|Finding the Place of Popular Music
6 May 2013
In this digital age of globalized commodification, popular music is increasingly being labeled as placeless. It is thought that because most of the world now has access to online music streaming or at least has radio access that music is no longer rooted in place. Steve Kilbey of The Church, an Australian group, even said that “music is magic. It’s got nothing to do with geography…it’s magic.”1 Thus, I am setting off on a journey to find the place of popular music in the digital age. For the most part, music geographers have yet to catch up to the times. You can no longer track CD sales to see what is popular where and where influences lie. I will be taking the online music sharing app, Spotify, and identifying the national patterns of popular music in order to place popular music more accurately than outdated methods.
Before jumping into an analysis of data, one has to understand the history and research in the area of placing popular music. One argument in the field is that through electronic media, music has had its spatial properties replaced with temporal ones. Jody Burland, however, reminds us that listening to music is not simply listening to a physical thing but the product of diverse and complex forces introduced by the performer and interpreted by the listener. 2 “All music that is heard and enjoyed can be interpreted as ‘popular’ in some sense,” and I stress anything that is able to be in the top fifty songs being listened to by a country on Spotify whether it’s Justin Timberlake, Mahalia Jackson, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart should be classified as popular music.3
Connell and Gibson introduce the concept of digital decentralization4, arguing that it isn’t occurring as much as many people think because of the cost and accessibility of digital music. That would imply that now, ten years after their book was published, when there is an incredible increase in internet accessibility, there is indeed intense digital decentralization.5 Along with accessibility, popular music breaks the bonds of simply being a social activity through its commoditization through both production and delivery. The geography of music now falls heavily into the realm of economic geographers through its use in economic development and assessment.
Concepts of fixity and fluidity are also important in understanding the place of popular music. Fluidity, also known as spatial mobility, expresses the flow of music, people, and money across space: sometimes through people, sometimes through technology. Music is, most simply, transmitted sound characterized by a set of networks of cultural connections. It is a possibility that as these networks are increasingly globalized, “localized music traditions are slowly being erased.”6
Hamm writes that since music is an abstraction, “simply marks on a paper transformed into patterns of sound,” it can have no connection to things such as political events, wars, religion, labor movements, revolutions, and natural disasters. Mann also presents the opposing idea that there is a connection between music and place. This is due to the human nature of the act of writing and performing music. While the notes are simply splotches of ink on a piece of paper, the music is generated and influenced by humans and their many emotions and interactions.7 Music is a source of identity which creates, generalizes, and articulates such identities as nationalism, class, ethnicity, race, and gender. It is important to remember that this identity formation, reinforcement, and expression varies greatly by place. Different people in different places can accept and generate music in remarkably unique ways. Popular music can be affected by these differences while still “illuminating global alliances and cultural flows.”8 The most place-oriented music, it could be argued, is the traditional songs of cultures, specifically folk music. While one does not find a large representation of the genre in the popular music of Spotify, there has been a revival of folk music in the last forty years in the popular scene with artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.9
“Links are regularly made between artists and their environments.” Connell and Gibson identify the concept of nationalist sounds based on artists’ environments, so one could see this as the environmental determinism of music. They give the example of the isolation of Iceland as being directly related to Björk and her unusual singing style. Other Icelandic musicians have been given the same comparison, but then Connell and Gibson also beat my research to the punch in identifying that the majority of Iceland’s popular music isn’t Icelandic (only 12% to be exact).10 Yet they do reinforce the idea that due to the increasing globalization of Iceland’s popular music scene there is also an increasing American opposition scene.11
Looking at the place of popular music from an American perspective requires somewhat of a background of the identity of place in music in the United States. U.S. music started as European music describing the boundless nature of the nation until it shifted into a more nationalist, yet still natural, theme and works such as William Fry’s Niagara Symphony. It wasn’t until the post-war period that the United States began securing not only its dominance in the geopolitical realm but in the cultural world as well, while the theme of American music shifted away from the rural and towards the urban.12
The history of the geography of music based in cultural geography is quite unique. Music has been diversely studied for the past forty-five years from the perspectives of lyrics, genres, styles, structure, performers, composers, events, media, instrumentation, and industry. Cultural geographers have split into ten general paths when studying the geography of music, and they are listed as the following:
Delamination of music regions and identification of place-to-place differences
The involvement of music in migration, transportation and communication networks
The spatial organization of the music industry
The effect of music on the cultural landscape
The intercultural communications of music in place
The relationship of music to the natural environment
The function of nationalistic and antinationalistic music
The cultural hearth and diffusion of music
The shaping of place symbolically and psychologically through music
The evolution of place or region-specific music13
There are also multiple scales at which one can view music and its influences. The nation, as opposed to the region, city, or home, is one of these scales and the one that I have focused most on in this research. Each of these scales contains works which have originated in them, that are performed in them, and have certain ideologies about them.
