Two economists surveyed the hits of the past 50 years from 22 countries. They compared each country’s output of hits with the size of its economy. Adjusting for GDP, Sweden is top of the pops. University of Minnesota economist Joel Waldfogel co-authored the study. He speaks with anchor Jeb Sharp.
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JEB SHARP: America is widely assumed to dominate the pop charts wherever you go but a recent study shoots a hole in that assumption. Two economists surveyed the hits of the past 50 years from 22 countries. They noted the country of origin for each song, then they compared each country’s output of hits with the size of its economy. The USA was not number one and here’s the reason. It turns out that Sweden is top of pops. Joe Waldfogel was one of the researchers who came up with the list. He’s now at the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Professor Waldfogel, tell us how you ran the numbers by looking at pop charts.
JOE WALDFOGEL: First we found the top 40 list by week and by country for as many countries as we could and for as many years as we could. Pop music is pretty well documented because so many people like it and find it interesting so it’s a source of data that was possible for us to plumb. But then we had to figure out which country each song was from and that took a lot of work, assigning artists to countries. In any event then, once you look at the pop list in each country and you know where each of the songs is from, it’s possible to figure out how much of the, you know the music from each country is selling in each other country.
SHARP: And you looked at 22 countries and essentially you were looking at songs as if they were commodities or traded goods.
WALDFOGEL: Yes, that’s right. You know we’re interested in the cultural hegemony idea. You know to what extent is one country, typically we think about the U.S. or we worry about the U.S. being you know, dominant over other countries and so here we’re thinking about the origin of the artist as opposed to the economic entity that’s making the money, not the label. We’re more concerned with you know, where are these artists from? Is it an American invasion? An invasion of American artists into other countries and so that’s the sense in which we looked at these artists as products from each country.
SHARP: So not far behind Sweden is Britain, ranking number two. Tell us about Britain because they’ve had two musical peaks. I’m thinking of the 1960’s and the 1980’s.
WALDFOGEL: That’s right. I mean when we think about the British, we tend to think about the British invasion of the sixties and it is true that during the sixties UK music was sold around the world disproportionate to the size of the UK’s economy but the eighties was an even more disproportionate period. In the eighties, music from the UK was about four or five times its proportional share in the world economy.
SHARP: What did you find to be the impact of MTV or the internet say in a country like Brazil?
WALDFOGEL: Well in the last 50 years, you know, it’s been generally a period of increased quality of communication technology and distribution technologies. We thought MTV would be a globally homogenizing force. But you know, it’s true that when MTV first came in, it was a single channel around the world but in the last 15, 20 years MTV has launched local channels in every country in our sample and so in the end, MTV isn’t the homogenizing force. It’s more of a force that promotes local culture around the world.
SHARP: Joel Waldfogel co-authored a study of pop music and the countries it comes from. He spoke with us from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Thanks so much.
WALDFOGEL: Thank you.
SHARP: Culture Club, one of the reasons Britain was almost number one in the list of pop music producing countries. It was just behind Sweden and just ahead of the USA. And that’s all for us this week. Eric Goldberg composed The World’s theme music from the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH in Boston. I’m Jeb Sharp. Have a great weekend.
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