LONDON – When John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, it didn’t seem that far-fetched. It was 1966, and rock ‘n’ roll was the new religion 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.
However, research by two leading economists now suggests fears that British and American music would end up conquering the world were largely overblown.
Britain, although still a pop music success story, no longer penetrates the global charts as it did in Lennon’s heyday and again in the mid-1980s, when Duran Duran, the Pet Shop Boys, 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 co-author Fernando Ferreira found that some smaller countries were starting to consume more indigenously produced music.
They looked at data culled from more than 1 million chart entries in 22 countries between 2001 and 2007.
Their research examined 98 percent 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 gross domestic product.
Significantly, they found six countries have disproportionately large shares of the global music trade compared with their share of gross domestic product. These were Sweden, Canada, Finland, Britain, New Zealand and the United States.
Sweden’s share of the world’s music sales market was 59 percent above its share of the world’s gross domestic product, 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 percent above its relative world gross domestic product share, while U.S. sales were 33 percent 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 two authors found that Britain’s share of the global music market rose from around 10 percent to a peak of more than 30 percent in the 1960s, a period known as the “British invasion.”
It then fell to 20 percent in 1970 before rising to a peak of roughly a third of the world market in the mid-1980s, the “second British invasion.”
The U.K.’s share has fallen steadily since.
Music from the U.S. continues to make up the largest share of the world market, but this fell from nearly 80 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in the mid-80s and is now just under 60 percent.
More surprisingly, however, the authors of the study 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 such as those governing French radio.
The authors found that in 2007 some 70 percent of all music consumed in the 22 countries studied was produced by domestic artists, compared with less than 50 percent in the 1980s.
Waldfogel said the internet, instead of leading to a mass global culture, had actually helped “democratize” 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,” Waldfogel 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,” he said.
The research does not cover music trends over the past six years when digital sales started to take off.
Waldfogel, who is currently in the process of researching the effects of such sales worldwide, speculated that technology could have profound consequences for sales of music across national boundaries.
“If continental Europe was concerned about the impact of U.S. 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,” Waldfogel said, pointing to the popularity in the United States of the French alternative rock 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 this trend may already be under way.