While popular music of the 1970s is not the same as popular music that is listened to today, Charles Hamm did an analysis in 1995, which was also a time when one would find differences in popular music, of the top ten billboard charts in May of 1970. He is able to draw out political agenda in the music as well as notice that popular music spanned different genres, group compositions, and nationalities.14
Now the focus can shift to what is being done in the field of the geography of music today. AMC Brandallero and K Pfeffer focus mainly on label producers and not songs, and while they acknowledge the digitization of music, they simply use a European chart system to place music into their respective cities. Their study found that the Western World has four major locations - London, New York, Paris and Berlin - but that the Western culture is dominated by U.K. and U.S. music. Even more specifically it was interesting that they found even secondary popular music genres of the U.S. and U.K. such as Celtic and country western were very popular in other countries. The conclusion of four major nodes of music in the western culture is simply based on an equal representation of DJs from different counties. Based on preliminary research, this is not indicative of the true populations of popular music listeners from around the world, which with few exceptions seem to be influenced by three factors: their nationality, the United States and the United Kingdom. Germany and France may make many albums and may, when polled by a group of politically and equally-minded DJs, be selected as near equal to the US and UK, but they simply do not have a large listening base in many counties other than their own.15
Ola Johansson performed a case study on Swedish popular music. Overall she found that along with countries like Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has one of the least internationalized music markets in the world and that the popular culture in the U.S. remains insular and xenophobic. Sweden, on the other hand, is more accepting yet generates a lot of internationally recognized music. Some reasons behind the high influence of Swedish music on the international music scene is explained in the Role Model Thesis, where ABBA acts as a role model for groups trying to become popular throughout the world today. The Early Adopter Thesis reasons that Sweden’s tendency to accept outside cultures and their acceptance of new and innovative technologies and ideas helps them to jump into whatever trends are popular worldwide and in the United States. Four other theses are listed, from their language to their government, explaining the success of Swedish artists.16
Paul Graves-Brown has focused his research on the concept of music losing its sense of place in light of technological advancements. He is skeptical of music from the start, stating that “[w]hile [music] may evoke places and things, it does not represent them…Technology has Figure 1:Pop Topology17
also contributed to the collapse in the sense of belonging to a place, or of ownership of place.” It is evident that he sees music as something that has lost its sense of place, and the image he uses in his article is the visualization of his ideas (see figure 1). 18
The popularization of world music is yet another tangent in the search for the place of popular music. For instance, Connell and Gibson write: “…world music, and its recent rise, provides valuable insights into how constructions of place, identity and deterritorialization are uneven and selective.” World music is often thought of as exotic and authentic. The term “world music” only really came into common usage when Western musicians sought those “exotic” sounds from Africa and became simply a marketing category instead of its own genre. On the topic of commodification, strategic inauthenticity represented the cultural face of commodification.19 For the musicians, popular music had become an avenue for diverse musical diffusions and postcolonial expressions. World music has become comparable to food tourism which is found in ethnic restaurants. It exemplifies a “fetishization of marginality”, a romanticized idea, an idea of third world music.20
After examining all of this research what more could be done? What hasn’t been studied yet is exactly what the place of popular music is today. There has been talk that there is and isn’t a sense of place in this digitalized era of popular music, but researchers have yet to examine online music-streaming. That is where I step in with Spotify. As a brief history of Spotify, it was founded in 2006 in London by Martin Lorentzon and Daniel Ek and has recently grown though its connection to Facebook to have two more world headquarters in Stockholm and New York and to be accessible throughout the world. Spotify markets itself as an alternative to music piracy, offering instant live streaming of whatever music you want wherever you are that has an internet connection. It is in this last sentence that my research runs into some problems. First of all, not everyone has an internet connection, and some who do don’t always have the adequate bandwidth to support Spotify. In other areas that do have internet such as China and North Korea, Spotify simply isn’t accessible. Some other aspects that must be kept in mind include that Spotify is headquartered in the United Kingdom but mostly runs off Facebook, which is headquartered in the United States. This not only creates a Westernized English skew in the research but it also identifies the variable of age and that we must assume that most of the data being collected is predominantly from a younger generation that both uses the internet more frequently and uses Facebook.21 Connell and Gibson remind us that Spotify does not account for the sub-cultures of intense local traditions which have only intensified as music becomes more global.22
