New Internationalist

Keep It Light

Issue 144

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ART [image, unknown] Culture clash

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Keep it light
Behind the technoflash, the glitter and the noise of rock
concerts lies a gargantuan music industry selling watered-down
tunes to the highest bidders. Roger Wallis examines the
worldwide effect of big business on popular music.

Backseat blasting in Kingston, Jamacia.
Photo: Roger Wallis

Bonsoir Paris, may I have the votes of the French jury...? Sometimes back in the fifties the luminaries of European Public Service TV had an Idea. Maybe they even regarded it as a vision. Completion of the Eurovision Television Network presented new opportunities for cultural exchange and family entertainment through attractive joint-venture programmes involving ambitious link-ups. The ‘Song for Europe’ Eurovision song contest was born. Right from the start, various sectors of the music industry were invited to participate. Publishers helped find songs. Promoters suggested artists. Record companies took care of the commercial spoils through selling records of the songs that received the launch of the year.

Over the years, any visions of cultural exchange have been totally eradicated, not only by the development of the so-called competition, but also by parallel developments within the music industry. The aim has become to provide songs which can appeal to as many viewers in as many countries as possible - not to demonstrate the musical heritage of country A or country B. Even if the rules stipulate that songs may only be sung in local languages, titles and melodies have become more transnational. This strategy helped the Swedish pop group ABBA win in 1974 with the song ’Waterloo’. The packaging of the product - the choreography - has also assumed greater and greater importance. Glittery performances, reminiscent of the flashy shows produced for international consumption by the global TV corporations, produce votes; a simple, dignified folk song sung without any extra choreography does not. Research currently under way at the Gothenburg University Department of Musicology seems to indicate that ultimately even the melodies sung in the Eurovision Song contest will lose their significance as vote winners. A lot of choreography, an international title and, at best, a hummable refrain, will be all that is left.

The Swedish-American group, Herreys, won the 1984 Song for Europe contest with a formula of 1) transnational nonsense title (Diggyloodiggylay) 2) simple refrain and 3) complex choreography - the Herry brothers spent a number of years in the States learning to synchronise their movements. Financially, however, their subsequent performance in the market place, despite a TV launch to several hundred million, was a flop. Post-contest sales were not impressive. They failed to conquer the British market - one of the prerequisites for ABBA’s previous international success.

This year the degree of collaboration between the organisers (public service broadcasters) and the music industry will be even greater. In Sweden - the host country for the 1985 Finals - a select number of music publishers, most of which are owned by large record companies, will be invited to submit entries complete with studio quality backing tracks which artists will sing to. The next logical step in these times of dwindling public funds will be for the public service broadcasters to invite CBS, EMI and Polygram etc to provide ready-made video clips for the contest. The commercialisation of the national Public Service concept will then be complete.

The development of the Song for Europe from visions of cultural exchange through to Euroboring trash mirrors that of the music industry. The major record companies have grown at a gigantic rate, not only through buying up smaller companies but also through amalgamation with other sectors of the electronics and entertainments industry. The gigantic corporations produced by this process become like the dinosaurs. They have to overcome a lot of friction to get moving, but can crush anything they happen to stamp on. Their music must be nationless - no national facets must be allowed to restrict sales to any particular countries or language areas. If they continue to develop the same way as the Eurovision Song Contest, maybe the giant music corporations will ultimately produce music which is so predictable that nobody wants to buy it. The industry would then collapse with an almighty bang. At the final countdown, there would be one remaining global record company, formed when the Warner-Polygram company amalgamated with CBS-EMI after the bankruptcy of RCA. This combine would own a majority of the TV/Radio networks and satellites and control all manufacture of Compact Disc Hardware (by then all production of sound cassettes would have been stopped by this monopoly in order to stop music piracy and home-taping). At the final countdown, we consumers of popular music would be fed this week’s song, at 7.22 every Monday morning. It would come in on Cable Channel - we may sing it (if we can remember it) for a week.

