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February 2010
 
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Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 02:01 am
Regal Zonophone

My City vs Your City is a fascinating information widget designed by Michael Schieben. It takes data from LastFM and organises it so that you can compare the Top 10 most-listened-to artists in any two cities of your choice (as long as they're on LastFM's list of cities, and have active listeners). The clean and attractive interface then gives you a percentage overlap between the two cities.



After using the widget to make some fairly trivial observations (Kings of Leon do better in Protestant countries than Catholic ones! David Bowie is more popular in London than New York!), I found myself most interested in comparing how many domestic artists different countries have in their Top 10s. You might expect pop songs in local tongues, from local artists, to sprinkle the most-listened-to playlists of all nations fairly equally, but that turns out not to be the case at all. What emerges very strongly, in almost all the cities you care to look at, is an Anglo-Saxon monoculture. Cities all over the world list the same artists in their Top 10s: Coldplay, Radiohead, Lady GaGa, The Beatles...



It's almost as if someone or something has got to them. The same "someone" who commands people all over the world to wear blue jeans seems to be laying down the law, or subtly inveigling its norms into people's desires. THOU SHALT HAVE A MAXIMUM OF THREE DOMESTIC ARTISTS IN THY LASTFM TOP 10, this "something" says, UNLESS THOU ART FRENCH OR JAPANESE.

Yes, according to this widget it is only cities in France and Japan in which we find people willing to go beyond this unofficial "30% local cap", this unwritten "commandment of monoculture". Paris boasts 40% domestic artists in its list (Gainsbourg, Air, Phoenix, Daft Punk), while Tokyo charts a massive 70% of homegrown talent. That's almost complete self-sufficiency! No need to import any foreign music except the odd Beatles and Radiohead mp3!



Nowhere else can match this extraordinary Japanese achievement (which could be a fantastic blow struck for autonomy, or a kind of navel-gazing autism, depending on your perspective). Even in China -- confident, fast-growing China, which just took Japan's place as the world's second richest nation, and is on track to be its richest within ten years -- LastFM users are only tending to let one single measly Chinese track into their Top 10s.

Muslim Turkey stretches to three domestics, Mexico has none. Religion seems to count for more than money: the Anglosphere's cultural hegemony seems to be outlasting the financial dominance of the US, although slightly less so in Muslim countries. (Here we have to strike a note of caution, though. This is all based on data coming in via LastFM, a Western service. It's perfectly possible that Chinese music-sharing services would feature more Chinese music. Or possibly not.)



There are, of course, two nations who listen almost exclusively to music made within their own borders: the US and the UK. No, make that three, because Japan does too. Where the US and the UK differ from Japan, though, is that they export their local culture all over the world. Nobody outside Japan is listening to Japanese music. Japanese music isn't a hegemony, and Japan is not a music hub.



I must say, I find the picture that emerges from My City vs. Your City a deeply depressing -- and sadly familiar -- one. What this widget makes visible is the same one-way cultural flow I described in (Don't want to live in a) hub and spoke world and Culture flows through English channels, but not for long. In the terms used by airlines for their route maps, culture is flowing in a clear hub-and-spoke pattern, radiating out from a strong central point, rather than in a point-to-point way.

Comparing Porto in Portugal with Porto Alegre in Brazil, I'd have hoped to see a little point-to-point cultural action going on based on the fact that these two nations share a language, Portugese. But no, neither Porto nor Porto Alegre is using LastFM to listen to anything in Portugese. If they have anything in common, it's their love of Metallica and the Arctic Monkeys. You can only "fly" from Portugal to Brazil via LA or London.



Another way to look at what's going on is to say that we live in a world in which global pluralism is "asymmetrical" rather than "symmetrical". Many are not speaking to many on a level playing-field; someone is at the centre, speaking, and all the others are ranged around that "someone", listening, and mostly inaudible, even to their immediate neighbours. In the words of the Barclays Capital slogan, this is "global reach, built around you". As long as you're an Anglo-Saxon.

65CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 09:03 am (UTC)
Dodgy weather station in Siberia

I think the anom poster above (and copied below) had it right - though Momus and everyone else is choosing to ignore it - Last FM is not a reliable yardstick and this could almost be used a classic example of how one starts to extrapolate and hypothesise from what is essentially unreliable data

I don't really accept that what last.fm listeners listen to has much to tell us apart from what it is that last.fm listeners listen to. Outside the US/UK and the major European cities, last.fm listeners are going to be a minuscule portion of the population that is already heaviily geared towards Anglo pop culture. For instance, when I was in Brazil, all I heard was Brazilian music and all people seemed to be interested in was Brazilian music, bar the odd Madonna CD or whatever. Walk into a random bar in Rio, and you are almost certainly going to hear Brazilian music. And yet last.fm supposedly tells a different story.