Just one facet from which the information presented on Spotify can be used in research, is at the scale of the Nation. Beyond nationalism, national identities and influence can be studied through Spotify. Connell and Gibson state that “[m]usic remains an important cultural sphere in which [national] identities are affirmed, challenged, taken apart and reconstructed.”23 There is not much uniformity in contemporary popular music across space, at least not enough to erase localizations, but that does not stop Connell and Gibson from linking England to its former colonial possessions and finding the similarities of their popular funk styles.24
Certain artists are also used to distinguish the regional uniqueness of nations. For example, Van Morrison, U2, the Corrs, and the Cranberries are all representations of the stylistic differences that separate Ireland from English and Scottish areas which are typically combined into a British culture, at least by people from the United States. Similarly, Scotland saw a folk revival of Scottishness in its popular music due to the peoples’ response to the uneven development of the U.K. during the Thatcher years In this example music was used as a means of response to discrimination. This type of popular music continues to expand, as well, especially in the areas of gender and gay rights. The fact that as I was typing the previous sentence, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Same Love started playing as the 29th most popular song in Iceland currently, is a testament to this increase in popular music addressing discrimination.25
Continuing from what is missing in the research of popular music and place I begin to develop my own research. Using the top fifty of the hundred most listened to tracks for 31 different countries listed on Spotify I will simply point out some major patterns which require further research and development before those patterns can be turned into theories. I have examined the data in three separate ways. First, using pie charts of the nationalities of the artists of those top fifty songs, I have found patterns in country relationships based on nationalities. Also using the pie charts, I have found patterns simply based on the way the nationalities of their popular music are divided. The third method I used was only looking at the top three songs each week in each country in order to draw connections between the songs which have the most influence in each country. Last of all, I have isolated some songs and traced their rankings in each country every week in order to get some idea of national and cultural influence in that regard.
If we were to start with the national popular music influences on other countries, we would see some very clear patterns and phenomena. First, more clear than anything else, is the dominance of the United States in almost every single country, with only seven counties listening to music from their own countries instead of the United States. As already mentioned, we must take into account that Spotify and Facebook are British and American companies, thus skewing the results. But, if that were entirely the case, then those seven counties would not be listening to something other than music from the United States. The dominance of the United States is more likely the result of the globalization of the popular music industry and stronghold the industry has in the U.S.
While I could go on all day looking at intricate comparisons, I’ve included images of all the generated pie charts in the appendices. Before I move on however, I do want to take a look at some relationships that do point to a sense of place within the industry. There are nine countries which show what I would consider the visualization of pure globalization, removing almost all sense of individual place from the receiving country as its youth strive towards adapting more Western American and British cultural values, but there are those countries where I can clearly see the results of identity and even physical and cultural connections. Andorra, for example, listens to more Spanish music than music from the United States or United Kingdom, and 10% of their music is French. This is extremely telling of the geographical situation in which Andorra is in, surrounded by France and Spain, with Spain containing the most cultural connections to the country. Throughout, one can find similar connections. Ireland and Australia would be great examples with their high percentage of British music.
Moving on, a second way to find the place in popular music through my study is by the national breakdowns themselves. Ignoring the nationalities and just focusing on the fragmentation you can find strikingly geographical similarities. For example: Austria, Germany, and Switzerland all have a large fraction of music from the United States, a slightly smaller fraction from the United Kingdom, and then the remaining music is very diverse, coming from many different countries with none individually over 6%. It is also interesting that these countries all share many cultural connections, let alone their borders. This pattern can be found in eight other groups as well, some with obvious connections, others not so much.