This scenario is not just iconclastic provocation by someone who wants to throw a wet rag over honest human enjoyment. The threat is there. Popular music is watered down to satisfy the demands of the corporate packaging. Lyrics must be non-offensive and non-questioning. What is lacking in inspiration is made up for by an even greater marketing investment - in advertising, videos, back-up movies. Manipulation replaces inspiration. The spontaneous or the traditional element in popular song - the Art content - becomes replaced by predictable components.

Record company executives are not entirely unaware of the way things are going. The international music industry has developed a number of methods for delaying the day of destruction. Its talent scouts are constantly on the look out for raw materials, particularly in the developing nations (or in poorer sub-cultures in the industrialized world) where popular music still is a living expression of the people and where inspired music can be extracted and exploited internationally.

The music is never the same again once the music industry has gotten hold of it. Consider Jamaica in the Caribbean gold mine for songs. The role of reggae in Jamaica is not only to entertain but to communicate. The same applies to the traditional role of Calypso in Trinidad, where the songs still tease the authorities as well as entertain the masses. Reggae’s local mix of social comment and ‘slack talk’ (obscenities) hardly fits into the record industry pipeline. Bob Marley compromised to a certain extent, but didn’t survive too long. The recording studio his money was used to buy in Kingston is now mainly oriented toward the international market. Rita Marley and her group the 13s at Tuff Gong International assure us ‘We’re singing harmony, we’re singing melody‘ followed by a number of valuable statements about the need for ‘peace and love in the world’.

Calypso, in Trinidad, hasn’t been such a big international money- maker as reggae. In Trinidad, Calypsos still get banned on the local radio but the music industry presence is clear. There is a general decrease in social comment and an increase of ‘have a good time’ ideology (‘I’m feeling hot, hot, hot...’) and live bands get replaced by cheerful DJs with large loudspeakers. Mr Tobago Crusoe did win the 1983 Calypso competition with a song entitled ‘South Africa, go to hell’, but this was never released on disc.

Records, cassettes and equipment for recording and playing back music have penetrated to almost every corner of the earth in an amazingly short time. Through mega-sellers such as ‘Grease’ the music corporations have learnt the art of making a new product available everywhere at the same time. Piracy, via the illegal copying of cassettes, has made it even more important to get into each market as quickly as possible - before other ’less honest’ operators move in.

Meanwhile the demand that unprofitable products be excluded from the industry has grown. The small, local, independent record company often runs on handicraft principles. The aim is to produce what they believe is good music - as long as they can break even, operations continue. Soon there will be little or no room for such enthusiasts among the decision-makers of the global music corporations. Their role has been taken over by accountants and lawyers as the big record companies allocate ever-more marketing resources towards a small number of products which boardroom decisions have designated as hits. In the US even a small independent record company can expect to pay over $100,000 to record ‘pluggers’ alone to get national coverage of a new record on radio stations. Whether the music is good, bad, relevant, original or derivative becomes a minor issue.

So is the desire to make a quick buck - and the technology to do it - all that the music industry has given to the world? Perhaps. But this is not plain old cultural imperialism. Admittedly for every foreign song sung in the US, eight American songs are earning money for the US abroad. It’s also a fact that although the UK’s home market for records and cassettes is only six per cent of the world market. UK exports account for 25 per cent of world sales. And the big five music corporations (Warner, Polygram, CBS, EMI and RCA) control up to 90 per cent of the market in some countries.

In principle a handful of Anglo-American superstars could dominate home entertainment for the whole world. But at the same time world pop music is constantly seeking inspiration from different local cultures. James Last, for example, introduces a watered-down reggae beat into his European ‘easy listening’ versions of standard numbers. Meanwhile the industry streamlines the music of the cultures from which it extracts its new blood. The music business may spread uniformity, but it also devours Originality.

Roger Wallis works in Stockholm and is author with Krister Malm of
‘Big sounds from small peoples. The music industry in small countries’.


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