic music in all countries in a given year, divided by the total consumption of music in that year.

While MTV emerged in the early 1980s as a single channel across the globe, since 1987 MTV has splintered regionally, creating region or country-specific channels carrying some local programming. Today MTV operates a country-specific outlet in 20 of the 22 countries we study. Because the internet makes music of each country available to consumers both at home and abroad, the web could either promote or displace domestic music. At the same time, the web may reinforce local distribution, for example by complementing the local promotion of concerts. Finally, domestic airplay quotas – as in our sample countries Canada, France, Australia, and New Zealand – might less ambiguously be expected to promote domestic music consumption.

All of these factors – the presence of a local or a regional MTV station, the domestic adoption of the internet, and the presence of domestic radio quotas – bear positive relationships with the domestic shares in each country, although some are imprecisely estimated. At a minimum, we can say there is no evidence that new channels of communication, such as MTV and the internet, have eroded interest in local music.

Fears of cultural globalisation may be misplaced, at least with respect to the music market. While the US is a large country, US music’s share of world trade is not disproportionately large. Some smaller countries actually benefit substantially in this global market, as they are able to achieve market shares that are sometimes two or three times larger than the relative sizes of their economies. Moreover, new technologies that lower trade costs do not appear to have a destructive effect on local production and consumption of music.


Cowen, Tyler (2002), Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World Cultures, Princeton University Press.

Disdier, Anne Celia, Silvio HT Tai, Lionel Fontagne, and Thierry Mayer (2010), “Bilateral Trade of Cultural Goods”, Review of World Economics, 145:575–595.

Ferreira, Fernando and Joel Waldfogel (2010), “Pop internationalism: Has A Half Century of World Music Trade Displaced Local Culture?”, NBER, May.

Hanson, Gordon H and Chong Xiang (2008), “Testing the Melitz Model of Trade: An Application to U.S. Motion Picture Exports”, NBER Working Paper 14461, October.

Marvasti, Akbar and E Ray Canterbery (2005), “Cultural and Other Barriers to Motion Pictures Trade”, Economic Inquiry, 43:39-54.

1 But see for example, Disdier et al. 2010, Marvasti and Canterbery 2005, and Hanson et al. 2008.

2 Study countries include Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

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