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autopope
autopope
Autopope
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 10:11 am (UTC)

Caveats about Last.FM as a reliable yardstick aside, this effect is definitely at work in literature, from what I've observed of my little corner (science fiction and fantasy). It's most easily ascribed -- in the written form -- to market externalities. If you write in English, you've got direct access to the UK/Aus/Nz market (80 million) and the vast US market (300 million). If you write in French? Congratulations, you've got France (65 million) ... and Quebec.

For a non-anglophone author to get into the US/US anglophone zone means competing for an editor's attention with lots of authors who the editor can read without commissioning an expensive translation -- and good translations are expensive. Whereas for an Anglophone author to get into, say, Germany, all that's necessary is for their agent to nobble Heyne's commissioning editor at the Frankfurt Book Fair with their first-year US sales figures (which tell the editor whether it's a commercial proposition or not).

Upshot: there is one full-time SF novelist in Germany, and about 4-5 fantasy novelists, whereas in the UK there are about 10-20 and 40-80 (figuring out who's full-time/part-time is hard).

I suspect music has a similar problem -- at the Top 10 act level -- insofar as there's a big, lucrative reference market dominated by large corporate publishers with sales forces who want to maximize their return on investment in J. Random Huge Act: exports are a cheap way to expand your reach. Also, there's the general conservativism of audiences everywhere: we (in the west) have somehow gotten ear-time for our popular ditties around the world since the likes of The Beatles debuted, but Canto-pop is still a (cough) subcultural pursuit outside Taiwan and China. And so on.

Edited at 2010-02-04 10:12 am (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 10:31 am (UTC)

Naive question: what do you think it would take to change this scenario? For Canto-pop to be in the position Anglo-pop is now in? Do you think that's inconceivable in the world as we know it, even if we look decades and centuries ahead?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 10:41 am (UTC)

Although of course the US/UK didn't invent popular music, they did essentially invent its modern form, which hasn't changed an awful lot since the late 60s. Railing against that fact is a bit like railing against France and Spain for speaking Latin languages. Any change will come by building on/in reaction to etc. what is already there, ie the basic US/UK-derived paradigm. As for last.fm, what amazes me is that the young Anglo-influenced people who use it seem to be universally listening to the Beatles. Nothing against the Beatles, but they broke up 40 years ago! It would be analagous to young people in the 60s spending all their time listening to ragtime or something... It is truly remarkable that the form has progressed so incredibly (something like last.fm would have been pretty unimaginable only 15 years ago), and yet the content has stayed very substantially the same.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 10:59 am (UTC)

Well, quite. Unless we see software as content, and agree with Adolf Kittler that "no human being writes anymore. Today, human writing runs through inscriptions burnt into silicon by electronic lithography. The last historic act of writing may thus have been in the late seventies when a team of Intel engineers plotted the hardware architecture of their first integrated microprocessor."

In other words, when we hear The Beatles via iTunes and scrobble it via LastFM, what we are hearing is not The Beatles' songwriting, but all the code-writing built into iTunes-LastFM-Intel-mp3 etc etc, all the way down to Michael Schieben with his code for the website I'm writing about today. Code-writing is the new songwriting. Apps and programs and games are the new songs. Form and content can't be disentangled.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 12:10 pm (UTC)

Japan as "the only advanced other".


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)

"Nobody outside Japan is listening to Japanese music."
I must say that since I've discovered Japanese music in 1996 I have been listening it much more than US or UK music, it made me travel from Brasil to Japan just to be in Fuji Rock last year to watch Japanese artists. it made me pay attention to other countries local music too.
I think that maybe what the LastFm data shows is what people that don't care for music is hearing, it's obvious that music is not so important for most of the population around the world, they will hear what they watch on TV or just what is common sense. In Brasil there's more TV shows from US than local ones, and even in these there's "international (US and UK music)" soundtracks.
Now, as you took Porto Alegre as reference I should tell you that this city in particular is known in Brasil to have the most traditional Rock 'n' Roll culture of the country, if you change to Salvador (because they're really proud of their local music and general culture) and don't see any difference in data it can mean that local people in Brasil just don't use LastFM to hear local music.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 05:21 pm (UTC)

it made me travel from Brasil to Japan just to be in Fuji Rock last year to watch Japanese artists.