Looking at the top three charts of each country each week has been just as rewarding academically as it has been interesting. In analyzing the data, if we were to be looking at a placeless soundscape of popular music every country should be similar to the nine countries of similar listening patterns with the U.S. and U.K. dominating. Some of the most interesting situations are the counties who have more songs in other countries’ top lists than their own. The United Kingdom contains 9 top three songs in a total of ten weeks (30 possible tracks) while New Zealand and Ireland have 10 and 11 British hits respectively. Both Spain and Andorra have five Spanish tracks. Ireland, Belgium, Andorra, and Portugal all have three Irish tracks, and Germany has three of its own hits while there are nine German tracks in Austria. In all of these cases, except Ireland, there are definite cultural connections that can be drawn between the countries. Perhaps more interesting than the connections, however, is that those larger countries, such as Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom which have more of a pull in total globalization and seem to be more effected by counties such as the United States than their less powerful neighbors or post-colonial possessions which seem to be more directly effected by those countries which are effected by the U.S.
Last of all, I have chosen two songs for which I have recorded their ranks for the past ten weeks in order to better determine nationalistic influence. The first song, Justin Timberlake’s Suit & Tie was chosen for its apparent rise in the charts for the United States. Without getting into the quantitative elements of the track as it rose and fell across the spatial and temporal spectrums, it started at the number 10 spot rose to number 1 during week 7 and is now number 6. Of all the other countries the highest spot it reached was Poland where it hit number 11. Sweden’s Avicii’s I Could be the One followed a much different pattern. Not once did it hit the top fifty in the United States and instead of hitting its highest following in Sweden it was in Finland where it peaked for four weeks in a row at number 2. The United Kingdom and Belgium also heavily listened to it. All in all, these figures can be used to argue that the United States does not hold supreme control of the popular music industry. Tracks produced in other countries can spread across the globe as well and those produced and widely accepted in the United States don’t always influence the charts of other countries.
All-in-all, as it has already been mentioned, Spotify is not the be-all and end-all of placing popular music. It has its problems, through accessibility and non-uniformity of age groups, but it has its importance too. It provides enough evidence to definitively state that there is place in popular music. “Globalization, rather than signaling the ‘end of geography’, stimulated both homogeneity and diversity,” and what remains unclear is exactly where that homogeneity stops and diversity starts, but that is a project for another day and possibly an entire lifetime.26
Key to Pie Charts:
AG-Algeria FL-Finland IT-Italy SK-South Korea
AL-Australia FR-France JM-Jamaica SP-Spain
AT-Austria GY-Germany JP-Japan SW-Sweden
BG-Belgium HK-Hong Kong MX-Mexico SZ-Switzerland
BZ-Brazil IC-Iceland NL-The Netherlands UK-The United Kingdom
CA-Canada IN-Iran NW-Norway US-The United States
CL-Columbia IR-Ireland NZ-New Zealand
DM-Denmark IS-Israel RM-Romania
Data gathered on March 21st and April 25th 2013 from www.spotify.com/us/for-music/
Percentages represent the number of songs each national group of artists had on the top fifty chart listing at the time of data acquisition.
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Brandallero, AMC and K Pfeffer. “Multiple and Shifting Geographies of World Music Production.” Area: Royal Geographical Society 43, no.4 (2011).
Carney, George O. “Music and Place.” In The Sounds of People and Places, 4th ed. Edited by George O. Carney, 206-207 Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Connell, John and Chris Gibson. Sound Tracks. London: Routledge, 2003.
Connell, John and Chris Gibson. “World music: Deterritorializing place and identity.” Progress in Human Geography 28, no.3 (2004).
Cosgrove, S. “Global Style.” New Statesman 1, no. 15 (1988).
Glahn, Denise Von. The Sounds of Place. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003.
Graves-Brown, Paul. “Nowhere Man: Urban life and the virtualization of popular music.” Popular Music History, (2010) .
Hamm, Charles. Putting Popular Music in its Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Howlett, S. “Which one’s Jack?” Drum Media, December (1990):33
Johansson, Ola. “Beyond ABBA: The globalization of Swedish popular music.” FOCUS on Geography 53, no. 4 (2010).