It's funny you should say that, because I happened to be sitting next to a poster for Fuji Rock 2009 in my local Japanese restaurant here in Berlin today, and I scanned the artists list and saw very, very few Japanese names on it. Looking at the lineup, it does seem that there are some if you go far enough down the list, though.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)

Why people listen to the same thing is easy: Mirror Neurons.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC)

I love early 21st Century Taiwanese pop. But sadly those days are gone.

As for Hong Kong, things haven't been the same since Aaron Kwok sold out.


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knightabraxas
knightabraxas
knightabraxas
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)

"Nobody outside Japan is listening to Japanese music. "

that's not necessarily true. you havent been living on the north american continent for a few years now, if i'm not mistaken, so you've kind of missed the minor blossoming of japanese pop-culture here. kids my age (22) and younger are now doingcutesy v-signs in their photos, know japanese horror flicks, and probably about 1 in ten kids my age has heard of/seen ayumi hamasaki, gackt, dir en grey, l'arc, etc. many many kids particularly 3 - 5 years younger than my group have read/ seen a manga or anime and are moderately obsessed with atleast one of them.

it's possible that this is a regional thing but i live in the second (now third??) poorest city in america, buffalo, and really, the only asians living here are south easterners/refugees and various chinese speaking peoples, so i feel like japan works on exporting it's culture a lot harder than people are noticing.


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knightabraxas
knightabraxas
knightabraxas
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 10:47 pm (UTC)

i will remark that it's not as commercially successful as i had expected it to be largely because of downloading. i myself have obtained the vast majority of my foreign music via lj mp3 rotation/ sharing communities


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)

why is Chinese music "measly" Momus?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 11:51 pm (UTC)

The phrase "one single measly track" means a meagre amount of something you'd like more of.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 5th, 2010 12:33 am (UTC)
Last FM long tail

Having scrobbed this widget for a while, I'm thinking that the artists that keep showing up in these lists are not because the database is lacking in variety but that the scrobbers are.

You can input say Death by Chocolate, Holy Model Rounders, Harry Hosono, Sketch Show, Simon Fisher Turner etc and come up with quite a bit of 6 degrees of separation. All quite accurate.

Garbage in - Garbage out...


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 19th, 2010 07:32 am (UTC)
Re: Last FM long tail

Japan may not export its pop, at least on a large scale, to Europe or North America. Yet, from what I've seen, teenagers in Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea, and maybe elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, are massively influenced by Japanese pop culture in what they listen to and how they dress. China may have pipped Japan economically, but as a culturally force in the region, Japan still rocks.


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tampopon
tampopon
Fri, Feb. 5th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
Japanese Digital Radio

Late in signing up...oh well. You can never tell who likes what music. Japanese listening to Alicia Keys? Irksome feelings. MacDonald Duck Eclair, Nobukazu Takemura, Lullatone, and Shugo Tokumaru weren't so popular in Tokyo...! Where are those people? Digital radio station USEN 440 channel B-2 redeemed Japanese music a little. Marxy did write a nice review on current popular Japanese music. Ben UNSEN a) http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=ja&u=http://music.usen.com/&ei=Yo1rS46DLYXLlAffstDYBA&sa=X&oi=translate&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBMQ7gEwAA&prev=/search%3Fq%3DUSEN%2B440%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den b) http://www.usen.com/music/ Nobukazu Takemura's Icefall http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fvYoh7R3sU


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 5th, 2010 11:37 am (UTC)
conformity

This is fascinating stuff.... but you really need to think hard about this

Feel free to use these lists to support your ideas about conformity. However, the list should also reflect your ideas about innovation - the examples of japan and france don't exactly cut it because this simply reflects the language divide in my opinion.

I worry less about home production as measured by home grown music making it to the top ten and more about conformity.

What cities welcome interesting music that differs from the norm? Can top 10 lists reflect this? I dont think that these lists picks up which canadian, uk, us cities are producing interesting innovation. Write down your list of interesting innovation cities to check this.

The fact that english is a universal language of communciaton says one thing about culture - I dont think it says everything.



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(Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 5th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)

What is LastFM?


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